The Whiteness of a Whale by Zhao Renhui

Questioning the nature of photography, and photography of landscapes

The Whiteness of a Whale

The title and pictures presented in this exhibition reminded me of a great whale story. The whiteness of a whale conjured a mental image of Japanese whale hunters, in search of the perfect ritualistic catch ala Moby Dick style. The captain of the hunting ship is a bitter old man with a limp. For those who have read  Moby Dick, know how my fantasy ended.  Quite different from Moby Dick, Zhao Renhui has created a legend in its own right set in a fictitious town; the sighting of a white whale and stories of a people who live in the shadows of that sighting.  It resonates perseverance of the protagonist of the legend who continued to seek it, or a fool’s goal.

The exhibition could be described in sets. Those postcard sized images that play ‘where’s Wally’, toying with the viewers’ attention to spot the digital manipulation in the images or the white spot that represents a potential whale. Secondly, the landscape/seascape photographs that juxtaposed human presence against nature. Thirdly, the semi-abstract and abstract aberrations, flushed with blood red red patterns, the green mosaic, multiplied grid and the weird towering stack of white cards/paper.

The arrangement of the works tried to narrate a storyline, but ends up distracting the viewer someone, like the reflection resulting from light peering through window louvers. The arrangement of the space may have benefited from ‘abstract’ to narrative, rather than starting with the postcards and sprawling, curving to abstract images tucked at the back. As if  intentional, the white walls of the exhibition echoes the mysterious white whale.

The colour white is very symbolic. To most of the western world, it represents heavenly purity; to the Chinese, it represents mourning and death. In medical terms, it is a congenital disorder, characterised by the absence of skin pigmentation. In racial discourse, for example in Franz Fanon’s text, Black skin, White Masks, white highlights the politics of oppression and difference resulting from colonialism.  In Michael Jackson’s Black or White (1991) hit singles, it represents a larger duality paired with black, a counter point to racial harmony.

The series Whiteness of a Whale, exemplifies an astounding acute understanding of the photographic media, and its effects to mess with your eyes and mind.

Other than formal artistic intentions, questioning the nature of photography – its status as ‘truths’ and ‘fabricated truths’ – Zhao has used these images to comment on something symbolic and universal. The Sublime, human desire to conquer nature, are but some sub-narratives that accompany the work. Human presence is diminutive against the vastness of the ocean, and minuscule against the vastness of the digital information ocean. The poetic images worked really well, suggesting a concerted effort to present the artist’s aesthetics for the sublime, and his augmentation of the digital phenomenology on our understanding of our place in the world.

The whiteness, alluding to light itself, could suggests a grander narrative.  By that lead and metaphor, seeking light, seeking truth, may thus re-adjust our understanding of Zhao’s grander concept.

7.0 of 10 stars
Jul 2010, Jendela, Esplanade; travels to 2902 Gallery 3 -22 Aug, 2010, Images with the permission of the artist.

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