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Photo: Robert Zhao Renhui

In highly urbanised Singapore, where everything is perfectly planned and nature is meticulously constructed, Robert Zhao Renhui directs his attention to secondary forests, approximately 20 per cent of the nation’s land mass. 

While these wooded areas — which have regenerated through primarily natural processes after human-caused disturbances, such as timber harvesting or agriculture clearing — perform important ecological functions like supporting biodiversity and carbon capture, they are viewed as inferior to primary forests and less protected.

He takes viewers on visual expeditions from the perspective of the secondary forest itself, where vestiges of buildings interweave with native and foreign flora and fauna. Fascinated by the resilience of these green spaces, he aims to challenge the criteria that determine what is “wild” and “human”.

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Work in progress image from Seeing Forest. (Photo: Robert Zhao Renhui)

Deftly navigating the space between fact and fiction, he discloses that it’s “a mysterious meditation on the complexity of life and the multifarious beings that flourish in such spaces”. It all culminates with his “Seeing Forest” exhibition representing Singapore at the Venice Art Biennale from April 20 to November 24, 2024.

Humans don’t stand apart from this planet’s animals, plants, and elemental forces.

A two-channel video presenting an imaginary secondary forest in Singapore has scenes of adventurous humans and migratory wildlife from motion-activated camera traps in various forests around the island.

“It aims to capture that sense of being in the forest — of being enveloped by images, pulses, energies, and other beings — without trying to rationally reduce these sensations into statements of fact or opinion.”

The beauty of observation

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Work in progress still from Seeing Forest. (Photo: Robert Zhao Renhui)

Born in 1983 in Singapore, Zhao graduated from Camberwell College of Arts before obtaining a master’s degree at London College of Communications in 2011.

Since winning the 2009 UOB Painting of the Year Award and the Deutsche Bank Award in Photography by the University of the Arts London, he has held solo shows in Singapore, China, Japan, Australia, and Italy and participated in leading biennales and photo festivals worldwide.

It aims to capture that sense of being in the forest without trying to rationally reduce these sensations into statements of fact or opinion.

Today, he works mainly with photography presented with documents, objects, and videos, reflecting his preoccupation with how human activity impacts natural environments and vice versa. 

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Red Crab Migration 2016, Christmas Island. (Photo: Robert Zhao Renhui and ShanghART Singapore)

At the start of his career, Zhao sought opportunities in remote areas with extreme conditions, such as the Arctic and Christmas Island, and began to see similarities in the different places he explored, where nature’s power and overlooked qualities were in abundance. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from travelling, he focused on his immediate surroundings, obsessively documenting the patches of secondary forest seen from his 26th-floor window. He spotted a wild boar giving birth to a brood of piglets and sambar deer — until recently thought to be extinct — grazing. 

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A film still from Trying to Remember a River 2022. (Photo: Robert Zhao Renhui and ShanghART Singapore)

And as part of his process, Zhao often allows new projects to find him. “I start with something outside of me that strikes, moves, or intrigues me,” he says. A chance encounter with a flock of screeching and flying parrots in Choa Chu Kang has made it into several of his works, including “Seeing Forest”. 

Living in harmony

As Singapore is unique in that abundant nature lies in close proximity to densely populated urban spaces, Zhao has learnt that multiple layers of natural and human histories can co-exist. 

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Exhibition view of Monuments in Forest 2023. (Photo: ShanghART Gallery)

Excursions to Gillman secondary forest revealed ceramic rubber tapping cups — remnants of an old plantation — alcohol bottles from the 1920s to 30s, and an abandoned tent with a shower area built by a migrant worker who lived in the forest.

His work offers audiences a glimpse into a world of unseen narratives. He adds, “Humans don’t stand apart from this planet’s animals, plants, and elemental forces. When we recognise that we are part of these systems and that other beings are subjects like us, we learn to live with respect and humility.”