Robert Zhao Renhui has developed a deep curiosity for the natural world since his childhood in Singapore. Now the artist is holding his first solo exhibition in China, entitled The Nature Collector.
The exhibition features a group of photos and installations that Zhao created in recent years to explore the relationship between humans and nature, a recurring subject of his works.
The pieces on display focus on animal traps, a source of inspiration for the artist. "If we see a mousetrap in a room, we know that there might be a mouse in the room and that a man has put it there. It's an object that exists between humans and nature," Zhao told the Global Times.
An installation titled Eskimo Wolf Trap Often Quoted in Sermons shows an Eskimo knife stuck in a bed of snow-like soda ash. To trap wolves, Eskimos will freeze a knife's blade using ice mixed with rabbit's blood. When a wolf approaches and aggressively licks the frozen blood on the knife, the blade will gradually get exposed and nick the wolf's tongue. As its tongue has been numbed by the coldness of the ice, the wolf is unaware that it is being cut, and licks the knife with increasing excitement. In a short period of time, the wolf will grow dizzy and die from blood loss.
Zhao said he collects animal traps as a souvenir when he travels. He believes traps manifest man's knowledge of the species, as in order to entice an animal into the trap, one needs to have an intimate knowledge of that creature, including its habits, biology, preferences and weaknesses.
A large photo titled He Counts the Stars And Calls Them All by Name shows 4,784 hoverflies from a single family, each labeled with its place of origin and date of collection. These hoverflies were collected from different parts of the world by Zhao's friend Martin Hauser, a specialist in hoverflies who spends his whole life studying the insect.
"When I thought of flies, I was always thinking of something dirty and not interesting," Zhao said. "When he (Martin) showed me all these flies, I was very surprised. The hoverfly is very interesting. It pretends to look like a bee or wasp so that birds will not eat it."
There are Somethings We Know That We Do Not Know features a set of photos showing a tiny insect flying in the vast blue sky. It talks about man's inability to care about things that are not beautiful.
"When a mammal is discovered in the world, it is extremely big news. When an insect is discovered, it is hardly news because nobody cares," Zhao said. "One can discover 100 new flies in one year but it is not comparable to the discovery of a new bird."
A photo of an elephant without tusks shows how poaching has caused a steep rise in tuskless Asian elephants.
"Man has been collecting tusks from elephants so much that the elephants have evolved to grow no more tusks. It is a form of natural selection," he said. "The elephants with big tusks get killed and suddenly it is stupid to have tusks. An elephant that has the natural defect of not having tusks is allowed to pass down his genes to be tuskless."
At the exhibition, visitors will also encounter a collection of 150 glass vials, each containing the remains of an insect collected from the lamp cover in the artist's studio over one night.
For the past three years, Zhao has been collecting insects burnt by the heat of lamps as materials for his work. In his view, man's relationship with nature is violent and a simple act like switching on our light at night can also be violent. "Trillions of insects are attracted to our lamps every night and die near the lights, trapped or mesmerized to death. We are always trapping nature in one way or another," he said.
Zhao said humans try their best to understand everything about nature before using that knowledge to control nature. "We all love nature and want to know more about nature, but where does all our knowledge bring us?" he asked. "Traps are violent. Nature is violent. Traps are things we create to cope and live with nature."