TwentyFifteen Interview 06/20: Robert Zhao Renhui speaks to Leonard Goh

RobertZhao copyCan you tell us who is the real Robert Zhao? Where was he born? What was his childhood like?

I am Robert Zhao Renhui, and I was born in Singapore. I cannot remember much of my childhood because there weren’t a lot of photographs taken. My dad had two Yashica cameras, which came in handy when I was in Primary 5. I started taking photographs in the classroom, and I added ‘spirits’ to the images by using a felt tip marker to draw random small shapes on the film. I brought the photographs to school and the reactions from my classmates had a profound effect on me. This is one version of the story.

I also remember growing up near a fish farm, which explains my interest in animals. One thing I am sure of is that after I turned 12, my father took me to Tuas to fish. I must have walked on the reclaimed land for hours, seeing people fly their model planes, without quite reaching anywhere. The place was just sand without end.

Do you think you can tell us how we know when you are telling us the truth and when you are taking us for a ride?

In real life, I’m not good at telling lies, my friends know immediately when I am lying. I usually dramatise the truth, which is much easier. In the same way, my work usually starts with facts and my direct observations. Along the way it gets twisted and distorted into something else. For example, “View of Marina Bay Sands”, the print that we are offering for my book, is a scene that will never happen. Some people can’t tell and have asked me how I shot the photograph. I don’t blame them – Singapore changes very fast, so our memory of its landscape is often vague. The picture is a composite of two cities from Japan and the United Kingdom, two countries which have shaped how our island looks today.

Do you always get irritating questions similar to the previous one?

Even if I do, I try to be polite. Usually I learn something about myself with every question.

The Institute of Critical Zoologists is a grand-sounding name. For someone who isn’t familiar with your works, they might believe this establishment actually exists. Do you often get contacted by real zoologists?

Most of my work is ‘performed’ through the context of an institution, which takes the form of my website, www.criticalzoologists.org. I’ve received emails inviting me to be on the peer review panel for academic journals of zoology. Some artists have also enquired about the possibility of working with the institution. Once, I was contacted by a photo editor of Discover magazine, a popular science and tech journal. They published one of my pictures showing a very well-camouflaged leaf insect perched on a plant. The image was from my series called The Great Pretenders, which explored ideas of mimicry and authenticity in photography. So basically, in those pictures, there were only leaves, and no insects.

After the image was published, a scientist from Germany who had spent his life studying leaf insects wrote me an email. He said, “I couldn’t recognise the species in the image until I went to your website. I finally understood why.”

You have gone from being criticised for your earlier works such as Wu Xiao Kang (with artist collective A Dose of Light), to being celebrated as one of the most exciting young artists in Singapore. What has the journey been like?

It is still too early to tell. In a lot of ways, I’m still starting out. It was difficult in the beginning, when my Wu Xiao Kang fictional narrative upset some people. That was a good lesson in managing responsibility, expectations and trust. I do what I do to survive and to fuel my art practice. It’s like a monster that just keeps getting bigger. You expect more of yourself after each project. In a way, despite my initial struggles, the easiest period was the beginning, when art wasn’t really a job.

Are you afraid that in time to come, you may not be able to tell the difference between truth and lies?

I tend to think everything is a lie, ha! Anyway, I believe that my Singapore landscape work will feel different over time. It will take on a different life, like all photographs, which get harder to read with time. Especially in Singapore, where the landscape changes so rapidly and it’s hard to remember what really happened to some places. Anyway, a photograph is always lying in some way and we must be careful not to look for an absolute truth in such a precarious object.

Your girlfriend is also in the creative business. Is she as crazy and imaginative as you? Does she always trust you since you are rather good at confusing others?

I think she is crazier than me. I would have never given up a stable job (she was an arts writer) to pursue my own dreams! She is working on her own short stories at the moment and I think there’s a certain craziness in her writings and she is definitely more observant and sensitive than I am. This in turn brings out interesting perspectives on things that happen around us. She can read me very well and she doesn’t understand why I still bother to lie to her for fun. I think she trusts me.

Do you think your works are political in any ways?

I always think there are enough overtly political works around and I am not the best person to contribute – it’s not my natural inclination, so why force the issue? What I’m obsessed with is humankind’s interaction with nature. When I look at landscapes, I am looking at the impact we make on nature and the narratives we create when we have the ability to create artificial waterfalls, sand dunes, air-conditioned parks, zoos and natural history museums.

But these stories that we spin aren’t divorced from politics. (Obviously it’s hard to find anything that is untouched by political forces.) So if politics come into my work, it’s by sneaking in through the back door. In Singapore, for example, we are very green and pruned. This is a political decision. This is a way to show that we are in control, that even nature can be controlled. So when anything grows too wild in our Garden City, I tend to visit these spaces.

Do you use photography to comment or criticise?

My photographs are usually of situations that I find interesting. So it’s more of an observation. It’s a picture. It’s visual. It’s not about saying one thing or another. I don’t set out to talk with my images.

Can you help us imagine two possibilities? First, a Singapore you can be proud of in the future. Second, a Singapore you cannot be proud of in the future.

My main concerns are with nature and how we co-exist with it on our really small island. A Singapore I would be proud of respects the little wilderness we have as part of the history and make-up of this land. There is only so much pruned nature we can enjoy.

A Singapore I can’t be proud of – so many ways for us to go wrong, where do we start?

In a way, Singapore today makes me both proud and ashamed. Take that eco-bridge we just built over the Bukit Timah Expressway for animals to move between two nature reserves which we separated [with the expressway] many years ago. Every time I drive under the bridge, I cannot help but ask myself: Do animals really use the bridge? Was the bridge built for them, or was it just a project to show that we care for nature? What will happen when they start using the bridge since these two habitats have already been separated for so long?

Where do you find your inspirations and ideas? Is it true that you have a lot of imaginary friends?

I use Google Alerts for subjects that I am interested in to see how these subjects come up in news items and academic discussions. I put alerts on things such as “wildlife conservation”, “extinction” and “animal traps”. I am also on a constant look-out for images on the Internet and in flea markets. At the moment I am collecting images from all the natural beach sand dunes in the world to try to construct an alternate history of Singapore’s own sand dunes.

In my institute, I work only with imaginary collaborators. A few people presenting an idea to you always seems more convincing than someone doing it alone. It is like how this TwentyFifteen.sg project has 20 photographers, which adds depth to the investigation. It’s the same idea.

Were any animals ever harmed in the creation of your works?

I don’t believe any animals should be harmed for art. I worked with cockroaches once, but those roaches were going to die anyway. I persuaded my friends to surrender their house cockroaches to me – after being killed by insecticide instead of being smashed with a shoe. I prefer working with dead or stuffed animals. I tried photographing my friend’s cat once and it was impossible. I usually just visit the zoo or use discarded dead birds or fish from local pet shops.

What were the best and worst things you have heard about your works?

I try to avoid hearing or reading anything people say about my work. Sometimes I get wind that people feel betrayed by my works. This should happen, it’s not a bad thing to me.

If you can spin a story, however absurd it may be, about Singapore’s past, present or future, what would it be about?

Over the years, Singapore has had all kinds of temporary sand dunes, imported from neighbouring countries for land reclamation purposes. It’s about time we have a sand dune that stays as it is. It should be a permanent monument to Singapore’s success story of creating new land.

What if one day you wake up and realise that you’ve lost the ability to imagine, what would it be like for you? What do you think you would be doing?

This is a real fear that I have whenever I am near the completion of any project. A fear that I have run out of things to say. I just hope it never becomes true. If it does happen, I guess I’ll become a tour guide. I’ll still be telling stories, but other people’s stories.

Are you famous?

At the moment there are 678 likes on my Facebook page and about 1,200 followers on my Instagram account.

Help us picture Robert Zhao in 2025. What can we expect?

Hopefully he’s creating better photographs than he is now.

TwentyFifteen.sg invited some of our friends to send questions to Robert. Here are the two that he chose to answer.

Steffi Koh, undergraduate, Nanyang Technological University: As you’ve had encounters with wild animals, dead animals and animal activists alike, how do you see animals and their place in your world?

I am trying to see things not from my point of view, because I’m human and tend to complicate things. I believe the world works in much simpler ways. I like to see things from the perspective of animals or plants, and wonder what they would think of all these things we do such as wildlife conservation, pollution and extinction. We are all in this together.

Daniel Boetker-Smith, founder, Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive: I see your work as being very politically motivated, but in a very subtle and smart way. Can you tell us about how politics influences your work, and how important is it that photography makes us think beyond the borders of the image – about society, truth, the future, etc.?

My motivations are actually much more selfish. My work usually starts with curiosity and a burning desire to photograph a particular subject.

Singapore’s borderlands, where the huge ‘sand scapes’ are, form one of these subjects. I’ve been going there for 15 years. I was trying to find a way to photograph this vast landscape and couldn’t find a good way to do it.

It was only after I started reading about some of the ecological consequences and political motivations of the act of land reclamation, that I started to appreciate the space with a different perspective. I was attracted to the space because it was a form of wilderness that happened by accident. It wasn’t a planned landscape like many of the neighbourhood parks and gardens and reservoirs we have in Singapore.

So when I started to shoot these sandy landscapes again, although I was informed by some of the political reasons why these spaces existed, I just wanted to pose some simple questions. When does sand become land? When does land become country? What really happens when we have so much new land? I try not to impose a very strict political lens on my work. I find that images, when they are good ones, tend to be richer and more mysterious.
As for what photography can do outside of itself – I don’t think about that so much. I just like to wonder what people will think when they pick up my images at some flea market in the future.

 
To purchase a copy of Singapore 1925 – 2025 by Robert Zhao Renhui, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/products/singapore-1925-2025-by-robert-zhao
 

The portrait of Robert Zhao Renhui was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.