Robert Zhao Renhui: When Worlds Collide (2017-2018) and the Institute of Critical Zoologists#Dr. Caroline Ha Thuc
March 17, 2021
Research-based art practice

Robert Zhao Renhui: When Worlds Collide(2017-2018) and the Institute of Critical Zoologists

Robert Zhao Renhui, Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), diasec inwooden frame 42x29.7cm, 2018

All images courtesy of the artist and ShanghART Gallery.

When Worlds Collide (2017-2018) is amultimedia installation created by Singaporean artist Robert Zhao Renhui(b.1983) for the 2018 Taipei Biennial.[1] The work, which is theartistic documentation and outcome of the artist’s fieldwork in Taiwan, Greeceand Germany, questions our paradoxical and complex relationship with nature andanimals against the backdrop of globalization, massive flux of migrations andrapid urbanization. It mainly consists of photographs and artefacts related toinsects, pests, amphibians and birds displayed as if they were part of anatural museum’s collection.

The installation is presented by The Institute for CriticalZoologists (ICZ), a creative scientific and pluri-disciplinary platform foundedby Zhao in 2008, officially initiated in 1996 by a Japanese and a Chineseresearcher after the merger of two scientific institutes. Developing a criticalapproach to the field of zoology, it mainly aims to “advance unconventional,even radical, means of understanding human and animal relations.”[2] Mixing openly fiction and reality, Zhaocreates most of his artworks under this umbrella and meticulously cataloguethem within the institute’s website.[3]  His research practiceis dedicated to the study of the natural world and of its various andcomplicated interactions with humans.

The originality of When Worlds Collide lies in thejuxtaposition of the artist’s different research findings that creates criticalnarratives and brings forth contradictory perspectives about humanconceptualizations of nature and environmental policies. The discursive part,expressed through the texts that accompany the artworks, plays a key role tosupport and link these narratives, while the artist’s curation and framing ofthe artworks exacerbate the paradoxical gaps that still separate humans fromnon-humans.

Contextual framework and artist’s drive

Fighting invasive species

In Taiwan, Zhao delved into the governmental incentives thatencourage the eradication of invasive species and aim at preserving the localnative biodiversity. Invasive species have been defined as “species thatestablish a new range in which they proliferate, spread and persist to thedetriment of the environment.”[4] These invasions are not anew phenomenon, but they have drastically increased along with globalisationand, today, few if any places remain free of migrant species introduced byhuman trade and transport. Taiwan, in particular, is more subject to the threatof invasive species because of its specific insular ecosystem. It is forexample among the places that are the most affected by invasive species ofamphibians and reptiles.[5] In response, the governmenthas implemented a series of removal plans focusing on specific species oflizards, frogs and on the African sacred Ibis.[6]Residents can for instance receive a prize for capturing or killing exoticlizards such as the green iguanas who were mainly introduced as pets in theisland, but whose huge size, when adults, has pushed many owners to abandon.[7] Similarly, a 2011 removal planencourages residents and volunteers to report spotting spot-legged tree frogs,a species of frog originated in India and Indochina which has a strongreproductive ability and no predators, and which thus competes with nativefrogs.[8] During his fieldwork, the artistparticipated in such a hunt with volunteers from the Taipei Zoo.

Robert Zhao Renhui, Green Iguana (Iguana iguana), diasec inwooden frame 60x40cm, 2018

The real impact of these policies remains to be assessed as well asthe real impact of these invasive species on the local biodiversity. In thecase of the Sacred Ibis, for example, “environmentalists have yet to find anyevidence of it harming the local ecology,”[9] and there is no evidence ofthe iguana directly threatening the native ecosystems, although people areworried about its impact on crops and agriculture.[10]The objectives of the removal plans, thus, can be confused: here, restoring thenative ecosystem seems to be mixed with more human and economic concerns. Whencan we classify a species as a threat, and under which criteria? In fact, aspecies can even be qualified at the same time as a threatened species in someplaces and as an invasive pest somewhere else.[11]

An ambiguous issue

In his statement, Zhao recalls the anthropocentric perspective ofthese controls, with the spread of invasive species being largely a humanconsequence.[12] His work is a response tothe lack of critical views that would question this apparent consensus. Forhim, the killing of non-human species in the name of protecting other non-humanspecies deemed more valuable is problematic. Why would native species be morevaluable than the others, and why would humans make the decision rather thanletting nature decide? Zhao does not have answers to these complex questions,since every case is unique and highly contextual, yet, as an artist, he feelsthe need to raise them critically.

Robert Zhao Renhui, Christmas Island, Naturally II, from theseries Christmas Island, Naturally. 150x100cm, diasec in frame, 2015.

Zhao already addressed the issue in a 2015 work focusing on theecology and ecosystem of the Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.[13] Most the island has been transformedinto a natural reserve, with its inhabitants relocated, in order for thescientists to study its exceptional endemic flora and fauna, relativelypreserved despite 150 years of human interactions. The artist is fascinated bythe human desire to control the evolution of nature and to deny its owninherent changes, as if nature was a static entity. “We all want to protectnature but we do not seem to know what is natural and what is unnatural.” Healso notes that, after a while, some alien species can become ‘naturalised,’and thus cease to be seen as a threat.

“I think only humans think about nature in terms of life and death.In the natural world, life carries on in ways like a cycle. We should perhapsstart to think that nature has a way of its own. When animals invade a spaceand thrive, it usually means that the system is already broken.” In fact,“novel ecosystems”can emerge,[14]with a thriving hybrid biodiversity that has been called a “new wild.”[15] This perspective stands against theviewpoint of conservationists and restoration ecologists who try to restoreecosystems as they originally were, and do not consider the resilience ofnature and its ability to evolve and adapt by itself.

Besides, to which ecosystem are we referring to when it comes topreserving its native condition? In the United States, for example, restorationecologists try to eradicate or to limit the growth of invasive species in orderto return damaged ecosystem to “the condition of the ecosystem prior to thearrival of Euro-Americans.”[16] These choices areobviously debatable, and highly political.

An ambivalent relationship with nature

The fight against invasive species reflects specific and constructedhuman conceptualizations of nature and what it should or should not be like. Inparallel to these ecological endeavors, many insects continue for instance tobe deemed useless and harmful to humans, and, as such, are targeted to bedestroyed. This is especially the viewpoint of German entomologist HerbertWeidner (1911-2009) who categorized insects according to their nuisance,warning that one should destroy them all thanks to pesticides in order tosecure human future.[17] He collected andscrupulously classified more than 200 objects such as pieces of furniture orboxes of chocolates that carry the evidence of the pests’ deleteriousactivities, reflecting what Zhao calls a “paranoid obsession.” An importantpart of the installation When Worlds Collide is a documentation of thiscollection, which the artist discovered during his residency in Hamburg.[18]

Robert Zhao Renhui, Animals That Threaten Us, Unsorted Tray 18,diasec in wooden frames 30x30 cm, 2018

To complete the scope of today’s ambivalent and complex humanrelationships with nature, Zhao includes in the installation the outcome of hisresearch in Athens and Taipei related to urban injured birds. In both places,people are picking up injured birds and bring them to wild animalrehabilitation centres where they can be healed. Some have been hit by a car ora window from a glass building, but others have been shot by citizens. Theyrepresent the collision suggested by the installation’s title when the humanand the natural worlds collide, especially in contemporary urban environments.

In the three cases, and beyond existing environmental discourses,non-humans remain under human control, even if it is for “good” reasons,perpetuating the nature/culture Western divide. For the artist, there is nosuch a line that could separate these two worlds which are continuouslyentangled in an increasingly complex, dynamic and interdependent relationship. WhenWorlds Collide expresses these paradoxes and tensions.

A Singaporean context of work

Robert Zhao Renhui, The Nature Museum, exhibition view. Singapore International Festival of the Arts, 2017.

Singapore, where Zhao lives and works, is known for its policiesaiming at greening its environment and, despite its high development andurbanization, it is proud to have become a green and clean “Garden City.”[19] This environment is a continuoussource of inspiration for the artist who spent years studying the evolution ofSingapore’s specific fauna and flora. The Nature Museum (2017) consistsfor example in an installation of documents, archives, artefacts, specimen andartworks dealing with the natural history of Singapore Island from the late19th century onwards. Beyond its colonial past, Zhao’s observation of nature inthe city reveals again the complexity and often paradoxical relationshipsbetween human and non-humans, with a permanent will to control the city’senvironment. The photograph The rooster will crow three times echoesespecially the topic of When Worlds Collide: it shows a red junglefowlbird flying just before it was killed by local residents, who complained aboutits noise.[20] This species, an ancestorof our common chicken, was nevertheless a former extinct bird species nativefrom Singapore, which recently came back due to the environmental incentives.

Robert Zhao Renhui, The rooster will crow three times,photograph, 2017.

These local policies are mainly conceived to woo investors, and, forZhao, nature is turned into a utilitarian object, a necessary decoration thatdoes not have any autonomy anymore.  “In Singapore, almost every tree inthe city is registered.[21] We all want to contributemeaningfully to nature but we have to be in control. One can see pestextermination vans all the time, as if residents were under attack.  I aminterested in the unpredictable stories that turn up in Singapore betweenhumans and nature.”

Zhao’s father grew some hundred bonsais, a passion which couldepitomize the art of controlling nature.  The artist himself has alwaysbeen fascinated by nature and used to photograph animals in captivity at theSingapore zoo before building narratives that expanded his approach of natureunder the umbrella of the Institute of Critical Zoology (ICZ). He studied atTemasek Polytechnic in Singapore and graduated from the Camberwell College ofArts and then from the London College of Communication at the University of theArts, London, where he studied photography.

The artist-researcher

A non-scientific perspective

At first sight, the ICZ looks authentically scientific and Zhao’sresearch accurate. All images and materials are well-documented, includingLatin names, scientific descriptions and contextual backgrounds. Each topicseems to be approached from a systematic and almost encyclopedic perspective.The website of the institute offers even the possibility to join the team andsuggests that visitors could visit the labs of the Institute.

One critic wrote: “Zhao is best known for the slypseudo-documentarian imagery that appears as ‘research’ under the auspices ofhis fictive Institute of Critical Zoologists.”[22] Here, the quotation marksaround the word research points to the doubts that the artist has introducedwhen it comes to categorize his practice where the line between reality andfiction is purportedly blurred. His photographs indeed used to document falseexploration journeys undertaken by fake researchers or study groups, and delvesinto collections created by imaginary scientists who excavate new species orinvent new natural taxonomies.[23] However, at the same time,the artist keeps collaborating with real scientists and museum collections,guided by a genuine passion for natural history. Unlike Kusno’s Centre forTanah Runcuk Studies,[24]  there is nodisclaimer and a scientific magazine famously published one of the artist’sphotographs including his research outcome, although it was a mere artisticcreation.[25]  In fact, Zhao is notinterested in any form of credibility and does not define himself as aresearcher nor as a scientist. “I do not think my research helps in ourunderstanding of nature as a scientist would. I think science limits theexperience I can have for my projects, and I believe in a wider perspective ofthings.” For him, what matters the most is to find the right way to addressspecific issues, and this perspective often involves creating fictionalnarratives.

Robert Zhao Renhui, White-lipped Tree Frog (Polypedates braueri),diasec in wooden frame 40x60cm, 2018.


When Worlds Collide does not include anyfictional elements, yet the artist continues to borrow freely the language ofscience. The text that accompanies every artwork describes the story of thephotographed specimen, including their scientific names, and explains how theyare connected to the exhibition. One can read, for instance, that the sacredibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) originates in Egypt, escaped from a Taiwanesezoo in 1984 and since then multiply in the wild. There are no scientificreferences, though, and the artist does not mention his sources nor hismethodology of work either. For him, a scientific framework allows him tolegitimize his personal approach to nature, since “amateurs or pets’ lovers”would not be taken seriously. The part of the exhibition dealing with Taiwan isfor instance ambitiously entitled “A Guide to the Fauna of Taiwan,” a titlesupposed to bestow some legitimacy to the work. The installation is obviouslynot that exhaustive and the reference is above all ironic since the fauna itrefers to deals with the species that are eradicated by the governmentalpolicies.

More generally, the installation’s display mimics classical Westernnatural history exhibitions while the framing and staging of the photographsimitates naturalists’ shots and their apparent and systematic objectivity. Mostof them have actually been taken from museums, from stuffed animals, incollaboration with the local institutions, because Zhao did not have the timeto photograph all species in the open air. The few elements of parody seem toindicate that the artist keeps a critical distance from these conventional andold-fashioned methods of representation. However, the work does not directlyquestion these scientific norms and thinking frameworks, or even the legitimacyof documentary photography. What is challenged is rather human’s persistentrepresentation of nature shaped by these old models inherited from Westernmodernity that carried the dream to classify, understand and thus controlnature. The scientific language is not diverted but used as a framework tostage the artist’s narratives and eventually contextualize it within the widerscope of natural history.

Prevalence of fieldwork

When Worlds Collide is the artisticoutcome of Zhao’s research field trips in Hamburg, Athens and Taipei.[26] Conceptually, a few reference bookshave been very influential for his research, such as environment writer FredPearce’s New Wild, Professor of environmental geography Ian Rotherham’s Invasiveand Introduced Plants and Animals, American permaculture designer Tao Orionand Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka’s works.[27] Before his residencies, the artist also made research on the Internet in orderto get a sense of what could be done locally and to grasp the contextualbackground of the places. However, fieldwork remains the most important part ofhis work as he prefers having first-hand information from conversations andexperiences rather than superficial stories from the Internet. “Almostimmediately when you speak to people, they would tell you something that theInternet had misinterpreted.” Thanks to these conversations, with localscientists, environmentalists, activists or volunteers, he also discoveredstories that he could not have found by himself.

Robert Zhao Renhui, Spotted Tree Frogs (Polypedates megacephalus)collected in a single night, diasec in frame, 74x111x6cm, 2018.

Zhao’s fieldwork could be divided into two separated yet connectedactivities: visiting local institutions dealing with natural history andengaging in activities related to the local fauna and flora. The photographsfrom Taiwan come from the collections of various institutions such as TheEndemic Species Institute, the Dong Hua University or The Wild Bird Society ofTaipei. Zhao participated also two times in an invasive frog hunting withvolunteers from the Taipei Zoo. They caught more than 50 frogs, photographed bythe artists, which were later given to feed the zoo animals. For him, it wasimportant to be part of these kinds of practices. He realized how much thenative species have become rare and his approach of the issue took a moreembodied perspective. Discussing with the volunteers, who commit very seriouslyto their task of preserving native frogs, allowed him to better understandtheir motivations.

In Athens, Zhao got involved with ANIMA, or Wild Life Conservation Society,where injured birds can be rescued.[28] It gave him the sense ofthe number of injured animals that are delivered by volunteers every day. Bylooking at the x-ray with the veterinaries, he also understood their types ofthe injuries, from broken wings to bullet’s impacts. In Taipei, he searched fora similar place and discovered the Taipei Wild Bird Refuge, creating a linkbetween the cities and a bridge for his research topics. In both cases, injuredanimals are delivered in cardboard boxes with holes, and the artist decided touse them as metaphors for the human interactions with birds in urbanenvironments.

Robert Zhao Renhui, The Cacao Moth from Weidner’s collection,diasec in wooden frame 30x30cm, 2018.

Finally, in Hamburg, his encounter with Herbert Weidner constituted“the most pleasurable discovery” he ever had. Zhao had no prior knowledge ofthe scientist and was struck by the originality and by the scale of hiscollection. Weidner documented in details all possible impacts that insectsmight have on human daily life, collecting clothes, pieces of furniture, food,grains etc as evidence of their threat. In turn, Zhao photographed theseartefacts in order to document the scientist’s vision of nature and hisobsession to destroy all insects. Despite being a pioneer in addressing theissue of urban ecology,[29] Weidner’s work is notwell-known, and the few articles pertaining to his collection are in Germanlanguage. The only way for this encounter to happen was thus to physicallyengage with his collection, which largely contributed to the conception of theinstallation.

Zhao’s research practice is cumulative, and each artwork isnourished by the previous ones. His interest in insects, for instance, beganwith a fieldwork in California in 2015 when he worked with Dr. Martin Hauser,the Senior Insect Biosystematist at the California Department of Food andAgriculture. According to Zhao, the scientist opened his eyes about theinvisible world of flies and their interactions with human life. His researchled to the installation Flies Prefer Yellow (2015), but opened the pathfor more entomologic investigations. His works could be conceived as an opennetwork that would grow under the umbrella of the ICZ, mirroring the natureinterconnectedness and its fluid boundaries.

Artistic transformations of the researchfindings

Robert Zhao Renhui, When Worlds Collide, Installation View,Taipei Biennale, 2018.

Documenting the archives and designing stories

When Worlds Collide is a curated juxtapositionof the artist’s artistic documentation of his research findings. For TheBirds of Athens, Zhao used the x-ray images from ANIMA and assembled themin one large photograph displayed in a light box. His series about Weidner, TheMore We Get Together (II), gathers his photographs from the scientist’scollection. Each image focuses on one single evidence of how insects destroyhuman objects, photographed on a plain and neutral background: chocolates eatenby moth, pieces of wood damaged by beetles, but also sample of pests classifiedaccording to their favorite food and crop’s destruction (rice, wheat,bark…).  All photographs are framed similarly so as to constitute aconsistent series. Finally, A Guide to the Fauna of Taiwan consists ofphotographs of stuffed invasive species shot in various science naturalinstitutions in Taiwan, also edited on plain background. Zhao wishes to keepthis neutrality in order not to be distracted by the context the animals arein. Most of them are seen from their back, which is their position in themuseums’ window display, but which echoes the position of the injured bird’sskeletons. There is also a large photograph featuring the 52 frogs collectedfor the Taipei Zoo in one night. Zhao photographed them on site, on a whitebox, and edited the images later so that they appear all together on a whitebackground as if it is represented a collection of the frogs’ identityphotographs. Additionally, the artist created an installation with the emptycardboard boxes used by the volunteers to rescue the injured birds from thecity, piled up in some corners of the room and in the center of the gallery.Some encircle a specimen of lizard, a brown anole, preserved in alcohol, caughtby residents and kept at the Donghua University, Department of NaturalResources and Environmental Studies. On site, Zhao worked almost intuitively,trying to organize the works so that they can dialogue with each other.

From his research outcome, Zhao therefore builds narratives thatweave critically together these various stories in order to emphasize theambivalence and complexities of the contemporary interactions between human andnature. The photographs, empty boxes and the curation of the installationsupport and embody these narratives that convey the idea of a nature that isalternatively destroyed and preserved, in all cases objectivized.  He aimsat staging the bodies of these non-human species in ways that scientists donot, in particular by highlighting the entanglement of human history with thesespecimens.  There are no humans in the exhibition, though, except for onearchival photographs of Taiwanese fishermen at the origin of a fish migration.Zhao so far never included any human in his photographs, for he feels therecannot be any right image that would feature humans and non-humans together.However, the human presence is felt everywhere, in a sort of negative space,while nature – real one if any, is totally and paradoxically, absent from theexhibition.

Curating an old-fashioned natural museum’s exhibition

Robert Zhao Renhui, Sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus),diasec in wooden frame 60x40cm, 2018.

An increased number of scholars from various fields demonstrate thatthe idea of nature as it has been constructed by modernity is no longerrelevant to reflect on today’s reality. In particular, the divide betweennature and culture has been deeply criticized while more inclusive andinterdependent concepts have been developed in order to renew the relationshipsbetween humans and non-humans.[30] In this context, it issurprising to come across Zhao’s reproduction of natural museum displays toaddress contemporary interactions between humans and the natural world. Whyreferring again to this old and dusty model which is greatly embedded in theWestern mode of thinking from the 19th century?

Perhaps especially because it seems now so far from today’s newconceptions of nature, this mode of representation stands out for itsradicality and paradoxical perspective. Nature is in fact the great absentelement of the exhibition, as one can only access it from representations ofrepresentations (images of objects destroyed by insects or the images ofstuffed animals), except for the series of the invasive frogs, which arenevertheless dead subjects. As far as the empty boxes is concerned, they areprecisely empty and what remains at best would be a trace of nature since theywere used to carry the birds. This apparatus increases the distance thatseparates the viewer from these species and suggests it might be insurmountableand irreversible. We observe nature through a museum window, just like at thezoo, safely, while being totally separated from it.

While nature is changing and alive, what we are confronted with isthe immobile image of death. Implicitly, the preservation of nature, and ofnative species, becomes a synonym of a frozen world, embodied by the anolespecimen floating above its pedestal, at the center of the gallery. The specieshung on the wall, often represented on their back, vulnerable, taken out fromtheir environment and aligned the ones after another, look like miserablehunting trophies. Their passivity seems to refer to an invisible violence. Thefrail African sacred ibis, which symbolizes wisdom in Egypt, is for example allhuddled and deprived of its majesty. From these positions of victims, somespecies nevertheless acquire a disturbing form of aura. The nearly 70 birds’transparent skeletons from The Birds of Athens seem for instance to glowin the dark, resembling sacred statues carved in religious places. Yet thismode of representation brings them back again in the past, in an inaccessibleworld.

Robert Zhao Renhui, The Birds of Athens, x-ray photographs,210 x 140cm, 2018.

Mirroring the language of science and the museum’s display, thestaging of the exhibition is neat, well organized, with species groupedaccording to their categories, all photographed according to a systematicmethodology. Order, classification, control… immediately comes back the modernidea of nature dating from the early 17th century in Europe, and itsillusion that science would one day be able to completely reveal the secrets ofnature. It brings forth a form of reductionism that consists in reducing natureto what can be scientifically observed, understood, and labelled in a box. Assuch, the installation points to the human unlimited desire for knowledge, thusfor control, which seems to resist change.

Furthermore, the empty boxes could stand as metaphor of thesuperficiality that characterizes most human relationship with nature,especially when it comes to “save it.” There is an undeniable form of hypocrisyor blindness that the installation brings forth. All these boxes piled upeverywhere suggest a form of bricolage, a lack of long-term policies and ofmindset change: we only patch things up but continue to swat insects and tobuild glass buildings where birds crash. While specimens of insects are singledout because they eat corn, and as such are deemed as a threat, the same corngrows on lands redesigned and devasted by human monoculture. Choices areconstantly made, at the expense of nature itself.

Robert Zhao Renhui, Wild Bird Society of Taipei – 14thDecember 2017, Daurian Redstart, Adult, Human Causes (Sticky Mouse Trap),Hsinchu. Cardboard box, 2018.

This staging seems to revive clichés and is almost caricatural. Itfunctions as a provocation. During our conversations,Zhao proposed to switch off the commentaries from nature documentary in orderto challenge scientific discourses. Similarly, what if we do not read his textand narratives? What could be learnt or understood from these isolated species,cut off from their origin and history? Not much. Invasive, native, injuredspecies look the same, all equally mummified and denied as living creatures.What can we grab from a dead bird or from an x-ray of its injured wing? Can weimagine how it sings or breeds? Despite its title, the public cannot meet thefauna of Taiwan, but only its artificial and constructed image. Nature iselsewhere, outside. “Nature loves to hide” is a famous quote from Heraclitus.[31] The Greek knew already that there ismystery inside nature that probably no systematic scientific approach cangrasp. The superb blue Magpie, printed in a larger format, might be the one whoepitomizes at best nature’s elusive feature. The bird turns its back on theviewers and seems to ignore them completely. Its long and beautiful blue tailoccupies the whole space and suits up the animal with a sumptuous feathered costume.While some birds are ridiculed because of their unnatural position, the magpiestands out for its dignity and mysterious magnificence, suggesting a resistanceto any form of control.  

Robert Zhao Renhui, A hybrid of the Chinese Blue Magpie (Urocissaerythroryncha) and Taiwan Blue Magpie (Urocissa caerulea), diasec in woodenframe 90x60 cm, 2018.

Anthropocentrism and politics

Zhao’s installation does not thus deal with nature, but with thehuman idea of nature. Preserving nature and native species or saving birdsinjured by human urban life are all human decisions and, so far, insects orbirds have not their word to say. This idea of nature has evolved with time anddiffers from one culture to another.[32]  In the exhibition,two different conceptions emerge: the scientific approach mentioned earlier (toknow in order to control), and a romantic, yet political perspective accordingto which nature is an idealized form of order and harmony that humans need toreached back. Environmental historian Roderick Nash, who studied Americanwilderness, demonstrated how much the human idea of nature is ethical andpolitical.[33] All politics of naturepreservation imply the definition of an ideal state of nature that needs to berestored. This ideal, just like nature itself, is obviously a humanconstruction. It implies that, throughout time, a chaotic state of the worldhas followed a state of harmony.

Robert Zhao Renhui, Stock Pests, diasec in wooden frame 30x30cm, 2018.

In the United States, some conservationists aim at returning to “anabsolutely pristine pre-damage condition” of nature, which seems not onlyutopian but problematic, with the pending definition of the term “pristine.”[34]  In many cases, defining such astate coincides with defining the origins of a nation, and its identity. Whatis native becomes what is national. In Singapore, for example, the building ofthe modern post-independence nation was associated with the building of aspecific and tamed environment modelled on Switzerland.[35]The first post-independence Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared in 1968: “Wehave built. We have progressed. But there is no hallmark of our success moredistinctive and more meaningful than achieving the position as the cleanest andgreenest city in South-east Asia.”[36] The local preservationpolicies followed this objective and Lew Kuan Yew’s vision of a “tropicalgarden city,”[37]  later redefined as“City in a Garden.”[38] In the exhibition, despiteconfronting invasive and so-called incontrollable species, the viewer cannotsee all but order: every species keeps its right place, which is inside aclosed box or frame. Does it mean that the implementation of naturepreservation policies succeeded in taming the excess of nature and that thecollision between the natural and the human worlds, even if sometimes brutal,leads inexorably to the return of order?  

Beyond this anthropocentric and critical perspective, at the originof Tim Morton’s concept of an “ecology without nature” that would precisely getrid of the narrow and anthropomorphic idea of nature,[39]the artist’s shift from nature to its confrontation with humanconceptualization and handling of nature allows to approach today’s complexecological issues from a wider scope.

Robert Zhao Renhui, Tilapia (A National Treasure), diasec inwooden frame 42x29.7cm, 2018.

Robert Zhao Renhui, Archival image from the artist’s owncollection, diasec in wooden frame 42x29.7cm, 2018.

Reflecting on the current ecological crisis as it is addressed by afew contemporary artists, art historian T.J. Demos warns about the risk ofremaining superficially focus on the present and of neglecting the roots ofthis state of emergency. Just like Bruno Latour who insists on theinterdependence of fields,[40] he invites us to situatethe current ecological issues in a broader context, involving its historical,cultural, social and political dimensions.[41] Although his work mainlyfocuses on recent practices, Zhao precisely invites us to consider eachspecies, and its current state, as a result of a longer history that involvesinteracting with human behaviours, policies and culture. We learn for examplethat the presence of today’s most common fish in Singapore, the tilapia, is aproduct of Japanese war efforts and of smuggling activities between Singaporeand Taiwan. Each species can be approached from this renewed viewpoint thatmirror human history and, beyond, its identity and construction. Theseinterdependent networks and connections, which are at the core of theinstallation, have nevertheless not really found their visual and artisticembodiment: they remain in a discursive form and are only suggested, in thiscase, by the artist’s juxtaposition of an archival image featuring Taiwanesefishermen, from the artist’s own collection, and a photograph of one tilapia.Paradoxically, and more generally, while the works emphasize the effects ofglobal migrations and flux, there is a lack of dynamism and fluidity in their modesof representation.

Finally, and politically, it would be tempting to push the metaphorof invasive species and removal policies to individuals, colonial and racialpolitics, with indigenous populations or migrants deemed as threat for certain“native” populations in order to justify politics of exclusion, yet this is notdirectly suggested by Zhao’s work.


When Worlds Collide documentsartistically Zhao’s fieldwork in Hamburg, Athens and Taiwan and various casesof collisions between the natural and the human worlds. The artist’s practicemainly consists in reframing and re-contextualizing the archival material hefound during his research fieldwork, and in building narratives that weavethese various stories altogether. The work focuses on mutual acts ofdestruction as recorded by humans yet brings back a larger contextual frameworkwithin which such complex and often ambivalent relationships have been modeled.

The discursive part of the work, printed in a leaflet given to thepublic, plays an essential role in conveying these narratives, since thishistorical perspective, in particular, cannot be directly intuited from theworks. The viewing experience, for its part, directly confronts the audiencewith today’s contradictory discourses about nature. The old model of thenatural museum offers here a relevant framework to underline the staggeringgaps that maintain human and non-human species in separate spheres.  Alldocumentary photographs are conceived to strengthen the isolation of eachspecies and point to their denaturalization. Objectified, they look deprived oftheir essence and autonomy, and ceased to represent living creatures. Whenconfronted to human’s will and desire of control, they do not have their wordto say. Such radical representations challenge the prevalence of theconstructed idea of nature when it comes to any ecological policies, and thehuman possibility to interfere with natural processes.

Hence, despite increased critical posthuman and ecologicaldiscourses that demonstrated the necessity to think beyond the human andnon-human divide, the installation highlights how much this idea remainssalient and expresses itself in our urban daily lives. Zhao shows us a societydeprived of nature which runs after a lost yet ideal natural paradise. Whatcollide are not only the natural and the human worlds, but a modern conceptionof nature with its contemporary conceptualization, ecology and the idea ofnature, politics and nature, beliefs and reality.  

[1] The11th Taipei Biennial, entitled Post-Nature—A Museum as anEcosystem, was curated by Mali Wu and Francesco Manacorda (Nov. 2018- Mar.2019).

[2] Themission is defined on the website of the Institute: https://www.criticalzoologists.org/mission/mission.html

[3]This article is based on the author’s interview with the artist in Singapore inMay 2019 and on various e-mail exchanges taking place during the summer 2020.The artist’s quotes come from these conversations.

[4]Mack et al., “Biotic invasions: causes, epidemiology, global consequences andcontrol,” Ecological Applications 10(3) 2000:689.

[5]Ko-Huan Lee et al., “A check list and population trends of invasive amphibiansand reptiles in Taiwan,” Zookeys 829: 86, 2019.

[6]More details of all the Taiwanese invasive species, see Ko-Huan Lee et al., “Acheck list and population trends of invasive amphibians and reptiles inTaiwan,” Zookeys 829: 85-130, 2019.

[7]“Chiayi offers incentives to encourage killing of invasive lizards,” FocusTaiwan journal online, Sept 07, 2016. (https://focustaiwan.tw/society/201609070013).Some universities are also involving their students in what has been called“The Dino Hunters.” See Taipei Times “Former pet iguanas become nuisance aroundKaohsiung” by Jonathan Chin, Apr. 16, 2016.

[8]Chang I-chen and Sherry Hsiao, Taipei Times “County calls on public to reportinvasive frogs” Apr.26 2018


[9] Chen Kuan-pei and William Hetherington “Sacred ibisnest control ineffective: environmentalist” Taipei Time, Mar. 21, 2018.(https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2018/03/21/2003689734)

[10]“Although we do not have evidence on the threats to native ecosystems in thewild, human agriculture might be seriously damaged from adult iguanas which areable to wipe out the entire crops from the field within a few days” in: Ko-HuanLee et al., “A check list and population trends of invasive amphibians andreptiles in Taiwan,” Zookeys 829: 102, 2019.

[11] In studying the case of the Puerto Rican frog,English environmental journalist Fred Pearce emphasizes the complexity ofdefining the status of a species. See Pearce Fred, “The strange case of thePuerto Rican Frog,” Anthropocene Magazine, October 2016. Available at https://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2016/10/the-strange-case-of-the-puerto-rican-frog/  

[12]From the ICZ’s website: https://www.criticalzoologists.org/worlds/index.html

[13]ChristmasIsland, Naturally (2015). Seehttps://www.criticalzoologists.org/christmas/index.html

[14]Fred Pearce defines these novel ecosystems as “systems composed of newcombinations of native species and species introduced by humans, but where thesystem itself does not depend on humans to keep it going.” Pearce Fred, “Thestrange case of the Puerto Rican Frog,” Anthropocene Magazine, October2016. Available at https://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2016/10/the-strange-case-of-the-puerto-rican-frog/

[15]The ‘New Wild” is the title of Fred Pearce’s 2015 book: The New Wild: WhyInvasive Species Will Be Nature's Salvation.

[16]Allison Stuart, “The Paradox of Invasive Species in Ecological Restoration,”in: Invasive and Introduced Plants and Animals: Human Perceptions, Attitudesand Approaches to Management, edited by Ian D. Rotherham, Taylor andFrancis Group, 2011, 268.

[17]The researcher, who introduced what became urban ecology, created fourcategories of insects: ‘Insects that destroy Food’, ‘Insects that destroyWood’, ‘Insects that Destroy our Materials’ and ‘Insects that causes harm toPeople.’

[18]The collection belongs to the Zoological Museum Hamburg (now part of theCentrum für Naturkunde) where Dr. Herbert worked as a curator.

[19]The idea of Garden City was conceptualized by former prime minister Lew KuanYew. See for example Chan Lena, “Nature in the City,” in Planning Singapore:the Experimental City edited by B. Yuen and S. Hamnett, London and NY,Routledge, 2019.

[20]“24 chickens and roosters roaming around Sin Ming Avenue were euthanised afterresidents in the area complained they were too noisy.” See Feb 2017 newspaperarticle https://mustsharenews.com/endangered-chickens-singapore/

[21]See the website where trees are registered: https://exploretrees.sg/ In fact, most of the faunaand flora is protected by laws and registered. See Heng Lye Lin, “A Fine Cityin a Garden – Environmental Law and Governance in Singapore,” SingaporeJournal of Legal Studies, 2008: 106.

[22]Stock Marybeth, “Robert Zhao Renhui and Teamlab: Glass Rotunda at NationalMuseum of Singapore,” Art Asia Pacific Jan 06, 2017. Available at:


[23] Inorder to build a consistent narrative that would connect all the displayedelements from The Nature Museum, Zhao invented for instance the figureof naturalist Francis Leow and included the Leow archives in his installation.A description of the guided tour and exhibition can be found in Yee Marcus,“The Nature Museum,” Art Asia Pacific Magazine Available at:


[24]See the case study dedicated to Anggawan Kusno’s artwork and the artist’swebsite https://www.tanahruncuk.org

[25] In2011, some of Zhao’s photographs of camouflage insects were accepted in thescientific magazine Discovery. They originated in the series “The GreatPretenders” (2009), a study of Phylliidae, or leaf insects. The storycan be read in http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/88/RobertZhaoRenhui.

[26] InAthens, in 2017, Zhao was invited by the Fast Forward Festival to create aspecific installation responding to the city’s stories about nature; inHamburg, in 2018, the artist took part in a research residency funded by theGoethe-Institut Singapore and worked from the entomology collection from theZoological Museum in Centrum für Naturkunde (CeNak); in Taipei, in 2018, he was invitedby the Taipei Biennial to produce a new work dealing with the curators’ themeof Post-Nature—A Museum as an Ecosystem.

[27]Fred Pearce. The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature's Salvation.Beacon Press, 2015; Ian D. Rotherham. Invasive and Introduced Plants andAnimals. Routledge 2013; Tao Orion, Beyond the War on Invasive Species:A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration, Chelsea GreenPublishing 2015; Masanobu Fukuoka. The one-straw revolution: an introductionto natural farming. Rodale Press,1978.

[28]More on ANIMA, see their website: https://www.wild-anima.gr/en/

[29]British zoologist and animal ecologist Charles Elton is more recognized as thepioneer of invasive ecology. See in particular his 1958 book The Ecology ofInvasions by Animals and Plants.

[30]See for instance work and concepts by Philippe Descola, Donna Haraway, BrunoLatour, Tim Morton…

[31]Heraclitus’s fragment 123 quoted in Graham Daniel, “Does Nature Love to Hide?Heraclitus B123 DK,” Classical Philology vol 98, number 2, April 2003.

[32]For a history of the idea of nature in the East, see for example Collingwood,Robin George. The Idea of Nature. Oxford University Press, Incorporated,1960.

[33]Nash, Roderick Frazier. The Rights of Nature: A History of EnvironmentalEthics. University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

[34]Allison Stuart, “The Paradox of Invasive Species in Ecological Restoration,”in: Invasive and Introduced Plants and Animals: Human Perceptions, Attitudesand Approaches to Management, edited by Ian D. Rotherham, Taylor andFrancis Group, 2011, 273.

[35]Heng Lye Lin, “A Fine City in a Garden – Environmental Law and Governance inSingapore,” Singapore Journal of Legal Studies, 2008:104.

[36]Quoted in Heng Lye Lin, “A Fine City in a Garden – Environmental Law andGovernance in Singapore,” Singapore Journal of Legal Studies, 2008:68.

[37]Lee, K.Y. From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965–2000: Memoirsof Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2000.

[38]Chan Lena, “Nature in the City,” in Planning Singapore: the ExperimentalCity edited by B. Yuen and S. Hamnett, London and NY, Routledge, 2019, 117.

[39]Morton Timothy, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics.Harvard University Press, 2009.

[40]See in particular Latour Bruno, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. PorterCatherine, Harvard University Press, 1993.

[41]Demos T.J. “Extinction Rebellions,” Afterimage, Vol. 47, Number 3, pp14–20, 2020.

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