Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ) - Zhao Renhui, review by Brychan Tudor
It’s the first question to ask on encountering any exhibition: ‘What am I looking at’’ Once that’s been established, the next objective is to decipher the information into something that makes sense.
This exhibition of work by Singapore artist Zhao Renhui, under the guise of The Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ), presents us with a number of questions regarding authorship and the authenticity of documentation and nature. The ICZ uses this obvious paradigm as a platform to present a subtler blend of intricate folly and genuine ecological interest. This comes in the form of ICZ’s field research and the documents, photographs and objects that accompany it. Presented in a fine art context but clearly referencing the language of the museum archive, this collection of half-truths - including Photoshop’d prints of altered landscapes, fabricated research documentation and objects related to animal capture and study (both original, artificial and a blend of the two) - suggests an ecological caveat for the future of man, animal and nature. Offering a sanguine study of natural life, it breathes honest interrogation and time spent, which is ironic, given the fictitious status of the works.
The ICZ is just one of many quasi-organisations currently blossoming in the international art landscape. These organisations are particularly interesting when created by an individual artist as a vessel for their practice, such as The With Collective (www.withyou.co.uk) and The Atlas Group (www.theatlasgroup.org). Their main purpose for creation lies in the value of accreditation and the depersonalisation of the artwork. The artist is able to present research that carries the weight of a titled organisation, implying collective support. It also allows the artist to lift off the shackles of egocentric responsibility; it is effectively a pseudonym. The role of the acronym in this fiduciary process is absolutely vital (for example, Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s ‘Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland’ - JRMP).
An important factor in this type of pseudo-investigation is the consideration of its balance and presentation. It should capture the viewer’s imagination, drawing them in and convincing them that it is worth investing the time in a detailed reading of the folly. Bartana’s trilogy of films presented at the Biennale D’Venezia 2011, are successful because they do exactly that, using a non-fictitious historical event and an on-going interest in the humanistic, socio-political results of that event. Vitally, she uses a language in the work that speaks of these truths, linking them through a compelling emotional narrative.
The visual language in Renhui’s work seems slightly reticent in aiding the link between the non-fictitious starting point and the ICZ’s research. These gaps may result from the ambitiousness of the curatorial approach and the selection of the works. Curators Lauren Jury and Helen Warburton have used their photographic background to highlight formal aspects within the artist’s practice, devising some very interesting display techniques and curatorial methods; including spy-hole dioramas, shelved diasecs, a number of museum styled display formats and large vinyl wall prints that drop to floor level and are framed by the constructed walls and corridor of the surrounding gallery space. These constructs shape the viewer’s physical experience of the work and while they are intriguing and well executed, their ambition to represent so many different areas of Renhui’s practice is problematic. Some works are obviously stronger than others and they use a multiplicity of visual languages, which reads as contradictory to the ICZ’s presented profile as a research organisation.
It is clear, however, that Renhui uses a genuine and complex interest in ecological study to explore methods of constructing and fabricating interpretation from a variety of non-fictional starting points. The one common strand throughout these various works is the artist’s calm, distilled sense of humour. This quiet quality gives the work an innocent charm that is both endearing and playful.