Real and imaginary: Interactions between humans and animals

 

During the ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9), the Gallery’s Research Library is displaying artist books from its collection by Robert Zhao Renhui, whose collaborative work with Donna Ong, My forest is not your garden is currently on show in the Queensland Art Gallery Watermall.

Watch Robert Zhao Renhui and Donna Ong introduce ‘My forest is not your garden’

My forest is not your garden 2015–18 is a collaborative installation by Singaporean artists Zhao and Ong. A critical take on attitudes towards the natural world of the tropics, the installation integrates Ong’s evocative arrangements of artificial flora and tropical exotica – titled From the tropics with love 2016 – with Zhao’s The Nature Museum 2017, an archival display narrating aspects of Singapore’s natural history, both authentic and fabricated.

Donna Ong, Singapore b.1978; Robert Zhao Renhui, Singapore b.1983 / My forest is not your garden 2015–18 / Mixed media installation / © Donna Ong and Robert Zhao Renhui  / Courtesy: The artists, FOST Gallery and ShanghART Gallery

Since 2008, Zhao has been presenting his work through the creative framework of the Institute of Critical Zoologists, whose mission claims ‘to advance unconventional, even radical, means of understanding human and animal relations’.

Under this umbrella, Zhao has produced a series of self-consciously pseudo-scientific investigations of both real and imaginary interactions between humans and animals, taking the form of extensive photographic series, lavish natural history publications, and dense museological installations, exploring attitudes towards the natural world and the social histories of particular sites – such as introduced species control on Christmas Island or the legacies of colonialism in Singapore.

Robert Zhao Renhui, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World [encyclopaedia dossier] / Institute of Critical Zoologists, Tokyo, 2013 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
One such publication is A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World (2013), a multi-award winning publication that accompanied the installation work of the same title at the Singapore Biennale 2013. The publication is comprised of 55 plates with documents and booklets contained in a hand-crafted archival box and individually signed.

Zhao explains his inspiration for this project which purportedly ‘documents’ 55 species of plants and animals that have been genetically altered by humans, some well-known such as the goldfish, and others invented by the artist:

‘In this case, I wanted to know why the goldfish is never included in any natural history encyclopaedia. The goldfish does not have a scientific name as it is a man-made creature. It’s a fish that has been artificially bred for thousands of years. How the goldfish is created remains a mystery. I created the encyclopaedia as a system to talk about our ideas of what is natural and what is man-made. Towards the end of the book you realise there’s really not much of a difference. Everything artificial will start to look natural once we get used to it.’

Robert Zhao Renhui, The Bizarre Honour [dossier] / Institute of Critical Zoologists, Singapore, 2017 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
This natural history theme continues with the dossier for ‘The Bizarre Honour‘, a special project created for Singapore’s OH! Open House program in 2017. Designed as an interactive theatre, visitors entered in pairs – without guidance or explanation – to explore the 300 plus ‘eclectic collection of objects and research to do with Singapore’s natural history’. At the conclusion, each visitor received a copy of the 80-page dossier of research, photographs, maps and diagrams as a memento.

Robert Zhao Renhui, Horses and Canaries: Blaenavo: Zhao Renhui: Postal view souvenir [postcards] / Ffotogallery, Cardiff, 2013 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
Zhao describes the concept for his Horses and Canaries, (2013) a series of photographs presented as a 10-page fold-out postcard book published by Ffotogallery, Cardiff, as follows:

‘The Blaenavon Industrial Landscape was awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in November 2000. It is also included in the register of Landscapes of Outstanding Historic Interest in Wales. The ‘Forgotten Landscapes’ describe the area surrounding and including Blaenavon Industrial Landscape World Heritage site in South Wales. This global significant landscape was formed over many centuries through the combined efforts of nature and man.’

Compiled and written by QAGOMA Research Library

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Feature image: Display of A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World [encyclopaedia dossier] / Institute of Critical Zoologists, Tokyo, 2013 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library; The Bizarre Honour [dossier] / Institute of Critical Zoologists, Singapore, 2017 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library; Horses and Canaries: Blaenavo: Zhao Renhui: Postal view souvenir [postcards] / Ffotogallery, Cardiff, 2013 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

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