The Lines WE DRAW
All images by the ICZ
My Surroundings are Your Reality
The Lines We Draw III (Towards Alaska)
The influence of modernization has infiltrated every part of human life, especially the natural environments in which we live. However, epistemologically, the worship of the human subject’s infinite capabilities and the excessive development of natural resources in the economic realm make up the soil that nourishes modernization. When modernization calls to us with its moving temptations and extreme energy, it holds high the banner of development. The values system associated with development seems to transcend culture and ethnicity, and even lack boundaries. This provides development with a philosophical foundation for its evolution and leads to the imbalance or loss of natural ecosystems or conceals these effects behind the curtain of modernization. There has never been a generation of people that has had such a confused and uncertain present and future. We seem to be frantically longing to seize that decisive opportunity in the next global shift; at the same time, there has never been an era in which the future is as close as it is now. Prophecies like bioengineering, the genetic code, and artificial intelligence, once so difficult to believe, have become reality in the blink of an eye. A rapidly changing social system pushes us, such that, sometimes in one step, we reach a future that was once distant and untouchable.
Fortunately, humanity has an innate sense of conscious reflection and passion for prophecy, which includes scientists and humanists, as well as contemporary artists with a sense of problematics. Of course, solid social systems and real interests lie behind reflection and prophecy. In 1587, A Year of No Significance, Ray Huang discovered that a prophecy generated by a chance astronomical change determined the fate of the world’s strongest dynasty for several decades. Similarly, in Soulstealers, Philip A. Kuhn noted that a rumored story of a prophecy confirmed a potential crisis in an entire system. These kinds of prophecies have proliferated throughout history and have had far-reaching effects. Nostradamus also foretold the end of the world at the turn of past centuries, which we were fortunate enough to have survived. Alarmist prophecies have always embodied psychological suggestions that converge in a culture. We should understand these suggestions as a reflective way of transcending the present. True artists do not dazzle the public with sensationalism or sell new ideas; they cannot do battle alone. They must be spiritually possessed, rooted in the present and looking to the future, in the hopes of joining forces with all of society or even the entire world to highlight or resolve issues and create the future. This is very meaningful for contemporary art; it awakens our responsibility to society and even the world through artistic methods, encouraging us to realize our dreams or fix current problems. It compels everyone to participate in the construction of a future world, thereby creating a more beautiful future. This is the cultural goal of our exploration of Robert Zhao Renhui’s work and the real basis for the solo exhibition we have curated for him at the Yalu River Art Museum.
The migration grounds of the endangered black-tailed godwit, great knot, and other birds are located in the Yalu River wetlands in Dandong. Every year, these birds fly between New Zealand, China, North Korea, and Alaska. Their roosts in China and North Korea are important refuges. During migration season in 2019, Zhao and a local researcher named Mr. Bai Qingquan visited the mouth of the Yalu River. For the last ten years, Mr. Bai has counted the number of birds in the sky every day. On April 2, he counted 54,932 birds. The flocks of birds flying in the vast sky create a nondescript landscape. Zhao said, “I tried my utmost to photograph the lines that the birds cut through the sky.”
This solo exhibition for Robert Zhao Renhui at the Yalu River Art Museum explores the relationship between man and nature through his usual scientific method. He uses an artist’s sensitivity, the methods of photography and computer editing, and the temporal and spatial visions of bird migrations in the project, which he presents with large images. For the artist and the exhibition, piercing through the dusty skies to discover the limitless dynamism of their migration is not a simple survey or objective record of bird species in nature; it is a visual presentation that conveys warnings and foreknowledge of ecological destruction using the methods of reconstruction and displacement. Thus, the show reflects the multi-faceted reactions that we and Zhao have to everything about the present and future, but it also shows his anxiety about the natural environment and human ecological crisis, and it suggests a kind of vigilant tension. Perhaps deeper social issues are concealed behind these images, which means that the Yalu River Art Museum can show Zhao’s composed insight and expression, revealing to the viewer humanity’s existential crisis on psychological and conscious levels.
Here, Zhao is obviously not an optimistic prophet; he follows the margins and crosses boundaries. Perhaps he is concerned for the environment in China, while also focusing his artist’s eyes on China’s rapid changes. He has not promised anything, but he has drawn on the migratory patterns of birds to express key aspects of Chinese society related to the Yalu River wetlands. It may seem that he has not created anything, but he has provided some indispensable clues and traces. His works contain much of the energy and vision that we need. We need to reflect on a key question: What sort of powers allow modernization and development to rationalize and legitimize all overdevelopment? How does this eventually become a psychological suggestion and mode of action that social groups collectively follow? From now on, instead of saying we live in a modern society, we should say that we live in a future world; we all need to confront this turning point in time, because it creates a problem of synchronicity in our lives. It has trapped us, with nowhere to escape.