Zheng Bo. How can we think beyond human exceptionalism?


Zheng Bo’s biography and artistic practice give insight on his experience between the U.S., mainland China, and Hong Kong. Experiencing different political environments, he developed a practice oriented towards social engaged art and nearly a decade ago added a main focus on botany and the ecosystem. Through videos, installations, and workshops, he develops a non-anthropocentric perspective in which he proposes the notion of interspecies communities and publics. In this interview, we speak with him about social participative practices, a post-anthropocentric world, and the meaning of knowledge in both Western and Chinese culture.

Zheng Bo Pteridophilia
Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia, 2019. Video (4K, color, sound), 16 min. Courtesy the artist.
Bernard Vienat (BV): Hello Bo, thank you for receiving me here in Gropius Bau, where you are an Artist in Residence. You have spent large parts of your life in China, Hong Kong and the U.S., how is it for you to be now at such a particular time in residence in Berlin?

Zheng Bo (ZB): I always try to find the best way of life, so I think because many things are shut down in Berlin it is a really different city. But there are still forests and lakes. I didn’t know that there were many lakes in and around Berlin. So when I came in August I swam in the lake almost every day. Now it’s too cold, so I try to spend as much time as possible in forests around Berlin. So I’m learning about the natural side of Berlin, of what we call Berlin.

BV: Like probably many other curators and art lovers, I noticed your video Pteridophilia in Palermo. I was stunned, attracted and somehow first disturbed by the sexual character of the young men you filmed. You realized those films in Taiwan with a local community, could you tell us a bit more about who those young men are and how they developed this seemingly natural sexual relationship with nature?

ZB: I asked friends in Taiwan to find people who might be interested in doing the project with me. So the performers in the film, many of them are from the theater world. Some of them are from outside art: one person is a travel agent, one person studied psychology. I did do casting and chose people who felt comfortable with plants and didn’t see plants as props, who could at least form of intimate bond with plants. One person in particular in chapter two is a theater person, he finished secondary school and joined an independent theater group in Taipei. He has been doing radical projects since he was young and his parents had a nursery so he felt particularly comfortable with plants.

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 4
Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia, 2019. Video (4K, color, sound), 16 min. Courtesy the artist.
BV: You’re suggesting an evolution from an anthropocentric perspective to focus on a multi-species relation. You have said that you “think about interspecies communities and interspecies publics.” Could you expand on the kind of relation you imagine between species?

ZB: I think in our contemporary life, especially urban life, we are quite cut off from other living beings, at least living beings that are very visible. Of course, we are surrounded by bacteria, by viruses, by fungi. At least to the extent possible we design cities and build our homes to exclude other living beings. For me that is a very impoverished life. So in the studio where we are now, as you came in you saw that I am keeping plants in the studio, of course I’m working with them, but also I want to have plants around me to keep me happy and healthy. We try to live with plants but in my art practice I try to initiate some more provocative projects to bring us closer than having plants with us. So the film is about how to get into a situation where we can quickly have a very intensive relationship with ferns in Taiwan. I have plants here too and the relationship is very relaxed. If I see them every day over a period of time I get very familiar with them. But perhaps there are also other ways that we can develop feelings very quickly. We can have passion in a very short moment. That's what the film was intended to do.

BV: For me, your film echoed the recent theories of French philosopher Baptiste Morizot, who wrote about a Crisis of Sensibility. Our current ecological crisis - and lack of reaction to it - would be partly the result of our distance from nature. Recently there have been numerous exhibitions about ecological topics and your works were often part of them. If we think about a reconnection with “nature”, how much will going into a museum help in this matter?

ZB: I completely agree, I think for me as an artist, my contribution to the ecological movement is not, say, the preservation of endangered species, or even perhaps changing our behavior in transportation, etc; I think for me it’s about really becoming intimate and loving with plants. I think many people love plants, but perhaps not to the degree that some of my projects suggest; I think often we talk about the climate crisis or the ecological crisis still from the point that we want to save ourselves. What’s particularly sad for me is that many things are dying, including humans this year, but we have no feelings. I think if we really can live on this planet, we really have to develop the sensibilities that you just mentioned: that we will feel happy when we are making the planet sort of a vibrant place – and we will all feel bad if things start dying. I think I feel it to some degree but I actually do want to feel it more strongly. I think we all need to feel it more strongly. I think in my practice I’m hoping that we will move quickly to really address the crisis not so much in the behavioral sense but more in the emotional sense.

BV: You are also doing a series of workshops to connect the public with plants. Can you develop that a bit further and explain what you are doing with the public?

ZB: There are different types of workshops. The one I did in Venice for the public program last year, called Plant Sex Workshop, was a very short performance-lecture, and I asked the audience to practice with the plants, but it’s very minimal – because you know we’re in a theater, we’re in a city, we’re not in a forest. So it’s one way to just get people to start thinking about it. There are other types of workshops, for example in Kyoto last year, I organized a three-day workshop with anthropologists, ecologists, local community members, activists, and young artists to think about the ecological future of a particular neighborhood in Kyoto. So that workshop is much more intense. And then it’s really a time and space for us to share what we have learned and also to, through our interactions, collectively develop a vision for the future of that neighborhood. And I would say often these workshops are situations for myself to learn; I often feel part of the reason I’m still doing art is because I'm learning a lot from these projects, so these workshops allow me to learn from other people, to learn from the situation, and from very young participants.

Zheng Bo, Plant sex workshop
Zheng Bo, Plant Sex Workshop, 2019. Performance part of Meetings on Art, La Biennale di Venezia - Biennale Arte 2019, November 2019. Credit Marco Franceschin. Courtesy Delfina Foundation and Arts Council England.
BV: But that leads me to my question about art and science, because you are working with different scientists, I wonder how far your non-anthropocentric vision – so to say – is dissonant with their views and how do you connect with them?

ZB: I’m meeting scientists here in Berlin doing fascinating research on topics I didn’t know existed. For example, I just met a scientist again this morning, she’s studying plasticity, meaning how plants can react to different environments by changing their bodies. I think we all know, if we plant something in a pot, it may be small, but when we plant it into the soil the plant grows bigger, so the plant somehow can react to the environment by changing its body. It's something that we don’t do, or not to the extent that plants can. So the conversation between me and her was of course for me to learn the research that she has been doing looking into the genetic structures underlying plasticity, but for me, it’s also to think about if this is the case, this is the difference between us and plants. So when we think about the politics of plants, we really have to pay attention to how they change their bodies to practice their lives. Because I think for us our politics tend to focus on behavior and attitudes. Some aspects of our politics are related to bodies but in the sense of our bodily presence, but not in changing bodies. So I think the conversation tries to imagine how to perceive the politics of plants if they practice their lives in a very bodily form. These issues spring from their research, but I bring in a particular perspective to maybe push their thinking, or at least push our collective thinking.

BV: That leads me to a French philosopher, Bruno Latour, who has said that humans should be the voice of the other living beings in order to integrate them to a new form of parliament. What would be for you a suitable political system which goes beyond human exceptionalism, which maybe will respect more the place of those single individuals?

ZB: I think I was very inspired by the parliament of things idea, but I think all of us have the feeling that it's a huge challenge. So I think the conversations I’m having with the scientists now is kind of a small step in that direction. There are many many steps to fully realize an ideal; how to do we perceive plants’ way of life. I think even most people today are not thinking about plants politically. I often say when we look at a tree, we all assume it’s just living there as a biological being, we don’t look at the tree immediately thinking the tree has a class, gender, sexuality or race, or could be exploited, given voting rights, etc. All these political terms that immediately come up to our minds if we see a human being. So I think there are many things that we need to work on in order to move toward that direction of the parliament of things. I don’t think Latour has an answer either; I think he has his ideal in his mind but he never really worked out how it will be done. I think no one has been able to really provide a blueprint or a path toward that direction. I think I’m one of many people who are doing experiments hoping that we will actually move, instead of just keeping it as an ideal.

BV: Yes like for instance with Sea by Michel Serres, also a form of proposition right, a proposal to go in direction to a natural contract, like expanding from the Rousseauist contract, and a perspective which might be maybe more than Latour, more experience-oriented. Are you considering law as an important aspect of the future of ecology?

ZB: I grew up in China, where we still don’t have a strong legal tradition, and we still don’t live our lives within legal frameworks and with a legal mindset. I don’t think about legal issues often. In the conversation I’m having with the scientists, I’m trying to sense how plants do things maybe very differently from the way we do things, how there are many ways of politics that we don’t even consider; I’m not trying to look into law or rights of nature, like expanding the social contract etc. I think I’m not familiar enough and I also feel they are quite within our human paradigms. I think I’m trying to precisely move away from these paradigms.

BV: Another paradigm here in Berlin but also I think in other botanic gardens is taxidermy. I was really impressed the first time I came here to the botanical garden to see all these species that ranged from country to country and from continent to continent. How do your projects lead you to think about our relationships to nations and immigration?

ZB: I’ve worked with weeds quite intensively for a few years. I did a small project in Shenzhen – next to Hong Kong in Southern China – where I looked into the weeds there and realized that half of the weeds that we often see if we just take a walk in Shenzhen are originally (about 100 years ago) from the Carribean. Of course there isn’t an absolute origin, but now I tell people whenever I go to Shenzhen that they live in a half-Carribean landscape, they just don’t know.
I think it’s quite basic now for many of us to know that as humans we set up these nation-state borders. Of course plants, animals, and bacteria and the virus now don’t care about these borders right, they try to subvert these borders to the extent it’s possible. Given the virus situation now, the border can be so strongly enforced because it’s a human infected virus. But there are many viruses that don’t need us to traffic them. I think it’s another manifestation of our arrogance that we think we can control things on this planet. We have imagined certain ideas and then these ideas have co-opted us, they have hijacked us as humans: and then we’re so addicted to these ideas even though we know they’re ridiculous. But it takes so much effort to overcome our addiction in a way. I often feel nowadays other species will force us to change. So this is actually something I’m thinking a lot about this year.

BV: So you are sometimes still using plants as metaphors for our old social behavior?

ZB: I think when I started working with plants I did use them as metaphors. But as you probably can sense, as I learned more about their life, I’m trying to move away from that, and trying to understand their lives on their own terms. Rather than always putting them into our paradigm of ideas, knowledge, politics. I’m still in the process of moving out of sort of the metaphors and…

BV: Yeah, because interestingly you were working over than 10 years on more – so to say – socially-engaged topics or socially-engaged art. What brought you to change your focus to plants?

ZB: I sense my own stupidity in not knowing much about the 99.99% of life. I did a work called You Are the 0.01% that’s based on a scientific article saying that humans only account for 0.01% of the total biomass on this planet. I think I spent the first thirty-some years of my own life looking at the 0.01% of life on this planet, so I only have maybe most fifty years to live, so I better learn about what’s happening to the other 99.99%.

Zheng Bo,You are the 0,01%
Zheng Bo, YOU ARE THE 0.01%, 2019, Wheat, installation's view: Oil Street Art Space, Hong Kong, Image: Zheng Bo.
BV: But I still have the impression in some of your work, in Taipei for instance, that site-specificity played an important role, maybe connecting back to human politics. Do you also mix these two realms?*

ZB: I think, you know, I’m still a human, I still have like thirty-some years of experience working with communities, I’m still reading human newspapers and talking to humans like you, so I think I’m trying to learn more about other beings, but of course my own existence and the existence of other humans is still present. I think it’s inevitable that as a human, as a homo sapien, I’m approaching other beings with my own limitations and my own abilities to perceive things and to formulate ideas in some form I can understand. So I think it’s inevitable that the human aspect will be present.

BV: But in this sense though, how might art for you spur social change, are there specific ways of addressing social issues through artistic practices which might influence human behavior and foster systemic transformation?

ZB: I think early on, when I was more working with communities, I was very much interested in art as a form of social conversation, and potentially making an impact. In a relatively short time frame, I think as I get older and I’m working with plants mainly now, I think the social change I imagine will take much longer. It’s less immediate, just like I said, so the kind of change I’m trying to address now is when we look at trees: do we see trees as political beings? So this kind of changing our mind is something that I’m focusing on. Rather than say, bringing the voices of migrant workers to a public space.

BV: Yes, that was one of my questions because it’s true that you did this work in 2013, Sing for Her, in Hong Kong where you glued a monumental megaphone out of metal in which passersby could stop and shout in it to launch videos in which seven recorded songs by community groups played. How has the involvement of these communities transformed their relationship to contemporary art? Was this one of your intentions? This integration of communities – also a way to transform or to let evolve their vision about art?

ZB: I think it goes both ways, right? Of course the project had its social intention to make the voice of the Filipino migrant voices louder in Hong Kong; I mean they already sing: so every Sunday they gather in parks and they often sing and dance, but not in such a prominent public space in Hong Kong. The project was to contribute to what’s already happening but to make it louder. Of course it’s also a way to bring these social issues into the art world in Hong Kong, because when I started working with migrant workers there not many artists were paying attention to this very obvious issue. So I think now many young artists see this as one of the key social issues. I spent thirty-some years thinking and learning about human issues, like many of us, and I feel that we know our social issues so much better than ecological issues. I was able to make the large public sculpture in 2013 because I felt that I have accumulated a lot of experience, also on the shoulders of other people. I feel my practice now with plants is much more tentative. I feel we are just starting to develop some sensibilities, so it's very difficult for me to make something that definitive, like that project in 2013.

Zheng Bo, Sing for Her, Hong Kong
Zheng Bo, Sing for Her, Installation view, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, 2015, Courtesy the artist.
BV: When we had our first conversation for your exhibition in Lausanne, then you were telling me about knowledge and about your vision of knowledge in Western countries but also in former mainland China. Could you maybe draw a bit on that?

ZB: You mentioned classification of plants. I did a workshop, a small workshop several times in Hong Kong and also here, where I take people to draw weeds in the city. It’s a silent workshop, so we walk in silence, and then if we see some weeds we want to draw we sit down to draw the weeds, we don’t talk. I also ask people who join the workshop to try not to ask the name of the plant. Because I feel in our time now, with Google culture, the first thing we ask usually is the name of the plant, which also tends to be the last thing we want to know about the plant. So knowledge becomes sort of a hindrance to our relations with other beings.

Zheng Bo Workshop
Zheng Bo leads a walk with AAA team in Sheung Wan and Central, observing and drawing weeds between the cracks, Image: Courtesy the artist.

Of course I'm talking to scientists, and like I said many of the things they have learned are fascinating for me – but I think for all the scientists that I've met, science is about what we want to know, science is about what we want to look for, so for example if we start to ask whether plants practice politics, I’m sure we will learn something. But if we don’t ask that question we will never know. And many people have written the limitations on so-called modern science. I think it kind of goes back to the very first thing we talked about, this sort of distance and objectivity of not getting involved…

BV: I also had this question about the difference between knowledge and wisdom. You were speaking about a previous acceptance of the word knowledge as wisdom, could you maybe explain a bit this difference of perspective and the evolution of the word knowledge through the Western influence in China?

ZB: Yeah, in Chinese knowledge is 知识 / Zhīshì, and wisdom is 智慧 / Zhìhuì. I think we had the Chinese term for wisdom much earlier than knowledge, I think knowledge this translation came quite late, after we got exposed to modern science from Europe; I think the word wisdom probably was very much influenced by Buddhism when it came to China.

Maybe I have to start with very basic things. I often feel knowledge is something that we just acquire without putting into practice. I often say that if I don't tell people this plant you can use it to do something, because often people just acquire that piece of knowledge as if it's a piece of property. But they never actually use the knowledge. They never actually put it into practice. I see that very often nowadays. I think there’s an overzealous passion for knowledge, I mean in the art world people use “knowledge production” all the time, rather than wisdom production, or wisdom-making, so that’s one very basic difference in my mind. Also I think wisdom is something much more condsend. Though this came out of a conversation with a marine biologist named David Baker, so it's almost like we can see wisdom as DNA in the biological sense when something has been really important, essential to our lives, we condense it. Knowledge needs to be so condensed so it can be replicated and spread widely. I think knowledge is something much more temporary, so it can be one generation, that we may not inherit.

BV: But interestingly you are speaking about David Baker, right? He was also speaking about transforming DNA as a human-made intervention, and that people could see that as a solution to solve some ecological problems. What is your position about those geoengineering solutions?

ZB: I think I’m a Daoist. So I mentioned that in terms of biomass, we account for 0.01% of the total biomass on this planet. I think in terms of wisdom, probably we only have the same portion of wisdom – 0.01% of the wisdom on this planet. So I think whatever we are doing or we are so excited about now is actually within that 0.01%. The problem actually is not that we know so little, the problem is the attitude that we developed after the Enlightenment, that we believe we know a lot, and even if we don’t, we are confident in our actions. I think this is something I’m thinking about actually this week – how do I really become more humble when I’m with plants? I think I now see this fallacy, but I often feel I need to really change my own mindset and my attitude before something can come up in my artwork. If I don’t change, then my work won’t change.

Copy editing and transcript: Sofia Leiby