This interview was originally published on Bad at Sports on Dec 27, 2013.
“Blind Long-tailed Owl,” Desert Variant of Little Owl from the series, As Walked on Water, Institute of Critical Zoologists, 2011Â Installation of vinyl print, 280cm x 194cmÂ (Exhibition view)
Singapore based artist Robert Zhao Renhui is the Institute of Critical Zoologists
, an organization that—for any Doctor Who fans out there—would be the environmental analogue to the Torchwood Institute. The fictional Torchwood was founded to protect the Earth from supernatural and extraterrestrial threats; with that mandate in hand its employees must remain open and unperturbed by a myriad of strange and uncanny possibilities within the universe. Shrouded in secrecy, however, it attempts to perpetuate the myth of everyday banality, to keep their fellow human citizens free from fear. Although similarly invested in strange zoological proclivities of our non-human fellows, the ICZ is not a secret society. It delves into the multifarious world around us to expose the strange assumptions humanity takes for granted about its surrounding landscape. Working primarily as a photographer, Renhui blends fact and fiction to emphasize the idiosyncratic relations between animals, their habitats, and the humans that categorize them. While the result is ecologically minded, the dominant effect is uncanny. The ICZ effectively unearths little understood behavioral habits of animals and re-presents them within gallery settings as representational photography, encyclopedic texts, and multimedia installations. Currently ICZ currently has an exhibit, The Last Thing You See
, up at 2902 Gallery
in Singapore until January 5th that examines the act of sight. By demonstrating the shift in perception that would result from a sensitivity to ultraviolet light, ICZ reveals a world familiar to insects while being totally divorced from human experience. ICZ is going to appear in Ghost Nature,
a series of shows that I’m curating at Gallery 400
(Chicago, US) and La Box
“A spider web which is a flower,” Institute of Critical Zoologists, 2013, 150cm x 100cm, Diasec
From the series, How to eat bees? Under ultraviolet light, certain parts of a spider web glow, forming a pattern that looks like a flower—this is visible to bees, which attracts them.
Caroline Picard: How did the Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ) come about and what does “animal spectatorship” mean?
Robert Zhao Renhui: The ICZ came about mainly because of my interest with photography and animals. A long time ago, I was involved with animal rights activism. At that point of time, I was curious with how photography was used in animal activism. I contributed a lot of photographs to talk about the plight of animals living in captivity in Asia. I got too emotional and personally involved at one point. On the other hand, I was also using photographs to create my own fictional narratives about humans and animals. In college, my tutor asked me to look at my photographic narratives with my concerns of animals rights together, instead of two separate projects. Slowly, the ICZ took shape. Animal spectatorship, in my work, is very much about the conditions of looking and understanding animals.
CP: I feel like you’re interested in the way things are visible and invisible for instance how a human can all but disappear in a suit of leaves, or what a spider’s web looks like in ultraviolet light, can you talk more about how this series of works came together.
RZR: My interests are very much shaped by my medium, photography. Photography has always been about a way of seeing. In this exhibition, I was interested in how not seeing is as important as seeing. For the longest time, nobody knew why certain spiders weave distinctive markings on their webs. It isn’t logical for spiders to make these markings because then they render an otherwise hard-to-see web visible. Scientists came up with a theory that the markings are made to warn larger animals to not walk into the spider web and destroy it. In other words, the insect trap had a defense mechanism. It was not only recently that we realised that most insects see in the UV spectrum, a visual spectrum invisible to humans. Under UV light, the web mimics the shape of a flower. These markings are also visible on flowers in UV light. A spider web that wants to be a flower. I like that idea. A mimic and an invisible trap. Like a photograph.
Institute of Critical Zoologists, “Eskimo wolf trap often quoted in sermons,” 2013, Dimensions variable, Installation of diasec, eskimo knife, polyurethane, 200 kg of sodium bicarbonate. Eventually, a wolf will approach the knife and begin to cautiously sniff and lick the frozen blood. After believing it is safe, the wolf will lick more aggressively. Soon, the blade of the knife becomes exposed and it begins to nick the wolf’s tongue. Because its tongue has been numbed by the cold of the frozen blood, the wolf is unaware that he is being cut, and the blood it now tastes is its own. Excited at the prospect of fresh, warm blood, the wolf will hungrily lick the blade all the more. In a short time, the wolf will grow dizzy and disoriented. In a matter of hours, it will die from blood loss, literally drinking itself to death. As horrible as this picture is, it illustrates an important truth.
CP: Traps come up in several of your works—I’m thinking of your bee trap for instance, or the wolf trap—in both instances I feel like you’re somehow able to tap into an animal semiotics, almost, using the bee’s attraction to blue to bring them into the gallery, or using the wolf’s appetite for blood to disguise its sense of pain. What draws you to traps?
RZR: Michel Foucault said that visibility is a trap. He meant it in the case of the Panopticon, a prison where the all the inmates were visible to one another, hence creating a system of totalitarian, mutual surveillance. 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.
Institute of Critical Zoologists, “World Goldfish Queen,” 2013, from the series A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World.
CP: You have a book that just came out! How long did it take for you to make it? What does it contain?
RZR: A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World is an encyclopedia of man-made nature. It started of with the goldfish. Why doesn’t the goldfish have a scientific name? Why is it not included in any natural history encyclopedia? Today, the goldfish is a very common fish and in China, they recently held a competition for the World Goldfish Queen. I wanted to find out if there was a book that the goldfish can exist in other than a decorative aquarium trade fish. I started looking at other aquarium fishes that were artificial and slowly branched out into other animals and plants affected by aesthetic modification, ecological conservation, pollution, evolution and genetic-modification. It took me about a year to create the volume. Included in the book are my past projects like Acusis and A heartwarming feeling. So you can say the book has almost 3 years of my research. At the end of the book (there are about three books in this book, all housed in a box) there is a book that talks about Tropical Bonsai, specifically the Banana Bonsai Plant. My father keeps a dwarfed banana bonsai plant of 6 years at 15 cm tall. Bonsai is the art of miniaturising trees. It is man controlling nature in a very obvious and aesthetic way. There are rules to create bonsai and there are also rules to view bonsai. There are front views, side views and back views. This is a very important part of the book. Â It offers a way to think about the way we have controlled nature. As a species, we have always defined and controlled the way nature existed with us and this is nothing new. Broccolli and Cauliflower are not natural although we have become so familiar with them. Man has always determined what nature should look and feel like. The way we think and look at Bonsai may offer us a way to contemplate our complicated existence with nature.
1. I Envy the Kangaroos
July 16, 2016, 7-8:30PM
Work by: Maritea Dæhlin
DfbrL8r: 1463 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60642
2. Post Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980-2016
July 15, 2016, 5:30-8:30PM
Curated by Faheem Majeed
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art: 756 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60642
3. Can the Spectator Speak?
July 15, 2016, 5-8PM
Work by: Rashayla Marie Brown
Aspect/Ratio: 119 N Peoria Street #3D, Chicago, IL 60607
4. Longissimus Dorsi
July 15, 2016, 6PM
Work by: Alex Leasure, Charlie Kelman, Isabelle Frances McGuire, Madison Jane Brotherton, Parker Bright, Rose Pettuls, and Wei Shen
4e Gallery: 2255 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60616
5. Terrible Place
July 15, 2016, 8-11PM
Work by: Nick Mayer, Antoinette Suiter, and Luiso Ponce (writing by Phoebe Wang)
Samuel: 1917 W Division St., Chicago, IL 60622
Our strength and our dignity resides in one another so please participate, please listen for those with no voice, and please speak until all of us can be heard.
Freedom Dreams Artists Talk + Performance
July 14, 2016, 7PM
Work by: Eve Ewing, Fereshteh HT, Sherwin Ovid, Damon Locks
Pop Up Just Art Gallery: 729 W Maxwell St, Chicago, IL 60612
July 14, 2016, 6:30PM – 9:30PM
Mana Contemporary: 2233 S Throop St, Chicago, IL 60608
Brought to you by Threewalls, in partnership with Hyde Park Art Center, Hyde Park Jazz Festival, Links Hall, MANA Contemporary, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and Woman Made Gallery
Lucky Pierre’s Precarity Happy Hour
July 14, 2016, 5PM – 7PM
Gallery 400: 400 S Peoria St, Chicago IL, 60607
1. Precarity: Contingency in Artmaking and Academia
June 24, 2016, 5-8PM
Work by: Christian Nagler, Ahmet Ogut (with Natasha Sadr Haghighian, Dan Perjovschi, Martha Rosler, and Superflex), Cassie Thornton and the Feminist Economics Department (the FED), and Vanessa Viruet and Julia Arredondo of Vice Versa Press, Adjunct Commuter Weekly, BFAMFAPhD, Occupy Museums, PrecariCorps (Curated by Lorelei Stewart)
Gallery 400: 400 S. Peoria St, Chicago, IL 60607
2. Artist’s Name & Another Artist’s Name
June 25, 2016, 5-8PM
Work by: Aaron van Dyke and Tony Sunder
Julius Cæsar: 3311 W. Carroll Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60624
June 24, 2016, 6PM
Work by: Krista Hoefle
Woman Made Gallery: 685 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60642
June 24, 2016, 6-9PM
Work by: Julie Escoffier
Efrain Lopez Gallery: 901 N Damen Ave, Chicago IL 60633
5. Cave Paintings USA
June 29, 2016, 8PM
Work by: Richard Medina
Roman Susan: 1224 W Loyola Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60626
On a side note, everyone should go and listen:
Bonus: Singing Insect Monitoring Soundwalk
On view through Sunday, June 19th
June 24, 2016, 7-9PM
North Park Village Nature Center: 5801 N Pulaski Rd, Chicago, Illinois 60646
1. After Today at Gallery 400
Work by Lorelei Stewart and featuring artists Marianne Fairbanks, Fultonia, 96 Acres, Jason Lazarus, Cauleen Smith, Jan Tichy, and Amanda Williams.
Gallery 400 is located at 400 S. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
2. Song of the Summer at Roman Susan
Work by Maddie Reyna.
Roman Susan is located at 1224 W. Loyola Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
3. Oh! Oh! Oh! at PeregrineProgram
Work by Kelly Kaczynski.
PeregrineProgram is located at 3311 W. Carroll Ave. Reception Sunday, 1-4pm.
4. A House of Dust at Heaven Gallery
Work by Marissa Lee Benedict and Phil Peters.
Heaven Gallery is located at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 7-11pm.
5. Láldish at Ordinary Projects
Work by Noelle Garcia.
Ordinary Projects is located at 2233 S. Throop St. 5th Fl. Reception Saturday, 6-9pm.
1. Twist-flip-tremble-trace at Johalla Projects
Work by Aimée Beaubien.
Johalla Projects is located at 1821 W. Hubbard St. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.
2. Scenic Overlook at Hyde Park Art Center
Work by Susan Giles
Hyde Park Art Center is located at 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Reception Sunday, 3-5pm.
3. Shadowboxing the Axis at Gallery 400
Work by Soohyun Kim, Meredith Lackey and Sherwin Ovid.
Gallery 400 is located at 400 S. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
4. The Arrows Like Soft Moon Beams at 65Grand
Work by Ian Pedigo.
65Grand is located at 1369 W. Grand Ave. Reception 6-9pm.
5. Y’all and A Rock (me too) at Hidden Dog
Work by Yani Aviles, Justin Chance, Connor Crable, Hunter Foster, Alyx Harch, Andrew Lu, Katie Rapheal, Amina Ross, Chase Schoonmaker, Emily Schulert, Simone Siegel, Cait Smith, Kelsey Strebler, Kate Ulschmid and Tongyu Zhao.
Hidden Dog is located at 2151 W. 21st St. Reception Friday 7-10pm.