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Multidisciplinary Singaporean artist Robert Zhao Renhui investigates the relationship that humans have with the natural world, and related issues of morality and ethics, through a lens of doubt and uncertainty. Through the appropriation of scientific language, and by intertwining the genuine with the illusory, Renhui uses photography and other media to raise questions about the authenticity of information we are presented with in the context of everyday life. Merging documentary-style material with fictional elements, he encourages audiences to question their beliefs about and perceptions of the world around them.
For the 20th Biennale of Sydney, Renhui extends his critical thinking around the ‘zoological gaze’, a practice that prompted him to found the Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ) in 2008 as a way to explore the relationship between humans and animals. Creating a new installation for the Embassy of Disappearance at Carriageworks, he focuses his attention on the unique situation of Christmas Island, an external territory of Australia located in the Indian Ocean. Almost 150 years of human settlement have threatened the island’s biodiversity, with invasive species such as the common wolf snake (Lycodon capucinus) and Asian giant centipede (Scolopendra subspinipes) believed responsible for the catastrophic decline in native fauna such as the Christmas Island forest skink (Emoia nativitatis) and Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi). An ambitious conservation project initiated in the 1990s has had a significant impact in controlling Christmas Island’s invasive species, culminating in a call in 2010 to relocate the island’s human communities to the Australian mainland.
Renhui’s work for the Embassy of Disappearance consists of three related sculptural works that focus on Christmas Island’s disappearing or extinct species and interrogate the recent efforts to protect its fragile ecosystems. Written for an audience about 50 years from now, a book entitled Christmas Island, Naturally catalogues the island’s threatened animals, including its resettled human communities, using texts derived from historical records and contemporary scientific papers. Enlarged photographic excerpts from the book are displayed alongside two Memorial sculptures.
Resembling a scientific apparatus, Memorial to the Christmas Island Pipistrelle (2016) features a solar-powered ultrasonic location register used by conservationists to pick up the signature squeak of the extinct pipistrelle bat, which was last heard in 2012 in the island’s eastern forest. It functions not only to memorialise the pipistrelle but also as a haunting invitation to listen for its (absent) call, and so to attend to the devastating impact that human activities are having on native species.
In Memorial to the Last Cat on Christmas Island (2016), Renhui adopts the display strategies typical of natural history museums by depicting the resin skeleton of a feral cat standing on sand. Looming over the cat is a trap, a recurring motif in the artist’s work. In relying on humanity’s intimate knowledge of the feral cat’s habits and weaknesses, the trap’s elegant design masks its lethal function, raising questions about power relations in the natural world.
Recent solo exhibitions of Robert Zhao Renhui’s works include ‘A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World’, Centre of Contemporary Photography, Melbourne (2015); ‘The Nature Collector’, ShanghART, Shanghai (2015); ‘Flies Prefer Yellow’, Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco (2014); and ‘A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World’, Primo Marella Gallery, Milan (2014). Selected group exhibitions include ‘Arles Discover Award’, Arles Photography Festival (2015); and ‘A Time For Dreams’, 4th Moscow International Biennale for Young Art (2014).