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Conversation with Robert Zhao Renhui

Source: THEARTISTANDHISMODEL Author: Yanda 2013-11-10

Today we speak to Robert Zhao Renhui of Institute of Critical Zoologists from Singapore about this new work, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World.

Tell us what have you been busy with?
I’v just finished compiling an encyclopaedia titled, A guide to the flora and fauna of the world, for the Singapore Biennale. I’v also just finished installing my work at 2902 Gallery for my upcoming show, The Last Thing You See. It talks about how difficult it is to be a bee.

What drives you in creating this?
In this case, I wanted to know why the goldfish is never included in any natural history encyclopaedia. The goldfish does not have a scientific name as it is a man-made creature. It’s a fish that has been artificially bred for thousand of years. How the goldfish is created remains a mystery. I created the encyclopaedia as a system to talk about our ideas of what is natural and what is man-made. Towards the end of the book you realise there’s really not much of a difference. Everything artificial will start to look natural once we get used to it.

How do you keep on educating yourself?
I’m basically interested in animals as a subject matter. I go to the Singapore Zoo once a year and more if I need to. I honestly think we have an amazing collection of animals in captivity here in Singapore. In the zoo, I encounter a lot of nature photographers with huge lens and fancy equipment and some of them in jungle camouflage as well. Watching them observe animals teaches me a lot about why humans watch animals.

Where do you draw your influences from?
Mainly from my friend, Yong Ding Li. He is a conservation biologist. Most of my work and ideas are based around my conversations with him. Of course as an artist I process the facts he gives me differently from how he would approach the facts. Sometimes I get nice ideas from google.

When was the last time you felt challenged?
I was struggling to decide if I want to use my flash at the bird park at some owls.

What was the breakthrough project for you, personally?
I tied a lot of pinhole cameras to birds to create images in A heartwarming feeling. The images the birds created were really beautiful but it wasn’t beautiful enough for me. I edited the colours a little and then they were better. Then I redid the whole image again on the computer and then it became perfect.

Who/what has had the biggest inspiration?
Looking at animals.

Any heroes?

Can taste be nurtured or taught?
I don’t think that it’s something to be taught or nurture.

What about hunger?
Always finding myself in situations that I’m not used to and trying to survive. When meeting new people, I always forget to enjoy the food. Sometimes I am reminded that there are other things in life, like the food on the table.

How do you promote yourself?
What I try to do is to promote somebody or something else, like my good friend, Yong Ding Li or the Institute, The Institute of Critical Zoologists. Or maybe I will try to talk about animal traps or zoos.

Do you believe in self promoting?
Promotion can be useful because the work should be seen.

What has been your most favourite project?
Collecting ash of dead insects from lamp cover for the Singapore Biennale. It might seem like a miserable clump of ash in my installation but I spent almost 6 years going around to collect that much ash.

How do you set your own benchmark? How do you know it is finished.
Most of my work are in constant development, it is never quite finished. I learn from each exhibition. Someone once told me you are only as good as your last work, so I guess it can never be finished.

Your work has a focus on animals. Was it an obsession?
I have a genuine curiosity on the natural world and men’s interaction with it. The landscape, animals and plants are all part of this interest.

It has started to grow into scenery recently?
Yes the landscape of Singapore is quite interesting. We have more than a hundred waterfalls in Singapore and not one of them is real. In a way it’s the same as animals because I’m looking at our interactions with the natural world. Singapore is a tropical island that has expanded 35% from its original size, we see trees and plants everywhere and probably has the most number of animals (in captivity) in the region. In Bonsai terms this is perfect. There is control over the growth of your tree and you maintain a view of its aesthetic form.

How do you perceive fiction and non fiction in your pieces?
It’s actually very complicated if I try to approach my projects like this. I’m just trying to talk about something that happens in real life with my work. My work is a representation of a fact. I cannot do pure fiction, its much too difficult to think of something that does not exist before.
I take photographs with a documentary approach, mimicking how a document will look like. Naturally this makes my work very hard to read. These are good questions to think about when you look at the work. I get a lot of questions about fiction and non-fiction but I don’t have the answers. My work was created to raise these questions, not provide an answer.

How much research, plan goes into each project?
Most of the time I present only about 1% or less of the actual research. If I talk about my research any more than I should it might get a little too complicated and patronising for the audience.

How do you take your own brief or imagine on the end product?
In a way my work is rather selfish because ultimately is about finding out about my own fascination with things. The end usually arrives very much towards the exhibition stage.

Best advice received?
Do not be too emotional with animals. That being said I don’t harm animals in my work. Most of them are taken with professional animal handlers or simply with dead animals I get from aquariums and pet shops. Or I’ll just use taxidermy from the museums or realistic animal models which is usually much easier.

Where do you dream to have your pieces at?
I would love to produce art for animals at the zoo, you know, something like the backdrop that they live in or the background they use for specimens in the museums.

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