In 2019, Singaporean visual artist Robert Zhao Renhui was invited to make new photographic works in response to the natural history collection of Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
The works produced provide follow the research methodology and approach of Robert’s A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, which documents 55 various animals, plants and environments that are manipulated by men but does not appear to be. ‘All living things are constantly changing and evolving, adapting to cope with and respond to the various pressures that they face such as predators, competition and environmental change. More recently, the human species has emerged as the single main perpetrator of the various pressure that threaten the survival of other life forms. A Guide to Flora and Fauna of the World is an attempt to document the ways in which humankind has altered this planet, and continues to do so.’
The Ring-Necked Pheasant is an introduced species in the United Kingdom. It is debatable when the pheasants were introduced to the UK, though ring-necked pheasants were considered common in the UK by the 15th century. As much as 35 million captive bred pheasants are released into the wild every year to be hunted for game.
Before the industrial revolution, the Black Peppered Moth was rare. The evolution of the peppered moth is an evolutionary instance of directional colour change in the moth population as a consequence of air pollution during the Industrial Revolution. The frequency of black peppered moths increased at that time, an example of industrial melanism. The black peppered moth is an evolutionary instance of directional colour change in the peppered moth population. This phenomenon emerged as a consequence of industrialization during the 1800s.
During the early decades of the Industrial Revolution in England, the countryside between London and Manchester became blanketed with soot from the new coal-burning factories. Many of the light-bodied lichens died from sulphur dioxide emissions, and the trees became darkened. This led to an increase in bird predation for light-coloured moths, as they no longer blended in as well in their polluted ecosystem: indeed, their bodies now dramatically contrasted with the colour of the bark. Dark-coloured moths, on the other hand, were camouflaged very well by the blackened trees.
The Last Passenger Pigeon
On September 1st 1914, the last known passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo in the USA. The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America and possibly the world. Passenger pigeons were hunted by Native Americans, but hunting intensified after the arrival of Europeans, particularly in the 19th century. Pigeon meat was commercialized as cheap food, resulting in hunting on a massive scale for many decades. There were several other factors contributing to the decline and subsequent extinction of the species, including shrinking of the large breeding populations necessary for preservation of the species and widespread deforestation, which destroyed its habitat.
Great Auk Eggs
On July 3, 1844, fishermen killed the last pair of great Auks at Eldey Island, Iceland. The fisherman also collected a single egg from the island. John Hancock would later purchase one of the skins and the egg. For centuries the bird was hunted for both meat and bait. Early museums and collectors contributed to the birds’ decline as museums sought to preserve and display the skins and eggs of this bird. The last pair of great Auk was killed by fishermen who were working for a businessman wanting to sell the specimen for collectors. Only 78 skins and 75 eggs remain in collections worldwide and some of the eggs were casted, reproduced and hand painted in plaster by John Hancock. Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens holds 4 of these eggs.
Robert Zhao Renhui is a multidisciplinary artist from Singapore. His artistic practice addresses the relationship between humans and nature, challenging accepted parameters of objectivity and scientific modes of classifications. Over the years, Zhao has appropriated codes and conventions of documentary photography and museum display to compose compelling narratives which question our relationship with nature.
Zhao’s work has been exhibited in numerous international exhibitions including: Jakarta Biennale (2017); 7th Moscow Biennale (2017); and 20th Sydney Biennale (2016). He received the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award (2010) and was a finalist for the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award for Emerging Asian Artists (2017).