If a Tree Falls in the Forest

puzzling nature conservation message

(“If a tree falls in the forest” is made up of three parts: a live performance titled “Before the flood”, “Kings” … and “Soon Bo’s Cold Room and Shelves”.)

If A Tree Falls in the Forest, Images with the kind permission of the artist and Substation

The recent solo exhibition by Zhao Renhui, last noted for his involvement in the Mitre Hotel photography project, is presented like a clinical version of a museum of curio, presenting images of taxidermy ‘endangered species, traps’, actual specimens of tourist trinkets, the likes of ‘Kangaroo paw bottle opener’ and a photo-documentary of a hunt for a ‘white, translucent cockroach’.

What is first intriguing about the exhibition is it’s critique of photography as a medium – truth and it’s construct – and perhaps our apathy towards other species residing on this planet.  The images that greet us, apparently rare taxidermy specimens from a certain “Soon Bo’s cold room and shelves” collection. The images are thus twice removed from reality, pictures of representations rather than the actual, much like photographing wax sculptures at Madam Tussauds. As most of us reside in the artificial urban jungle, away from real flora and fauna, we do know very little of our fellow inhabitants. Whether or not they look like the real animals, is anyone’s guess.

Between the framed piezo-prints (which I understand as inkjet prints), there are several ‘specimens’, transformed into tourist trinkets that holds ones’ attention. The idea of beholding something so dead, casting it in resin, in the name of preservation may seem absurd to many, enduring to some. 

There is something disturbing about these sets of photographs, something amiss. The exhibition can be said to contain more than three parts, one more than touted by the exhibition blurp. What’s missing, is the series of ‘traps’, and they do look uncanny and banal at the same time. I can almost recognise a sepak takraw, spray painted black but labelled as a monkey trap. Unsettling as they seem, there is a certain quiet, distant beauty about these object. Placed next to the installation work Before the Flood, consisting of hundreds of mousetraps triggered by a strong throb of bass, there is a certain resonance, and sadistic pleasure, to imagine any creature ensnared, bewitched or tricked by its’ lure.   

Without me revealing the name of the game, in a Duchampian LHOOQ tongue in cheek manner, we are confronted with our fears for cockroaches, seen in the Kings series. An unbelievable translucent white, slightly squashed ‘Tottori’ cockroach holds one’s fascination in it’s various stages of growth, suspended in plastic-like tubes. Text explaining how these insects are tracked, and captured accompany photo documents of the ‘extraction’ process.


The white cockroach reminded me of an albino cockroach, if there could be one. It also reminded me of Pieter Hugo‘s Looking Aside series dedicated to albinism, photographing Africans in …”a frank and unflinching portrait of people who are often social outsiders”.

While it may be difficult to call bluff to this elaborate setup, perfect plinths, and beautifully taken photographs, The subtle inconsistencies, puns will slowly reveal themselves as one digs deeper into the wall text, visuals, and catalogue. If a Tree Falls in the Forest challenges our perceptions of photography, of art and our understanding of nature.  Like film magic, these photographs of endearing portraits of animals, enthrall us, mirror us like Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) introduced giant giant gorrillas, and giant insects to the big screen as perhaps metaphors of the perils of nature, and man’s deception.

Perhaps the ultimate causal answer to the exhibition title would be the lead actress in King Kong, Ann Darrow’s response in a particular scene:

No! I said no! That’s all there is. There isn’t anymore. 

We will hear what we want to hear about nature conservation, and see what we would like to see. Only that the artist has skillfully pulled a subterfuge, questioning the validity of photography and more, enticing us to be our own naturalist to uncover the unsettling puzzle in this exhibition.

7.0 of 10 stars

Substation Gallery, till May 20

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