Renhui Zhao's quasi-fictional Institute of Critical Zoologists bring birds to University of the Arts

By Flo Neve | 26 August 2011
A photo of a bird in a woodland setting
Taiheiyo Evergreen Forests© Renhui Zhao, courtesy the Arts Gallery, University of the Arts London
Exhibition: Renhui Zhao: A Bird In The Hand, The Arts Gallery, London, July 14 – September 3 2011
 
The Arts Gallery on High Holborn is currently hosting A Retrospective of The Institute of Critical Zoologists. This is a quasi-fictional institute created by artist Renhui Zhao, who uses photography, sculpture and video to explore how we engage with nature. Surrealism and science-fiction collide to throw a light on the real world in a way that, sometimes, only art can do.

All the work in the exhibition is presented as research from the ICZ, whose mission statement is to chart the practices of animal spectatorship, animal advocacy, animal killings and animal collecting. Invariably, this centres around birds. The artist is completely fascinated by them and what they are to man, from food to mythical symbols.

Pieces range from photographs of baby fish emerging from eggshells to “newly discovered” bird species made out of white plaster. There is a careful blurring of fact and fiction, and real questions about how the earth is changing reach us as beautifully crafted metaphors.  
 
We are presented with landscape photographs in glass cases, apparently taken by pinhole cameras which were attached to the feet of migrating birds by an institute professor.
 
They are extremely beautiful and give you the sudden sense that the birds had this world first. Now they are having to watch us mess it up.

Many of the pieces feel playful and threatening at the same time, such as the specially designed “smuggling jacket” with pockets to hide humming birds.

Animal memorabilia is exhibited, testifying not only to the eccentricity of English culture but, as the ICZ byline puts it, to “a primitive urge to dominate nature”.

The exhibition draws attention to all collecting as a kind of domination. By turning the gallery into a museum, Zhao interrogates the museum space as something evolving out of a fantasy for order, and suggests the violence involved in sustaining it.  

The walls are domestic grey, and the photographs are hyper-real and heavily framed. This creates an aesthetic layering that keeps us constantly aware of how mediated our experience of nature is. Can you ever trust what you learn about the outside from indoors?

We immerse ourselves in Zhao’s compelling trickery in a world of uncanny objects which radiate uncertainty. From here, we are made to think about the massive effect man has had on nature in his historic battle to bring it inside.

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