Profile: Robert Zhao

Published on 3 August 2015

Robert Zhao layers his work with truths and half-truths to better engage his audience

BY JOEL TAN

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with how naïve people are when they look at photographs,” says Robert Zhao Renhui, 32.

The visual artist, trained in photography, first came to public attention by way of a major deception. At the age of 18, Zhao, as part of a collective, presented an exhibition of photographs from the last roll of film belonging to one Wu Xiao Kang, a schizophrenic photographer who had committed suicide. In reality, it was all an elaborate hoax. The story of Wu turned out to be a fictional narrative and conceptual artwork that launched Zhao into notoriety.

“My work is very strange, lah. Fiction, non-fiction, often you can’t tell,” says Zhao, a Young Artist Award recipient and mentor with Noise Singapore, a creative arts platform organised by the National Arts Council.

Strange or not, Zhao’s work has been very well-received, collected and awarded abroad. Adding to his impressive list of accolades, including the 2011 Deutsche Bank Award in Photography in London, Zhao has been nominated for the 2015 Arles Discovery Award, a much-coveted photography prize at the Renctonres d’Arles Photography Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious.

Zhao’s artistic output features installations, photographs and sometimes performances that engage with the natural world and our attitudes towards it. For several years now, his exhibits have taken on an almost single-minded preoccupation with nature, much of it centred on Singapore society’s erratic relationship with our natural environment.

“I’m drawn to nature, I think, because my father really loves nature. He keeps a lot of bonsai and plants in the house, and the only ever place he brought me to for outings was the Singapore Zoo.”

Zhao’s work reflects a startlingly diverse approach to a singular subject. Sometimes the work is almost sentimental, like his 2015 exhibition, Singapore (Very Old Tree), a series of photographs and collected memories documenting various Singaporeans’ relationship with trees. At other times, it is borderline horrific, like his ‘Eskimo Wolf Trap Often Quoted in Sermons’ (2013), a mixed-media installation featuring a crude and grisly bloody knife, allegedly used to lure wolves into licking it and subsequently bleeding to death.

Ironic, deadpan and sometimes absurd, one can never be too sure of what’s real and what isn’t in Zhao’s work, especially when fictional narratives are a key characteristic. However, the sharply-delivered critique of our relationships with nature always invites an uncomfortable second look as you try and arrive at the truth. Or half-truth.

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