05 01 2015
ROBERT ZHAO RENHUI
By Kyla Woods
When did you begin venturing into the realm of photography/visual art?
When I was 9 years old, I used my dad’s Yashica to take some photographs in school. I used a fine tip marker pen to draw some ghostly shapes on the negatives and brought the developed photographs back to the classroom. My classmates were really spooked by the photographs and a few weeks later the ‘ghost’ in the classroom was exorcised by a medium. I learnt how to create these pictures from a book that was explaining how ghost photographs are made. I could not further my studies when I was 16 because my grades were really horrible. The only school that accepted me was because my photography portfolio was not too bad. From that point onwards I paid more attention to photography.
How did you conceive A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World?
I was looking for the scientific name of the Goldfish in an encyclopaedia and found out that the goldfish has none. It is also excluded out of the encyclopaedia. The goldfish is not a natural animal. It was created by man a long time ago. So long ago we are not sure how it came about. It didn’t occur to me that a common fish like the goldfish is an unnatural animal. So I wanted to find out if there were more of these animals that was not as natural as we think they might be. I wanted to see if there was a space where we can look at these animals. This was how the project started.
Can you briefly talk about your process, particularly in regards to A Guide of Flora and Fauna of the World?
I have always collected stories about nature since I started photography. A lot of photographs in the project were created a long time ago from places I visited and objects I’ve came across. Its all in my notebook. When I had the chance to bring everything together for the Singapore Biennale in 2013, I took the chance to reorganise my notebook and shortlisted about 100 animals and plants to be photographed for the project. I had about 200 photographs at the end but only used 55 of them. The grouping and selection was purely an aesthetic one. I grouped together a selection of images which I felt represented the current relationship we have with nature.
Was it a conscious choice to photograph flora and fauna? How did this decision – the theme of the book – come about?
There was a lot of research, papers and news articles that informed the way the images were created. The narrative of the situation is as important as the images themselves. A lot of time, there is nothing happening in the image, it is what it is. I think what I am trying to do when I create the images is to make us look at our surroundings and environment a bit harder. To try to slow down on our consumption and ideas of nature. To try to think about the control we have over nature in our everyday. A broccoli wasn’t always a broccoli.
How much research and time went into this project?
In my work I’ve always looked at nature. So this project is mainly a reorganising and formalising of my research. A lot of photographs in this book are from projects that I am doing. Like a heartwarming feeling where I document the migrations of birds affected by global warming or Moondust, where I collect hundreds of different insects trapped and incinerated in street lamps.
Is there a particular image that resonates with you and what you are trying to convey in the book?
The goldfish. I don’t work with live animals for my work, they are unpredictable and its too stressful for me and the animal. I usually work with freshly dead fishes from the aquariums. For me the goldfish summarises the experience of the book very well. We are no longer quite sure what is natural and what is not. I am not saying that it is wrong or right to exert control over nature but controlling nature has always been a very human thing to do.
Can you explain to me the significance of the goldfish?
A lot of people are surprised that the goldfish is an unnatural animal. It is just not the way we think about goldfishes. i think we all grow up knowing that the goldfish lives in a bowl and we don’t think of anything much beyond that. The goldfish is as natural as our pet dog or cat. All have been bred to serve our needs. We are not really sure how the goldfish came about, the records are murky and we can only speculate the true origins of the goldfish. Maybe it was a well kept secret back in the days when the first goldfish came about. This is very much the same with most new breeds of aquarium fish in Asia where origins of the hybrids are commercial secrets.
What were some challenges in making this book?
I took a large financial risk to make this book. I am used to smaller books and designing the books on my own but nothing on this scale and volume. The project is an accumulation of a few years of research and projects and I wanted to see how working with a book designer would push the project further. I worked with H55 studio and had a really good experience. I think what was really important was that the designer had a real curiosity in nature and what my project was trying to talk about. The book is not bounded by made of loose sheets in a box, similar to a collection of objects or works found in older volumes of natural history drawings. There is also a progression of colour to black and white in the book. Also the paper gets thinner, like a newspaper. The images at the back are mainly situations and scenarios that has happened, are in the midst of happening or are proposals of what can happen. In the book, they all look as if they have already happened.
There seems to be a fictional element to your book – can you explain this?
Some of the situations in the book are based on hypothesis and scientific papers, so the photographs were constructed around these papers. Everything I talk about seems so impossible but its all happened, in one way or another.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a project about trees and the natural history of Singapore. I’m looking at the relationship Singapore has with trees since the 1890s. Singapore has taken a huge amount of effort in greening the island with plants and trees. The effect that this has on the landscape and our interactions with nature is rather interesting. We have become so accustomed to what it is like that we don’t really see the trees anymore.
Do you have any advice for young artists, particularly for those interested in making photo books?
I am attracted to work by artists who have become really obsessive and passionate about a subject. I think this obsessiveness brings about a really fresh perspective and it begins to show in the work and in the book as well.