The Possibility of Knowing

The Possibility of Knowing by Robert Zhao Renhui (Singapore) focuses on the before and after of a natural disaster, and examines the tension and the fragility of landscapes in areas that are subject to such hazards. The artist gets some of his inspiration from the methods and techniques used by Earth scientists to interpret the natural forces behind Earth hazards.

VAP-Robert #9

The artist traveled to the Indonesian cities of Padang and Banda Aceh, both of which sit on an area with many active faults and significant tectonic plate action. Robert Zhao Renhui says: “I am interested in representing landscapes of disasters. There are some people in the photographs but they are not the main subjects. They appear to be consumed by an unknown natural force.”

The photographs of closed beachfront restaurants in Padang evoke a tense absence, a post-disaster desolation in the making. “These restaurants, all 145 of them will be the first to be swept away by the tsunami. I guess it’s important to photograph them, as well as everything else that I saw while I was there.”


What Earth science ideas inspired your artwork?
RZ: From the beginning of this project I was intrigued by the fact that scientists have knowledge about a disaster that has yet to happen. Most of their work revolves around trying to predict when the next disaster might happen. Most photographers work with disasters by documenting the damage after the disaster. It was a privilege for me to be able to access this early information and find a new way to work with photography. It is as if I am going into the scene of a disaster before it happens.

VAP-Robert Padang-01-S

What did you learn from your interaction with the Earth scientists?

RZ: I now realize that both artists and earth scientists visualize their research in different ways. Scientists create data maps and visuals to present their data, which to me seem complex and not easy to understand. Visualizing their research is an important part of the scientists’ work. The most inspiring moment was learning that EOS scientists could predict a 30 year period during which a disaster is likely to happen. Their work is a constant process of monitoring and studying various data to help pinpoint the accuracy of their prediction.

VAP-Robert Padang-02-S

Does your artistic work provide a better understanding of Earth?
RZ: My project focuses on the predictions made by Earth scientists. Using historical data and monitoring tectonic plate movements to make earthquake predictions is important because Earth Science can help to save people. As an artist learning about the Earth scientist’s prediction on Padang’s possible earthquake allowed me to approach the site with more perception and a reflective state of mind. The work I create attempts to talk about these predictions and about the ability to peek into the near future. Having the ability to see the future, especially to save human lives, is an important and useful skill.

Is this artwork likely to inspire people?
RZ: It is hard to realize the impact that disasters can have on people in Singapore because this geographical area seems protected. I suspect I may not be doing a great job in inspiring people to think about disasters because I am not photographing disasters during all their impact and destruction. I am looking at the before (Padang) and after (Aceh) of a disaster. The period where a disaster seems most likely is, in my opinion, at its furthest because people do not think too much of it. I think this is the period worth documenting and thinking about.

List of Works

All the cafes along the beach of Padang from the series The Possibility of Knowing, 2013
Set of 32 black and white photographic prints, 30 × 30 cm

All the cafes along the beach of Padang from the series The Possibility of Knowing, 2013
Set of 9 black and white photographic prints, 20 × 20 cm

All the cafes along the beach of Padang from the series The Possibility of Knowing, 2013
Set of 16 color pigment prints, 54 × 36 cm

VAP-Robert Padang-04-S VAP-Robert Padang-03-S

Padang, Swift Houses, 2013
Pigment print, 121 × 84 cm

30 years, 2013
Pigment print, 121 × 84 cm

Padang, 2013
Pigment print, 121 × 84 cm

Padang II, 2013
Pigment print, 121 × 84 cm

Aceh, 2013
Pigment print, 121 × 84 cm

30 years II, 2013
Pigment print, 121 × 84 cm


Robert Zhao Renhui is an international multi-award winning and multi-disciplinary Singaporean artist. He was awarded The Young Artist Award in 2010, the highest national accolade awarded to young artists in Singapore by the National Arts Council. He has also completed residencies in Japan, Thailand and the Arctic. He is interested in anthrozoology—a study of interaction between human and animals—especially the zoological gaze, that is, the ways in which humans perceive animals. He also investigates the history and development of the zoological gaze alongside social progress and mediation. Robert’s practice also explores the different modes of knowledge production in contemporary archives.