Art | May 17, 2024 |

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Image courtesy of Robert Zhao Renhui

Singapore pavilion at the 60th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia.
Venice, Italy
April 20 – November 24, 2024

As visitors enter Seeing Forest, they step into a mysterious, forested zone that exists both in the imagination and in Singapore. In this in-between space called the secondary forest – a threshold between old-growth or primary forest and developed areas, between urban and wild, invention and reality – artist Robert Zhao Renhui invites us to consider a complex web of human and non-human co-existence. Seeing Forest encourages visitors to explore the ways in which urban design can shape the natural world, and vice versa, resulting in a new ecosystem of migrant species that echoes the histories, trajectories and makeup of a city’s human population. A selection of compelling scenes compiled from hundreds of hours of film and close to a decade of Zhao’s research of Seeing Forest – Robert Zhao Renhui in collaboration with curator Haeju Kim.

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Image courtesy of Robert Zhao Renhui

The two-channel video installation The Owl, The Travellers and The Cement Drain (2024) is the central work of the exhibition. The film essay reveals a series of hypnotic scenes from the forest – its trees and animals, migrant workers’ abandoned tents, and migratory birds from a concrete drain – complemented by an unstable, fluctuating narrative of two human characters as they journey through it. By eschewing familiar documentary approaches, ecologically-minded activist perspectives, and the certainties of linear narrative, Zhao aims to transpose the forest into a new register: a mutable space of possibility. In conversation with this work is the sculptural video installation, Trash Stratum (2024), which comprises over ten screens showing various creatures visiting a makeshift watering hole in the form of an abandoned dustbin. The screens are arranged around a deconstructed cabinet of curiosities built from Nyatoh compiled from hundreds of hours of film and close to a decade of research. This dismantled wunderkammer alludes to colonial systems of classification, destabilising control over natural history narratives in favour of more imaginative and fluid ways of drawing out relationships and networks. Within this structure, various objects from the forest can also be found, a poignant reminder of the presence of human histories, so often entangled with those of nature.

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Image courtesy of Robert Zhao Renhui

Buffy (2024) is a digital print of a bird native to Southeast Asia, the buffy fish owl. Zhao’s practice has often included photography and its indexical quality. In this work, Buffy has its back turned to us, an evocative reference to the Heraclitan fragment, “nature loves to hide”, perhaps suggesting that concealment and discovery are somehow connected, behaving like curious companions. Alongside the three key works, visitors will also encounter a digitally printed map of an unnamed, imaginary forest. This work identifies the contours and features of the secondary forests that appears in other works presented in the Pavilion. The work orientates the visitor to the imaginal and natural zone and serves as a guide to the characters and histories conjured up by Zhao’s works.


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Image courtesy of Robert Zhao Renhui

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