The following interview appeared on Bad at Sports and Daily Serving in December, 2013.
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 myriad strange and uncanny possibilities within the universe. Shrouded in secrecy, however, its associates attempt to perpetuate the myth of everyday banality to keep their fellow human citizens free from fear. Although similarly invested in the 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 affectively unearths little-understood behavioral habits of animals and re-presents them within gallery settings as representational photography, encyclopedic texts, and multimedia installations. ICZ’s current exhibit, The Last Thing You See, is up at 2902 Gallery in Singapore until January 5 and 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 and totally divorced from human experience. ICZ is going to appear in an upcoming series of shows I’m curating at Gallery 400 and La Box.
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 spiderweb and destroy it. In other words, the insect trap had a defense mechanism. It was only recently that we realized 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 spiderweb that wants to be a flower. I like that idea. A mimic and an invisible trap. Like a photograph.