Living Content presents an interview between artist Zheng Bo and curator Alvin Li, originally published in Edouard Malingue Gallery’s online journal. We're republishing this conversation because we found it valuable to reflect on Bo’s artistic practice as we’re slowly exiting this pandemic. The most important questions posed by the artist, that seem to drive this conversation, are: “how do we embed art making in ecological processes?” and “what are the forces and the ideas that can help create change?”.
Bo recognizes that this pandemic is the result of what he calls “an ecological meltdown” and, through this perspective, he challenges what it is consider to be “a return to normal”. The artist encourages an understanding of the human species, its social cooperation, and its ideas about heterosexuality, as “freakishly abnormal” in relation to the large-scale inter-species adaptations. At the same time, Bo is cautious not to assert and create ingenuous generalizations, carefully acknowledging the specific differentiations between both cultures and individuals.
ZHENG Bo (b. 1974, Beijing) lives and works in Lantau Island, Hong Kong. Committed to multispecies vibrancy, Zheng investigates the past and imagines the future from the perspectives of marginalized communities and marginalized plants. He creates weedy gardens, living slogans, and eco-queer films to cultivate ecological wisdom beyond the Anthropo-extinction event. His projects are included in Liverpool Biennial 2021, Yokohama Triennale 2020, Manifesta 12, the 11th Taipei Biennial, the 11th Shanghai Biennial, among others. He has worked with numerous art spaces in Asia and Europe, most recently Kunsthalle Lissabon in Lissabon,, Institute of Contemporary Arts at NYU Shanghai in Shanghai, Kyoto City University of Arts Art Gallery in Kyoto, Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, Parco Arte Vivente in Torino, Villa Vassilieff in Paris, and The Cube Project Space in Taipei. His works are in the collection of Hammer Museum, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Singapore Art Museum, among others.
Alvin Li: Hi Bo, I heard you’ve started a new project called “Drawing Life” on Lantau Island, where you live. Can you tell us about it?
Zheng Bo: I've wanted to draw the local plants on Lantau for a while, but since there were always invitations to do projects in, say, Kyoto and Shanghai, I was tempted away and never really had the determination to just stay here. So the virus has actually helped me to accomplish something I've been wanting to do.
I live on the south side of Lantau, it's kind of the least populated area in Hong Kong. And there's a hill behind the village where I live. Starting on April 19th, 2020, every morning I would go up the hill, and when I felt attracted to some plants, I would sit down to draw them. Now I kind of know most of the common ones, but at first I didn’t. I started by taking photos, but then I thought, if I'm taking photos I’m not really spending time with them, am I? Because it's just snapping. So for me it's really just about spending time with plants. Occasionally, I need to go to the university. If I go to Kowloon, I go to the Chinese University. They have many plants, and I do a drawing there. But most of the time, I think for probably 50 out of 60, the drawings are done on the same hill behind the village
AL: How do you figure out what they are?
ZB: In terms of identification I use a few things. I have two apps, Xingse (形色) and Shihua (识花), they're pretty good. And then I double-check against two online databases. One is maintained by an NGO here in Hong Kong, and the other is government-run. And then sometimes I also check against this book published by a medicinal plant specialist who is a professor at Baptist University, Chen Hubiao (陈虎彪). He's actually from Mainland China originally, but he's published the most usable book on Hong Kong plants. Even with all these tools, there are still plants hard for me to be sure about, because I think none of these tools are adequate. So if I see Professor Chen I'll ask him in person.
AL: How do you picture this project in a few months? Will it evolve into a book?
BZ: For now I'm just showing 18 of these drawings in Lisbon. I believe the exhibition starts this week, but it wasn't planned that way. Like I said, drawing for me is really a way to keep myself present. It feels kind of like meditation. I don't meditate. I think I would find it challenging to just sit and try to sort of follow my thoughts and then gradually reduce thinking. For me, spending time with plants, if I just stand here or sit here, it's very hard for me to really spend time with them, because they don't talk. So drawing is just a way to stay longer in that moment.
I did a project where I took people to draw weeds, and then at the end of the workshop we would bury the drawings. In another work I showed in Chengdu I also asked the audience, after they finished drawing, not to take the drawings home but to leave the drawings and we would compost them. I was thinking about the activities of art making, how do we embed art making in ecological processes? The materials we use, the activities we perform, the energy we consume. It's a very small gesture of course.
AL: You’ve already mentioned how your travel has reduced quite a bit because of COVID-19. During the quarantine, perhaps all of us have been contemplating our reliance on global networks which are now put on hold. What are some of your thoughts on art-making in our new normal?
BZ: For me the epidemic itself wasn't really a surprise, just the timing... Thinking about ecological meltdown, I know rationally that things are going to happen, but emotionally I wasn't prepared that something would happen so soon. The fact that I can't travel, that’s to me a good thing.
AL: It’s interesting to see how COVID-19 is interpreted according to different narratives. In some contexts the conversation is still pretty much centered on the wet market or racism. Not that they're not important, but at a kind of more fundamental level…
BZ: Yeah exactly. In many ecological magazines people are very clear that this is part of an ecological meltdown, but in mainstream media it’s still being portrayed as a public health crisis rather than ecological catastrophe. I’ve been thinking… with the wildfires in Australia, in California, the Amazon fire in South America, how come we don't in China—and maybe it’s because I'm not completely aware, but—how come I haven’t heard or learned about extreme weather events in recent years? How come we in China don't see a surge of disasters related to the ecological meltdown? My hypothesis—though like I said, I haven't looked into the research—is, it’s because we destroyed the relationship, the harmony, between us and other species very early on, since the Ming Dynasty. A friend of mine who used to work at Friends of Nature (自然之友) was saying that if you look at the Eastern part of China, like Zhejiang and Shanghai, the local ecologies were destroyed long ago. So maybe we got into the Anthropocene pretty early, and we've been dealing with these disasters for the past 4-500 years already. That’s why it doesn't seem to be so new for us.
AL: The idea of marking the Ming dynasty as the point where China entered the Anthropocene sounds fascinating.
BZ: It's not my idea. Even before the Anthropocene discourse there was already a lot of discussion on when China had become modern, or when China began its modernization process. So there were a lot of historians debating this question. The big question in my mind is whether we collectively agree that what we had was abnormal. Now we are not traveling; we are doing less… Actually we’ve been pushed by the virus to become more normal. I don't think we’re normal normal yet, I think it's just the beginning of a long transformation. But the discourse is so flipped; people still see going back to what we were doing as going back to normal.
AL: What you’re saying touches on the idea of de-growth. I wonder: as this decelerated lifestyle becomes the new norm, what about those desires—the entire industry fueled by fascination with traveling, mobility, fluidity—born in the era we’ve just lived?
BZ: You know I’m fascinated by Daoist ideas. I don't know what might help to tip the balance in the West, but for China it has to come from something that we have accumulated, some kind of deep wisdom. I believe it'll be very difficult for us to invent whole new paradigms of ideas. It makes more sense to reactivate certain historical ideas, then infuse them with what we’ve learned over the past few centuries through science.
I'm less attached to activism these days, and more attached to spiritual practices and science, actually. Maybe it’s because I'm situated in Greater China, and I see activism as not a very strong force of social change. In North America and Europe, given what we saw after the George Floyd killing, it seems that social activism, social uprising might still be quite powerful in shifting discourse and pushing social change. But in China, or at least in Hong Kong… social movements haven't brought about change that effectively. And social movement is not even present in China. So my feeling is that spiritual practice and science will be much more effective in catalyzing social change for China in this era.
AL: Spirituality seems to be a global pop phenomenon these days. In the West, especially in the US, people speak of this return of the New Age. Just look at the exponential growth of the crystals and wellness industry. And in China, we can also find a different, perhaps more theatrical spiritual awareness in the work of online influencers, such as Li Ziqi.
BZ: Right. There’s a recent article on the New Yorker talking about the religious left. Even in North American academia, which has been kind of overly sensitive to anything related to spirituality, there are scholars like Michael Warner, a queer theorist at Yale, and Charles Taylor, this Canadian Catholic philosopher, who have been working on this project of re-examining secularity. I think spirituality can play a pretty important role here, and my work is only starting to move towards this direction. I'm not turned on by institutionalized religion; I'm more thinking about spiritual practices. That's something I'm developing in my recent works, daily practices that have some spiritual dimensions.
AL: I wanted to share an observation about your work. Sketching en plein air, hand-copying, and linmo are some of your most frequently used methods (at least for object-based works). I find this quite interesting, as they are all methods of copying—not in the sense of appropriation like in modern and contemporary art, but belonging to an older, deeper tradition of passing on knowledge. Can you talk a bit about your interest in these methods? Does this have some relation to your role as an educator?
BZ: I haven't thought much about passing on knowledge, but I was thinking a lot about linmo (临摹). I’ve always considered linmo a good way to learn. I started using it when I was teaching socially-engaged art. The first assignment I gave to undergraduate students who were taking social engagement for the first time would be to recreate a work of relational aesthetics, like that of Sophie Calle, in Hong Kong. I don't know any other professor doing this. I think in contemporary art education people think "Oh, it's okay to linmo a drawing, but it's not okay to linmo a conceptual work." Right? But it worked really well, because students immediately grasped the complexity of social practice when they recreated a well-thought project. The second thing I want to say is that linmo is not only a Chinese practice. In Dunhuang there's a lot of scripture-copying, which came from India—basically all the religions consider copying scripts to be an essential spiritual practice. And ideas of copying and apprenticeship are present in history in many parts of the world. Our obsession with newness is a modern invention. And the issue of copyright. I've never cared much about that either. Maybe these things helped me to feel attached to copying.
AL: In your work you also frequently use language—in the highly condensed form of slogans—as form, especially in the “Living Slogan” series. You introduce these concepts (“Socialism Good,” “té égalité fr,” etc) to in-form the works, only to then have them “spoiled” by such other factors as weeds later on. It makes me think about the violence always involved in the act of maintaining an ideal form—be it a work of art, a garden or a society. Perhaps the true spirit of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité should be wild instead of peaceful and homogenous.
BZ: Often these works just emerged with no particular plan. The first work in this series was “Socialism Good.” I don't know how I came up with that piece. But once I did the first one I thought, "Okay, it makes sense to let plants disrupt the slogans." I wanted to express the idea that we should also let other species reflect on our political ideals. I think it just came out in that form because it’s something I'm familiar with—you know, in Beijing, which is where I grew up, every October 1st there'll be some botanical slogan design on Tiananmen Square.
AL: I started thinking about the role of form in your work while reading Necropolitics by Achille Mbembe. In his account of history from earlier medieval societies to the Renaissance and then to modern democracies, he argues for the replacement of the violence of bodies by the force of forms as a quintessential characteristic of modern democratic societies. While reading that, and then looking at this series, I started thinking that the weeds are in some way like the outlawed bodies or voices of dissidents that usually have to be erased or violated in order to preserve some kind of ideal form. But in your work, of course, the weeds are not just a metaphor, right?
BZ: Yeah, they're not metaphors. They are actual bodies that disrupt a sort of neatness. I think this is also related to another question you raised in your email, which is about the role of queerness in my work, especially Pteridophilia. I’ll give you a bit of background: when I started making Pteridophilia, I wasn't thinking about queerness. To me the guys were having sex with plants, which was not a homosexual practice, but an inter-species sexual practice. But then of course later on I realized I was too narrow-minded about what's queer. Of course it's queer practice—anything away from heteronormative ideas of sex and gender could be called queer. It’s a queer film also because in it I explore the sexuality of ferns. It was such a fortuitous decision, working with ferns, because we humans are much more familiar with flowering plants. Most of us understand the bisexuality of flowering plants. But ferns are different. Ferns reproduce by spores, but they actually do have eggs and sperms. I think our sexuality is also much more complex than just sperms and eggs. Going back to the slogan… I hope we will start to see hypernormality as the minuscule portion of life on earth, whereas the great majority is queerness.
I was talking to ecologist Ise Takeshi in Kyoto last year, who told me about this iconic animal called the giant salamander. Giant salamanders live alone, except when they're mating. All of a sudden this made me realize that living alone is the normal in the animal kingdom, and so-called social animals are a tiny, tiny minority. Being antisocial may be not good from a human perspective, but if you look at the animal kingdom, it’s actually the norm. Being social is freakishly abnormal for most species. So I think all these things, if we have a larger perspective, we'll just see things very differently.
AL: What you’re saying reminds of the antisocial movement in queer theory that started in the ‘90s with the publication of Leo Bersani’s Homos, later epitomized by Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. The movement has sort of waned by now, and is often criticized for its inherent anthropocentrism. But listening to what you're saying makes me wonder if this idea of the antisocial will have more nuance to it when we consider sexuality and sociality from a larger perspective.
BZ: Yeah. But if we're talking to an American audience, then I will really need to make a quick cautionary note saying that I'm not for individualism. When I talk about being alone, the salamander being alone, I mean alone from a species perspective. But of course a salamander is in multiple relations with plants, with insects and with water and rocks, right? So it's not an individualist idea. It's more of an intraspecies idea. It's kind of like Douglas Crimp's idea, too. Douglas always said he didn't want to have a boyfriend, because he didn't want to privilege and prioritize one relationship over all other relationships. I think our anthropocentrism privileges our relations with other humans over our relations with all other species and materialities. So that's what I'm sensing when I thought about being alone. Not “social” in the anthropocentric sense.
AL: Going back to Pteridophilia: there’s a long lineage of sex-positive pornography, and a more recent wave of ecosexual film. I wonder how you would position this series of works.
BZ: I usually don't like definitional questions. Oftentimes there's an underlying power dynamic, right? Whether or not to call something pornographic has legal consequences. When I make something, I describe it in certain ways to deal with the legal and political and cultural situations. I like descriptive terms rather than definitional terms. I had a conversation with Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens last year, which will be published soon. They’re really the pioneers of the eco-sexual movement. Their practice is more ecosexual. When Annie was younger, she was very conscious of pornographic performance. But then the work she's been doing recently with Beth Stephens… I think most people wouldn't classify that as pornographic. Not sure if I told you before: at some point, when I was doing my PhD, I told Douglas [Crimp] that maybe I should work on how Eastern European gay porn shaped my generation’s sensibility of sex. And he said: “Oh yeah? Sure! Go ahead and do it.” He was quite serious. But in the end I decided to just stick to socially engaged art. If I can still go to Berlin for my residency this year, I want to go to Eastern Europe to visit the porn studios. I still find pornography such an underdeveloped aesthetic category. Porn today is so standardized and has such a narrow range. For the performance talk I gave at the Venice Biennale last year I looked into Japanese shunga prints, which made me realize that our erotic life is incredibly boring compared to a few hundred years ago. Our sex life is so mechanical and uninventive. Even the films I'm making, compared to those shunga prints, I'm sure it's nothing comparable. There's a long way to go to really be able to live a happy life.
AL: I recently read J.G. Ballard’s Crash, and in its introduction Ballard writes that pornography is the most political form of fiction, because it deals with how humans use and exploit each other in the most ruthless way.
BZ: Yeah. It's very relevant to the Pteridophilia project. People always ask about exploitation after they watch the film, which is partly my intention. I wanted people to think about our ethical relationships with plants. Like you said, pornography and sex are the kind of arenas where we become most sensitive to power dynamics, to politics, exploitation, pleasure, ecstasy, arenas where we think about ethical and political issues. So if we already had a happy sex life, like the shunga paintings… people wouldn't be thinking about political issues at all when watching the film.
AL: Last but not least: Tell me about some of your upcoming projects.
BZ: I adapted quickly to this mode of being reactive to the plague, to the weather, that right now it seems absurd to talk about plans. Something I will certainly be doing, that’s within my control, is drawing every day. I was going to do a workshop at Smith College in April, 2020. That was canceled. I have a residency at Gropius Bau this year, and the plan is to visit scientists and learn more about plants on the molecular level, because I want to see whether some of those processes can be considered political. The film project still goes on. I'll make part five this year, or next year. I think that's all that's going on.
I'm reading Taoist texts. I have five PhD students. I'm learning from them. They're all working on things I don't have the time to really look into. And two more are coming, actually, in September. So our Wanwu Practice Group will have eight members, myself included. We have pretty productive discussions now.
And if nothing changes too dramatically, I want to spend time in the Southwestern part of China next year. That’s where my parents are from. Ethnic practices in Southwest China, that’s another strong sphere of ecological wisdom.
©️ Edouard Malingue Gallery, initially published on the Gallery online journal