Zhao Renhui


Zhao Renhui


Zhao Renhui was born in Singapore in 1983. Having graduated in photography from the Camberwell College of Arts in London and from the London College of Communication, he returned to his native country to found the international organisation ‘The Institute of Critical Zoologists’, the purpose of which is to “develop a critical approach to the zoological gaze, or how humans view animals.
His work was honoured with the Deutsche Bank photography award in 2011 — bestowed by the University of the Arts London — and forms part of many public and private collections.

Zhao Renhui has recently exhibited his work at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (Melbourne), the Noorderlicht festival, the Format Festival, the PhotoIreland Festival, the Flash Forward Festival, the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Japan), the Seoul Arts Center (South Korea), the GoEun Museum of Photography (South Korea) and ShanghART Gallery. He has also undertaken many research residencies, notably at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, the National Museum of Wales, the Earth Observatory of Singapore, the Arctic Circle Residency and the Kadist Art Foundation.


137 years

2016 Photographic Residencies

Zhao Renhui’s photographic work pays special attention to the way our attitudes and opinions shape what we consider to be true in regard to the natural world. It is in this field of choice — the environment — that Zhao Renhui puts to the test of doubt the processes of passing down knowledge and accepting truth.

Dating from the end of the nineteenth century, the book Camping and Tramping in Malaya by the British explorer Ambrose Rathborne is a study of fauna and flora in Malaya, the former states of Peninsular Malaysia. It was the first ever in-depth study of wildlife in South-East Asia written in English.

Zhao Renhui used this book as a conceptual roadmap for his series, following the path taken by the explorer from Singapore to the north of Malaysia in search of species of wild animals and plants.The photographs from this trek — reconstructions of the environments described by Rathborne — give an account of the ecological changes that have taken place in this region in the space of 137 years: “Animals no longer roam nature freely like they did 137 years ago. Most of those I encountered were confined to special nature reserves or parks. Most of the time, these are the only places where they can survive, as urban development is taking more and more land from natural areas”. The artist has incorporated into his photographic series a range of colonial postcards from the 1890s and 1960s, taken from his own collection, from which he drew inspiration to create the aesthetic backdrop of his photographs. Hidden behind the exotic landscapes and apparently peaceful animals of Zhao Renhui’s photographs are moral and ethical issues brought about by the question of man’s relationship with nature in South-East Asia. The series 137 years attempts to recount the story of these issues and write the pages of their future.

Series produced in 2017.

As We Walk on Water

Photoquai 2013

The series As We walk on Water focuses on a particular moment in Singapore’s history: in the 1960s, when the country decided to expand its surface area, huge amounts of sand had to be imported from neighbouring countries to extend the land into the sea. At the start of this ambitious project, the west and east coasts looked like deserts. To reach the Indian Ocean — pushed back by six kilometres — Singaporeans had no option but to cross vast dunes.

While Zhao Renhui’s photographs are presented as archives from the 1970s, they are in fact contemporary fictitious narratives. They were taken in the Tottori sand dunes in Japan with the intention of creating imaginary archives. Through them, the photographer explores the origins of knowledge, history and memory. He also questions the reliability of photographic records, like the Spanish photographer Joan Fontcuberta does in his illusory shots.

His multidisciplinary approach disputes the very notion of archiving and scientific authority by calling into question the use of photography in these two fields. In doing so, he forms his own archives, on which he builds his photographic work, in a “double act of authentication”, to borrow Elizabeth Edwards’ expression.

Series produced in 2011.