Hong Kong-based artist Zheng Bo, who lives in a remote village on Lantau Island, says that it is impossible for him to work alone. “Collaboration is essential to me,” he says. “And I’m not only talking in terms of collaborating with humans. In my latest video, there are five human participants, but there are also five pine trees that they dance with. Then there are other trees and moss and birds. We are collaborating with trees, with the forest.”
Zheng has spent the past decade choreographing performances and making drawings, videos and installations that explore humanity’s complicated relationship with nature. These works have been exhibited to critical acclaim around the globe and, this year, his latest video Le Sacre du Printemps, is being included in the central exhibition of the Venice Biennale, the world’s most important contemporary art event. The exhibition, titled The Milk of Dreams, runs until November 27.
“In Venice I’m showing a new dance film, but it’s really a dance project that I hope to develop into a longer piece,” says Zheng. The project began roughly two years ago, when curators Rickard Borgström and Rebecca Chentinell invited Zheng to Sweden, where, with the help of a local ecologist, they introduced him to an ancient forest that is home to nearly 600-year-old pine trees.
The trio later returned with five male dancers from around Scandinavia, with whom they devised a dance in this untouched wilderness. On the second day of the shoot, Zheng had an epiphany. He recalled something he had read, which said that “maybe trees are like us, but their root systems are like our brains.” Inspired, Zheng asked the dancers to stand on their heads, leaving only their legs free to move, waving in the air like branches in the wind. “Something clicked. It immediately felt like we were bonding with the trees,” he says. “It’s because when we have our feet on the ground, it’s very easy for us to flee, but when we put our head into the soil, we plant ourselves.”
The resulting sixteen-minute-long video is filmed mostly upside down, so the trees point downwards and the dancers, who are standing on their heads, appear to be oriented the right way up, although their feet swing through empty air. This change in perspective forces viewers to look at plants from other angles, and to reconsider where humanity stands in relation to the natural world.
All of Zheng’s recent work encourages people to reflect on their relationship with nature. In a 2020 essay published in ArtAsiaPacific magazine, which reads almost like a political manifesto, Zheng wrote: “We cannot continue living in the fantasy that we own this planet. (…) We have to collaborate with other species, whether we like it or not. This includes addressing the climate crisis and a global ecological meltdown.” To do this, Zheng suggests through his art, we must learn to value plants in the same way that we do humans.
Zheng first became interested in plants when he was living in Shanghai in the early 2010s and noticed weeds thriving on the site of the former Shanghai Cement Factory on the West Bund. Much of Zheng’s art at the time was exploring political ideas of equality and the marginalisation of minority groups. Looking at the weeds, he began to consider how humanity had pushed all other forms of life to the margins, even though human beings make up only 0.01 percent of the Earth’s biomass.
While ruminating on this idea, Zheng moved to Hong Kong in 2013 to take up a teaching position at City University, where he supervises PhD students working in socially engaged art. Hong Kong is one of the most intensely urban places in the world, but it provided Zheng with new opportunities to learn about—and fall in love with—plants. “Hong Kong is very special because it is part of the Indo-Burma region and actually has very high biodiversity compared to Beijing and Shanghai,” says Zheng. “And given Hong Kong’s colonial history, 40 percent of the land has been preserved as country parks.” It was the former governor of Hong Kong—and avid hiker—Murray MacLehose who introduced the Country Parks Ordinance in 1976, protecting swathes of wilderness so that people could escape to the countryside from Hong Kong’s booming towns.
Zheng lives in a village on the south coast of Lantau, much of which remains undeveloped. “My village will usually have about 20 people around,” he says. “I walk up the hill behind the village and there are millions of plants. There are also the fish in the ocean and shellfish on the beach. I’m not living in the centre of the metropolis.”
Some of Zheng’s most recent pieces have been directly inspired by Hong Kong’s flora. When pandemic restrictions were in full force, he went on a daily walk into the forest near his home. When he saw a plant he was interested in, he would sit and draw it. At first, he made these drawings as a form of meditation rather than as part of his artmaking, but some of the sketches have since been included in Zheng’s recent exhibitions at Gropius Bau in Berlin, the Kunsthalle Lisbon and at the K11 Art Foundation in Hong Kong.
Several of Zheng’s drawings were also included in his 2021 exhibition at Hong Kong’s Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, titled Life is hard. Why do we make it so easy? Alongside the drawings, the show featured a selection of living installations: large bamboo sculptures of the words from the exhibition title, each covered in living orchids. Zheng installed these sculptures in a forest, hanging some pieces high in the canopy, so viewers had to inspect the treetops to find all the artworks. This unusual set-up encouraged deep contemplation of the forest itself, while also posing questions about where the art ended and where nature began. Forests, Zheng has previously suggested, are more interesting than any art humans can create.
More than 130 orchid species local to Hong Kong were grown on the installations under the supervision of Stephan Gale, a senior ecologist at Kadoorie Farm. The exhibition was accompanied by a guidebook co-written with Gale that gave detailed scientific information about the life cycles of orchids. But Zheng wants to do more than teach gallery-goers about the science of plants – he wants people to connect with nature emotionally, and sometimes even physically.
All the dancers in the film he is showing in Venice are naked. His most famous work, Pteridophilia, a 12-part video piece, features naked men caressing, licking and gyrating against ferns in a forest in Taiwan. “A friend in college said that there’s one way to get to know someone very quickly – to have sex with that person,” says Zheng. “That stuck with me. I was doing a residency in Taiwan in 2016 and I was doing research into the local history of ferns in Taiwan, but I thought it was too intellectual. I needed a way to get to know these plants emotionally and bodily. And what the friend said in college came to my mind. So, I thought, let’s try it and see if it helps us to get to know the plants. And I think it did.” Zheng believes that the more ways people interact with plants—physically, emotionally and mentally—the better we will understand them, and the more likely we will be to protect them.
Although the idea of having sex with plants might seem amusing, repulsive or even immoral—one museum in Switzerland refused to show Pteridophilia—Zheng’s videos are just the latest in a long line of artworks that explore bodily connection with nature. Some of these pieces have been made to titillate viewers—for example Hokusai’s 1814 print The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, which features a woman in an embrace with an octopus—but others have used sexual or romantic imagery to promote environmental protection.
In the early 2000s, the American artists Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens began a series of performances in which they married places such as the Appalachian Mountains in the US and Lake Kallavesi in Finland to encourage viewers to think of the Earth as they would a partner—someone whose life is intimately entwined with yours, who supports you through good times and bad, and who deserves your devotion in return. In a conversation Bo had with Sprinkle and Stephens, which was recorded for the book The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change, Bo said of their work and his own: “It’s about sexuality, but it’s also about love.”
Zheng’s love for nature is accompanied by fear. “I don’t know if art is a powerful way to make people think about ecological issues, but it’s one of the tools,” he says. “I don’t know if any tool is powerful enough right now. Increasingly I see humans as an evolutionary path that may come to a dead end pretty soon. But having said that, I think it’s morally wrong if we drag massive numbers of other lives with us into extinction.”
So Zheng keeps working, hoping that his work will make some people think more deeply about their relationship with nature. After the Venice Biennale, he is returning to Sweden to make the next chapter of his video work in collaboration with the centuries-old pine trees. And every day, wherever he is in the world, he will keep going for a walk to discover and draw the plants around him. “There are plants everywhere. If I can’t go into a forest, I’ll draw some weeds in the city,” he says. “I hope that project continues as long as I live.”
The Milk of Dreams is on show at the Venice Biennale until November 27, 2022. Click here for more information.