Reviewed by AM Larks
Robert Zhao Renhui has achieved a masterpiece in his latest publication from the Institute of Critical Zoologists, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World. This publication is more of an experience than anything else and is only a book in the loosest sense of the term. I was expecting a bound volume, but when it arrived, it appeared to be more like an archival box, and what it felt like was more like walking through a gallery exhibition. Every piece of the guide has been considered and thought out to deliver the full weight of Renhui and the Institute’s message: “The relationship between animals and humans has reached an appalling state. There is increased visual exploitation of animals … and there is exploitation of animals as commodity.”
The experience of A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World begins with the 11 x 14 heavy cardboard box that it comes in. This box serves as the front and back cover to the unbound pages that lie within, which is why the title image/main exhibit World Goldfish Queen is printed along with the title on a sleek, cream-colored exterior. No space is wasted. On the underside of the box lid lies the publication information, meaning that there is no barrier between the viewer and the work once the lid is lifted. Viewers are immediately immersed in Renhui’s work. In lieu of a table of contents is a list of the photos as plates that are numbered 1, 2, 3, etc. instead of listing a page number, which adds to the gallery experience:
Plate 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .World Goldfish Queen
The photographs themselves are individually printed on 11 x 14 heavy cardstock, but the photos only take up half the page. The bottom half is dedicated to white space that contains both the title of the photo and the artist’s statement about the image. This entire presentation of the images, from the unbound pages to the appearance of the images on the page with the white space and artist’s statement, is intended to give the viewer a gallery experience.
Through this guide, Renhui questions the heart of how we present photography to the masses and provides a more satisfying answer than other such answers that I have encountered. Photos are not meant to be read but viewed. Why should photos be presented or experienced one way in a gallery and then in an entirely different way when published? How can photographers and publishers encapsulate that gallery experience for the masses? Renhui has shown how. Each element is careful designed to provide that exhibition experience, which is why the pages are not called pages as they would be in a book. This is not a book to be read; this is photography, and the first photographic images were printed from plates—a flat sheet of metal or glass on which a photographic image can be recorded. That is also why the images are on 11 x 14 individual sheets of heavier paper, reminiscent of the photographic paper used in darkroom processes. Even the cover feels like the outside of an Ilford box.
If Renhui had stopped there, his guide would have still been successful, but his real genius is in how the content of the guide capitalizes on its gallery presentation. The mostly still life images of plants and animals are accompanied by chilling examples of human interaction with said flora and fauna. Plate 2, for example, describes how humans “juice” certain species of ornamental aquarium fish by injecting them “with a hypodermic syringe containing a colour dye.” The description further notes that “[i]n aquascaping competitions around Asia, the ‘Mekong Deep Blue’ variety is patented and highly sought after…” The plates that follow are example upon example of human interaction with aquatic life-forms such as the simple alterations of their appearance, man-made hybrids, the need for robotic animals, and rewilding and rehabilitating critically endangered species. At Plate 9, Renhui moves into bugs. At Plate 12, he focuses on those fauna that have succumbed completely to human intervention. At Plate 18, it is fauna that we have improved upon or at least tried to: tomatoes that don’t go bad, man-made gelatin grapes, square apples, unbreakable eggs, and regular grocery store bananas picked green and ripened with chemicals. At Plate 34, Renhui moves into landscape photos that exhibit the impact of humans on animal habitats (which is of course comprised of flora and fauna). Examples like that are the hornless rhinos of Plate 35. The passage describes how the white rhinoceroses evolved to have tiny horns that "experts" say "could be due to years of hunting individuals with large horns…”
Each plate and its careful design create the intended effect of inundation on Renhui’s audience. Each picture shows some poor creature or plant nicely lit and put smack dab in the center of our visions—and each text details over and over again how humans have altered the natural world for profit, negligence, or under the misguided idea of improvement or correction. The overall effect of so many plates of so many animals from so many countries being affected by human interaction is so overwhelming that one need not be an activist to want to scream, “Enough already!” Humans, ironically enough, are the center stage of this publication despite nary a photograph capturing our form. Rather, we are seen through our actions, and the depiction is not pleasant. But this reflection is necessary if we are to move forward with a more sustainable world.
What’s further intriguing is that the accompanying text is a blend of fact and fiction. But the fiction is so close to the truth that it fails to ring false. Do humans really have an International Goldfish Championship competition? Have we really artificially bred the world’s smallest frog? Would we really genetically modify eggs to produce anticancer interferons? The ultimate truth of these projects seems to not matter. The reflection is based more on how humans treat the natural world rather than what they have actually done, are doing, or will do. It is our mindset wherein the problem lies. That we feel entitled to tinker around with nature, and that how we operate in the world has caused irreparable harm to its other inhabitants.
Such reflections are the entire goal of the Institute of Critical Zoologists, which itself is a fictional truth. And like everything that Renhui does, the title belies this fact and causes reflection. Does an institute of critical zoologists mean that there are some zoologists that are not critical? The Institute is simply the umbrella under which Renhui, a mixed-media artist, exhibits all his work. Its mission, in my summation, is to force humans to take a hard look at what they are doing to the natural world by using the medium of art coupled with science. This latest work from the Institute certainly forwards this mission. But don’t just take my word for it. Be changed yourself. See an exhibition in person. Buy the book. Go to the website (https://www.criticalzoologists.org/).
AM Larkswrites fiction, nonfiction, and drama. Her writing has appeared in Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughshares blogs.She is the currentPhoto Editor at Kelp Journal and the former Fiction Editor at Please See Me and former Blog Editor of The Coachella Review. She earned a B.A. in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and her M.F.A in Creative Writing from the UCR Palm Desert's low residency program. She lives in Northern California.