the nature museum, rockbuand art museum. shanghai
All images by the ICZ
Essay, by jeffrey kastner
An essay commissioned by the Rockbund Art Museum, as part of the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award Exhibition
Peculiar Nature: The Art of Robert Zhao Renhui
It is, indeed, no easy task to give novelty to what is old, and authority to what is new; brightness to what is become tarnished, and light to what is obscure; to render what is slighted acceptable, and what is doubtful worthy of our confidence; to give to all a natural manner, and to each its peculiar nature. —Pliny the Elder, Dedication to The Natural History
A few years ago, I received an unexpected gift from Robert Zhao Renhui. It was an edition from a project called “The Great Pretenders” that consisted of an elegantly designed black box containing a series of documents and images related to the insect family Phylliidae, the extraordinary camouflaged “walking leaves” native to South and Southeast Asia. Produced under the aegis of The Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ), an “organization” created by Zhao as a vessel for his wide ranging artistic investigations into the conditions of scientific and artistic representations of the natural world, the project involved several related artefacts. These included a publication that, to all intents and purposes, seemed to faithfully describe the proceedings of something called the “26th Phylliidae Convention,” which, it said, had been held in 2009 in Tokyo, as well as a striking photograph of what was ostensibly an example of one of the Phylliidae specimens—supposedly hybridized, in an act of audacious sci-fi zoobotany, by genetically crossing bugs and their host plants—exhibited at the convention.
The walking leaf might be said to be a kind of spirit animal for Zhao’s practice, which combines precisely pitched image-making and brilliantly deadpan writing to concoct artworks that present as parafictional data sets, persuasively coopting forms of visual and analytical documentation familiar from the world of scholarly (zoological, anthropological, sociological) discourse for his conceptual purposes. As will come as no surprise to those familiar with Zhao’s work, the photo included in the Great Pretenders edition does not depict an actual Phylliidae, but rather an exceptionally persuasive artistic recreation of one, an entomological confection that presents as a series of nesting enigmas. The uncanny creature it is meant to depict—poised an indeterminate space between animal and vegetable, its fundamental morphological state predicated on strategic misprision—uses disguise to very particular ends. And Zhao’s reimagining of it, at once insect and not-insect, leaves and not-leaves, is, like the creature it mimics, designed to destabilize categorical certitudes. It hides in plain sight, and dares us to see it, name it, and define it, only to skitter away into the realm of fiction when we truly open our eyes to it.
The interpenetrating types of cognitive dissonance Zhao’s work produces, then—not just the question of whether or not a given image or piece of information is real, but also of how we might understand the larger implications of the particular ways in which the things he presents do or do not line up with reality—go to the very crux of how we relate to both the world of things and its pendant world of representation. And despite the work’s complex house-of-mirrors matrix of deceptions, it is not just a kind of game of tantalizing misdirection, but rather a nuanced practice that has at its core deeply ethical organizing principle—one that urges a more committed program of looking at, and thinking about, both the world around us and the ways we depict and categorize it; that calls us to account for the innumerable presumptions we make, hundreds of times each day, about the stability and reliability of our “sense” of the world.
Zhao’s own artistic career emerged originally from a commitment to environmental activism and animal welfare. Raised in Singapore, his early work was straightforwardly documentary—he won the London Association of Photographers’ student award while studying at the Camberwell College of Arts for his images of animals in captivity, a meditation on the problematic conventions of zoological control and display. His first projects under the rubric of the ICZ continued to engage with nature from an environmentalist perspective: Acusis, which suggested a form of biostatic acupuncture to extend the lives of endangered animals; The Real World, a facetious virtual-reality interface that promised nonintrusive immersion in remote habitats; The Blind, which offered “metamaterial” cloaks that would make scientists wholly invisible in the field; and Medicinal Tigers, a mordantly Swiftian tongue-in-cheek proposal to create “tiger farms” where big cats would be raised for commercial purposes, an idea, Zhao wrote, “based upon the premise that biodiversity is best preserved by commercialization.”
By the time I initially encountered Zhao’s work at the end of 2009, it had begun to diversify, its ambitions more complex and its methodologies more fascinatingly ambiguous. Pulau Pejantan, the first of his projects I became aware of, made vividly clear both the historical conditions and the contemporary concerns that underpinned Zhao’s project. Casting himself as a latter-day explorer-naturalist, he figured the work as a field “report” on the small island, which is located in the Tambelan archipelago off the west coast of Indonesia. While the island is apparently richly biodiverse, Zhao did not content himself with the actual flora and fauna found there, but instead embroidered the truth with a series of dazzlingly conceived and executed staged photographs, images that purport to depict such fabricated rarities as the Pacific Lantern Fish, their glowing eyes seen beneath the surface of the sea as they school offshore, or the Ghost Hare, glimpsed from behind as it dozes on a rock beneath the jungle canopy. Reaching back in content to the mixture of faithful rendering and telling contrivance that characterizes the writings of Herodotus or Pliny and the fanciful misconceptions of the medieval bestiary, Pulau Pejantan also mobilizes the imaginative technological interventions into “reality” of our own day. It’s a gesture that, as Carrie Lambert-Beatty wrote in a seminal 2009 essay on the parafictional turn in contemporary art, works on less on the issue of accuracy than the question of “plausibility,” which “is not an attribute of a story or image, but of its encounter with viewers, whose various configurations of knowledge and “horizons of expectation” determine whether something is plausible to them.” Unlike the toxic stew of “fake news” that has so destabilized contemporary political discourse, Zhao’s distortions are designed not to cut off but to promote dialogue and consideration, to enlarge, rather than dilate, a space for attention and care to the inhabitants and things of the world.
The work on view here as part of the 2017 Hugo Boss Asia Art: Award for Emerging Asian Artists exhibition only confirms the widening capacity of Zhao’s conceptual imagination and technical skill. Dense with things and ideas to the point of disorientation, the installation is conceived in two parts. The opening space conjures some of the more general peculiar natural (or should it be “unnatural”?) interests of the ICZ, including the documentation of a “bee trap” produced by painting an area of forest blue, a color to which the insect is theoretically attracted, or the documentation of 4,784 individual members of the hoverfly family that are part of the collection of a US Department of Agriculture entomologist whose job it is, it’s asserted, to guard the California border against the influx of invasive non-native insect species. Further inside, one finds a richly appointed artefactual history of human interaction with the natural environment of Singapore considered across a range of historical periods, both colonial and sovereign. Here as well, the real and the invented jostle for physical and affectual space in the array of materials as the various exhibits, installed in what one experiences as a cross between a gallery, a storeroom, an old school museum, and an extended cabinet of curiosities, spin out a series of interweaving tales of the development of the meticulously planned city-state—fulgurites, naturally occurring “sculptures” produced when lightning strikes certain kinds of soils and gold-plated orchids supposedly created as a special national souvenir; a local history of the tilapia, a species brought to Singapore by the Japanese during their occupation in World War II and still known there as Japanese fish, sharing space with a significant number of traps for capturing animals, ranging from monkeys to parakeets to wolves.
Such traps, Zhao has said, are not an incidental part of his work. “Michel Foucault said that visibility is a trap,” he noted in a 2013 interview. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement, but with the trap not relating to the observed, but the observer. Visibility is a trap because we imagine we know a lot through empirical evidence. But what is beyond the visible? Even my interest with animal traps is linked to my interest with photography. A photograph can trap us rather than liberate us. Seeing can be dangerous and misleading because we always have an eye out for the truth. It narrows our vision and the price to pay is not really knowing the bigger picture. That’s how animals get trapped—they fail to see beyond what is already presented to them.”
In an almost too-good-to-be-true turn of events that speaks to the technical brilliance of Zhao’s deceptions, his Phylliidae project came to the attention of the American science magazine Discover, which gullibly ran a full-page photo of the “grand prize” winning specimen on the inside front cover of its special Summer 2011 issue devoted to evolution. The image—a clump of leaves held in front of a pale green backdrop by a caliper—purported to show the plant and its virtually invisible arthropod symbiont, when in fact there was no insect in the image at all.
See Caroline Picard, “Taxonomy for the Goldish Queen: An Interview with the Institute of Critical Zoologists,” Bad at Sports, December 27, 2013. Available at: http://badatsports.com/2016/taxonomy-for-the-goldish-queen-an-interview-with-the-institute-of-critical-zoologists/.