“How Do Plants Practice Politics?”

Zheng Bo answers 7 questions on the occasion of his exhibition “Wanwu Council 萬物社”

As In House: Artist in Residence 2020, the artist and theoretician Zheng Bo explored how a sustainable relationship between nature and culture could be envisioned. Through conversations with experts from cross-disciplinary fields, a daily drawing practice, participatory exercises and a film project, Zheng Bo expanded the research upon these themes, now collated in his exhibition Wanwu Council 萬物社 at the Gropius Bau. In the following conversation, the artist explains why plants should never be considered alone and what we can learn from their interdependent life forms.

Zheng Bo, Drawing Life (Cold Dew), 2020-2021

Zheng Bo, Drawing Life (Cold Dew), 2020-2021. Courtesy: the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery

© Zheng Bo, photo: Luca Girardini

Sonja Borstner: Your exhibition Wanwu Council 萬物社 refers to the Daoist term wanwu, which translates as “ten thousand things” or “myriad happenings”. What does this particular concept mean for your practice?

Zheng Bo: The term wanwu in contemporary Chinese is understood as everything between sky and earth and can be translated as “myriad happenings”. Wan in Chinese literally means ten thousand; wu in today’s understanding is an object, but in traditional philosophy it can also be a phenomenon, a happening – all forms of being. My practice has centred on plants, which are, of course, part of wanwu. Within the plant kingdom there are billions of beings that should never be considered alone since they are also bridges to other forms of life.

Sonja Borstner: During your time as In House: Artist in Residence at the Gropius Bau in 2020 you asked: “How do plants practice politics?” Could you explain what you mean by this question and what led you to it?

Zheng Bo: I’ve been working with plants in my art practice for ten years and for me it’s more important to cultivate sensibilities than to produce works or projects. When I encounter a plant now, I can immediately sense their biological being – I can sense their life – but I still can’t sense their political being the way that I sense a person’s political being when I encounter a human. I think it’s important that we can sense other forms of life in these dimensions, too, because if we really want to move into a future where we don’t see ourselves as the centre of the world, we need to treat “non-human” beings with respect and equality. That’s why I started a film project called The Political Life of Plants (2021) during my residency in Berlin, because I often feel the importance of art is to push myself to really open up, to try to answer a strange question like this: “How can I sense the political life of plants?”

Zheng Bo, The Political Life of Plants 植物的政治生活, 2021

Zheng Bo, The Political Life of Plants 植物的政治生活 (2021). Film (4K video, black and white, colour, 2 channel sound), 31 min. Courtesy: the artist

Sonja Borstner: Speaking of your film, what is the main focus of this new production?

Zheng Bo: For The Political Life of Plants 植物的政治生活 we spent two weeks in an ancient beech forest in Grumsin, Brandenburg, to think and try to perceive with whatever sensibilities we have, how the forest is also a political sphere and how different beings in the forest make political decisions. I talked to two ecologists – Matthias Rillig from the Institute of Biology and the Berlin Brandenburg Institute of Biodiversity Research (Freie Universität Berlin) and Roosa Laitinen, from Max Planck Institute in Potsdam, where she leads the research group Molecular Mechanism of Adaption–, since their scientific research helps me to understand or perceive the ways plants live and practice. For instance, Roosa studies the genetic basis of plant adaptation and I learned from her that plants are incredibly flexible with their bodies. They can grow large and small, modify their flowering time and change the size of their flowers, when different environmental conditions are present. In the film, I tried to make this more comprehensive to the viewers. When we think of doing politics, we tend to centre politics on behaviour rather than bodies. For example, when we want to become more environmental, we think about what not to eat or what to change in terms of transportation, but we don’t necessarily think about how to transform our bodies. So, my curiosity to understand how plants practice politics is also to reflect on the limitations or perhaps potentials of our politics.

Sonja Borstner: During your time at the Gropius Bau you coined the term Gropius Wood, which refers to a series of plane tree on the building’s west side. The people working in and around the building never actually understood this area to be a small forest but instead as a car park – what made you perceive the area differently?

Zheng Bo: I got to Berlin in summer and the trees were really vibrant and the only thing I could see from my studio, which was on the top floor, facing to the west, were those trees. I didn’t notice the cars from the studio, because they were hidden by their crowns. So, from that perspective, not unlike birds flying over the Gropius Bau, I clearly saw the almost exactly 100 plane trees as a little forest. For me, it is therefore obvious that the Gropius Bau is not only a building – it’s the building and the trees outside. Yet, I think there are things we need to do to make it obvious to everyone who comes to the institution. That’s why we will do an intervention in the outdoor space to attract visitors to come and spend some time there, to pay more attention to the trees. I hope this small intervention will inspire other artists or the public and people within the institution to continue to transform that area. For me, doing the residency at the Gropius Bau is about how to contribute to the future of the space and to make this project, to make my residency and this exhibition, very relevant to its local context and local issues.

Zheng Bo, Botanical Comrades 植物同志, 2020

Zheng Bo, Botanical Comrades 植物同志, 2020

© Gropius Bau, photo: Laura Fiorio

Within the plant kingdom there are billions of beings that should never be considered alone since they are also bridges to other forms of life.
Zheng Bo, 2021

Sonja Borstner: Your artistic and scientific approach is very closely connected to the solar terms, which is why the timeline of your exhibition is structured according to them. Could you explain how the lunisolar calendar guides your practice?

Zheng Bo: It’s essentially just one dimension – the temporal dimension – that guides my practice. We are so used to the week, month and year, the calendar that structures our lives globally and caters to the capitalist mode of production and consumption. Whereas the lunisolar calendar was developed to help humans to sense the change of seasons. For me this is a very simple way to cultivate our ecosensibility. Temporal and spatial dimensions are just so inconspicuously influential to our worldview, so it’s crucial to start with the way we set time.

Sonja Borstner: In August 2021, you will come together with 11 scientists, activists, gardeners and artists in a three-day-meeting in Berlin called Wanwu Council, dedicated to writing a manifesto of how a sustainable future could be envisioned. Why are you interested in the idea of a “council” and what are you anticipating developing through the encounter with these experts?

Zheng Bo: In the Wanwu Council twelve human participants will come together to channel different forms of being such as plane trees, foxes, microbes and spirits to think about how a cultural institution like the Gropius Bau can move towards a more-than-human future. I initiated this provocation, but what will actually happen very much depends on the collective wisdom of the group. I imagine that we all share a strong commitment to a vibrant, ecological future, but the question of how to move an institution like the Gropius Bau is a challenging one. Anything more-than-human is incredibly challenging, because we live in an anthropocentric era. Almost all of us have grown up receiving education, looking at art, walking around, designing space and participating in politics from an anthropocentric worldview. The Wanwu Council will offer an opportunity to spend three days together trying to live, think, walk and imagine beyond the anthropocentric perspective. And I’m hoping that future councils could be organised, by others perhaps, and eventually a council could be set up more permanently.

Zheng Bo, drawing on Lantau Island, 2020

Zheng Bo on Lantau Island, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery, photo: Kwan Sheung Chi, 2020

Sonja Borstner: For a new series titled Ecosensibility Exercises ⽣態感悟練習 (2021) you will conduct different workshops with visitors on a daily basis. What is your interest in working together with the people on site? And can you explain some of the exercises?

Zheng Bo: There will be six exercises. I will be guiding them every day during the exhibition. Visitors can join me on the platform outside, amid the plane trees, to draw, to interact with the energy of the trees, to sing for them, to honour them, and to dance with them. The aim of these Ecosensibility Exercises is to leave behind the human-centric in our lives. We are so insensitive to other forms of life, to energies and materialities and we, including myself, need to become more ecosensitive. I think many of us now realise that we are in a planetary ecological crisis and we know that we need to change. Perhaps our ideology has already shifted but having a different ideology doesn’t always mean that we have changed our practice. So, for me, an important part of our transformation is to change our sensibilities so that when we walk around, we don’t ignore plants, and can sense their lives even without focused attention, and that we always feel a sense of humility. These exercises are practices for myself but the intention, of course, is that visitors to the exhibition will join me perhaps once or twice and then continue practicing in their own daily lives. As artists, we want to still be curious, we want to be engaged, we want to develop our sensibilities, but we also need to be very conscious about the ways and the medium we use to achieve that.

Zheng Bo, Botanical Comrades 植物同志, 2020

Zheng Bo, Botanical Comrades 植物同志, 2020

© Gropius Bau, photo: Laura Fiorio

Zheng Bo lives and works on Lantau Island, Hong Kong. His solo exhibition Wanwu Council 萬物社 at the Gropius Bau will open on 21 June and run until 23 August 2021. Parallel to his presentation at the Gropius Bau, the Schering Stiftung in Berlin is hosting Zheng Bo’s You are the 0.01%, which will be on view until 30 September 2021. His works are in the collection of Power Station of Art in Shanghai, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Singapore Art Museum, and Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. His projects are included in Liverpool Biennial 2021, Yokohama Triennale 2020, Manifesta 12, the 11th Taipei Biennial, and the 11th Shanghai Biennial. Zheng Bo taught at China Academy of Art from 2010 to 2013, and currently teaches at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong, where he leads the Wanwu Practice Group.