Zheng Bo: Making Kin

Zheng Bo, Garden (Lane 62, Zhaojiabang Road), 2015. Weeds, tiles, bricks, window bars, ads, garbage, 297 x 543.5 x 100 cm.
Weed Party, 2015. Weeds, soil, mirrors, dimensions variable
Zheng Bo, Kindred, 2017.
Zheng Bo, Bamboo as Method, 2018. Bamboo, paper, pencils, humans, and compost. (Photo by Erhan)
Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia, (2016 and ongoing).
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“The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature 1836

TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist

Zheng Bo, Garden (Lane 62, Zhaojiabang Road), 2015. Weeds, tiles, bricks, window bars, ads, garbage, 297 x 543.5 x 100 cm.

 

Through his art practice, Hong Kong-based Chinese artist Zheng Bo (b. 1974) proposes a new form of ecological engagement that is based on a fusional relationship with nature and a redistribution of the norms and values of our society. This engagement calls for an expanded experience of daily life, a deeper interaction with our environment and a renewed mode of learning. His dialogical practice also broaches political and social issues and raises the question of its inclusion within the institutional framework of the art space.

Zheng Bo began to work with weeds in Shanghai in 2013 when he transformed a tract of wasteland, hither to occupied by a cement factory, into a botanical garden. Having thus succeeded in preserving up to 20 different species of wild plants, he pointed out the unsuspected richness of the soil and opened up a new perspective on the city’s history, based on the study of its local flora. Imported plants or invasive weeds have strong meanings as they reflect some of the political choices of China’s modern development. They also echo the French colonial period, particularly the plane trees found along Shanghai’s former French concession that were planted in the 1920s. In Weed Party (2015), a large multimedia installation, Zheng documented the evolution of this area as part of a larger exploration of the history of the Chinese Communist party from a botanical perspective. Archival photographs were combined with plants drawings and original books, such as the 1961 government book, How to eat plants, which must have been useful during the great historical famines.

 

Weed Party, 2015. Weeds, soil, mirrors, dimensions variable

 

Beyond this geological approach to plants, Zheng emphasizes the socio-political and metaphorical dimension of weeds, and how it is important to allow space for these undesired species that are usually pulled out or disregarded. Noticing that weeds were growing through interstices in the Ming Contemporary Art Museum’s lobby in Shanghai, the artist called for participants to help him transplant the plants into disused industrial elevators hanging outside the museum facade and then added LED grow lights for the weeds to expand. Kindred (2017) perfectly reflects the artist’s desire to acknowledge the presence of all kinds of species that constitute our environment. Weeds, in particular, embody marginalized living beings, as well as a kind of disobedience and resilience as they grow everywhere despite humans’ attempts to systematically destroy them. For Zheng, it is now time to recognize these weeds as our peers and give them room within the public sphere. His work suggests the possibility of an inclusion of these species into our so far exclusively human society, thus deeply challenging our usual dominant cultural norms.

 

Zheng Bo, Kindred, 2017.

 

Giving voice to under-represented populations is an important feature of Zheng’s practice. Sing for Her (2015), for instance, was a gigantic loudspeaker installed in the public space, which aimed to raise the voices of all minority groups living in Hong Kong. The artist recorded the local songs of these communities, and invited passers-by to sing along with them through a karaoke system, bringing people’s attention to this hidden part of their culture. Zheng’s practice is actually deeply anchored in socially-engaged movements and usually includes audience participation, inter-disciplinary public talks and workshops. Often site-specific, this practice promotes an art form that simultaneously extends the limits of the art space while also turning it into a more inclusive platform, open to new kinds of species.

 

 

Recently, Zheng proposed a series of walks in Hong Kong that epitomize his approach to art. Based on the question, ‘What could we learn from weeds?’, he invited a few participants to reconsider the urban landscape and look for wild plants hidden between the concrete walls and pavements. When they spotted an interesting one, they would sit down and draw it in silence. In his invitation to slow down and pay attention to tiny elements of our daily life, Zheng follows an important feature of Hong Kong contemporary art which praises time and the value of the mundane. It also resists the art market while living in the temple of capitalism. In the same vein, Zheng aims to rethink the notion of wealth by eliminating its financial reference and replacing it with lush greenery or ecological abundance.

However, there is an additional dimension to Zheng’s practice, which pertains to the learning process implied in his participative projects. If we think of his eagerness to observe his environment, the artist, paradoxically, does not so much engage people to learn from the outside world, as from their own hearts and minds. In Bamboo as method (2018), exhibited in Chengdu for Cosmopolis #1.5, the visitor is invited to enter a platform planted with bamboo trees and sit on a bamboo stool for 6 minutes, where they can contemplate and draw one of the bamboo leaves surrounding them. The drawings will later be composted to humus and return to the bamboo. Just like the walk series, what can we learn from such an experience?

The inspiration for this installation comes from a classical Chinese story. Wang Yangming, a neo-Confucianist scholar from the Ming Dynasty, is said to have contemplated a bamboo grove for seven days before falling ill, thus failing to find enlightenment. From this experience, he understood the primacy of the mind and developed a famous idealist philosophy, based on the idea of an innate knowledge. Similarly, by proposing that the public should pause and contemplate the bamboo leaves, Zheng is inviting people to reflect on their ability to seize the world through a process of study rather than by following their inner feelings and intuitions.

 

Zheng Bo, Bamboo as Method, 2018. Bamboo, paper, pencils, humans, and compost. (Photo by Erhan)

 

Wang Yangming insisted on the importance of the unity between all things on Earth as well, and on the role of great men to remind individuals – who are usually lost in selfish pursuits – about the solidarity that exists between plants, animals, even stones, and human beings. This idea, already present in Daoism, is reactivated today as a response to the Anthropocene. In this contemporary context, American theorist Donna Haraway uses the metaphor of a spider’s web or tentacles to illustrate how the relationships between humans and non-humans should evolve, be interconnected and be based on kinship. In his now 3-part video, entitled Pteridophilia (2016 and ongoing), it could be said that Zheng explores different modalities for this particular kinship or ways to ‘make kin’[1]. Moving away from our still dominant anthropocentric perspective, and in keeping with the artist’s previous involvement with weeds, the film suggests the elimination of the usual hierarchical link that has always dominated interspecies relationships and proposes various modes of renewed interactions with plants, and in particular, ferns.

The film features 7 naked men interacting with plants in a Taiwanese forest. Very sensuously, the camera follows their intimate exploration of the local and often giant ferns, and the transformation of this vegetal landscape into a sexual partner. Slowly indeed, stems become embracing arms, large leaves offer their shiny skin to caresses, and the humid soil turns into a vagina. The plants tremble and, alternatively, become humanized as they become one with the male bodies. The second part of the film focuses on one man making love with the ferns and culminates in an orgasm. For the last and latest part, Zheng collaborated with 3 performers who integrated the ferns into their practice of bondage and sadomasochism, involuntarily illustrating Haraway’s tentacle theory. This systematic approach, however, tends to become an exercise in style, undermining the poetical dimension of the work and deprives it of its candor.

 

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia, (2016 and ongoing).

 

Another common point with Haraway is Zheng’s desire to search for alternative modes of living and thinking in response to the Anthropocene, rather than just lament its disastrous consequences. Yet, both of them seem idealistic and romantic in their fusional approaches to nature, ignoring what can appear to be its cruelty, violence, and injustice. Despite a will to challenge our anthropocentrism, the natural world they depict seems to remain an otherness that crystalizes our hopes and human projections: in Zheng’s allegory, plants quiver with pleasure, but they might suffer as well from what could be seen as a sexual assault. Will we ever know what it feel like to be a fern? Perhaps it would be better to define which “nature” we are talking about and to what extent we can reach it, and even speak for it. Zheng’s work activates this pressing debate at a time when we all know that we need to embrace radical changes in our modes of living and thinking.

 

[1] The concept of ‘making kin’ is notably developed by Donna Haraway in her 2016 book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene.

 

 


 

Caroline Ha Thuc is a French Hong Kong based art writer and curator. Specialized in Asian contemporary art, she contributes to different magazines such as ArtPress in France and Artomity/Am Post in Hong Kong.

Prior to moving to Hong Kong, Ha Thuc spent two years in Tokyo and published Nouvel Art Contemporain Japonais (Nouvelles Editions Scala 2012) about the post-Murakami Japanese art scene. Her book Contemporary Art in Hong Kong (Asia One, 2013), which was first published in France (Nouvelles Editions Scala, 2013) provides essential keys to apprehend the city’s vibrant contemporary landscape and exposes the countless links between art, history, culture and identity. She recently published a book about Chinese contemporary art analysing the interactions between the art scene and China’s rapidly changing society (After 2000 : Contemporary Art in China published in French language Nouvelles Editions Scala, France 2014 & MIP, Hong Kong 2015 for the English and comprehensive version).  

As a curator, she focuses on promoting dialogue between artists from different cultures, while reflecting on social and political contemporary issues. Her recent exhibitions include Radiance (French May, Hong Kong, 2014), Hong Kong Bestiary (Platform China, Hong Kong, 2014), Shelters of Resistance an in-situ installation by Kacey Wong in the courtyard of the City Hall (YIA Art Fair Paris, 2015), The Human Body : Measure and Norms (Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong, 2015) and Carnival (Hong Kong February 2017). She is on the International Curatorial Advisory Board of the Open Sky Gallery in Hong Kong and curated the 5th Large-scale Urban Media Arts Festival, 2016.

 

 

 
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