During the lead up to this second installment of the Venice Biennale Performance Programme, we are releasing a series of conversations between Aaron Cezar (Delfina Foundation) and the participating artists.
Episode 4 of Delfina Foundation’s Interviews series features artist Bo Zheng.
Aaron Cezar: As well as conducting your own socially-engaged projects, you have also spent many years researching the history of these types of practice in China as well as teaching about it. Could you tell us about this work and its importance to you?
Bo Zheng: As an artist, I started making relational works in the early 2000s, with Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong and the queer community in Beijing. Soon I realized that I needed to read more on social theory. In 2007 I enrolled in the Visual & Cultural Studies program at University of Rochester, and studied with Douglas Crimp for a PhD. I never planned to teach, but was recruited by China Academy of Art in 2012 when a new School of Intermedia Art was set up. I started teaching socially engaged art there. Although I could find a lot of information on social practice in Europe and North America, there is hardly anything on China. There are many Chinese artists doing social practice, but there is just no one documenting this field. So I decided to build an online archive, seachina.net. Now I use it for teaching; so do many colleagues in China and abroad. It’s useful. None of this – art, teaching, research – was planned. I just did it because there was a clear need for it. These days I always tell people (and plants) that I want to be useful.
AC: In recent years your practice also engaged with ecology, with a number of projects involving community gardens and transplantations. Could you tell us about a few of these and what interests you about such spaces?
BZ: Since 2013, my practice has expanded to working not only with people but also with plants. My first project, “Plants Living in Shanghai”, included two components: we saved a beautiful patch of weeds in an area that was going through rapid transformation and set up the area as a found botanical garden; we – seven scholars and me – created an online course on the relationship between plants and the city of Shanghai. We examined this relationship from multiple perspectives: ecology, urban planning, history, literature, and Chinese medicine.
Since then I have transplanted weeds into elevators at Ming Contemporary Art Museum in Shanghai, onto the roof of Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing, and into a gallery at Times Museum in Guangzhou. I love weeds. They are humble, tough, and collaborative. I’m also passionate about their marginality. Our mainstream culture remains hostile to anything on the margins, people and plants. The political system in China is obsessed with control and uniformity. Weeds tenaciously subvert this mindset. We humans are arrogant and fragile. There is a lot we can learn from weeds.
AC: Your most recent project “Pteridophilia” is a move away from a series of site-specific installations. What brought about this expansion?
BZ: I was working in Taiwan in 2016 and became fascinated by ferns – visually, biologically and historically. Taiwan is a hotspot for ferns. But neither the Japanese colonialists who occupied Taiwan in the first half of the twentieth century nor the Nationalists who ruled Taiwan in the second half paid much attention to ferns. Only indigenous people are intimate with ferns. As a Mainland Chinese, I wanted to connect to Taiwan – its land, ecology, and history – and ferns offered me a path. Then the question was: how can I become intimate with ferns? The idea of making an erotic film, between men and ferns, dawned on me. I shot the first part of this film in 2016, and have been going back to the same forest to make part 2, 3 and 4 over the last three years. It’s an ongoing project. I love going to the forest and making this work slowly, because I needed time to grow, to become more ecologically sensitive.
AC: “Pteridophilia” encourages solidarity and intimacy between the human and the non-human – in this work, between queer men and ferns. Can you explain more about why you depicted this relationship?
BZ: In 2016 when I started making this film, I didn’t realize that this project would expand my understanding of queerness. You see, ferns’ sexuality is very complex – one generation produces sperms and eggs and the next generation produces spores. In other words, one generation has binary sexuality and the next has singular sexuality. It was not me who planned everything and made this connection between ferns and queer men. Perhaps it’s the ferns who helped me to learn.
Twelve queer men in Taiwan have participated in this project. I’m very grateful to them. In that beautiful forest, it was very natural to be naked, to caress the plants, to kiss them. Today many of us are fully aware of the climate emergency and ecological meltdown, and are trying to address it by writing, teaching, and protesting. In addition to all these, it’s very important that we develop truly intimate relations with other species. For me, it’s ferns. For others, it could fungi, insects, or microbes.
AC: Finally, please tell us about what you will be presenting in Venice in November.
BZ: I’ll be presenting a “Plant Sex Workshop”. I’ll share what I have learned recently, that eroticism between species is nothing new. Some bees and orchids have been having sex for a long time. And Japanese artists in the 19th century created a large portfolio of prints depicting, and imagining, humans and various species entangled sexually. The workshop will be hands-on, all puns indented.
Bo Zheng’s participation in the performance programme of the 58th Venice Biennale of Art is supported by Delfina Foundation’s Network of Asia-Pacific Patrons. The programme is commissioned by Arts Council England and co-produced by Delfina Foundation and the Biennale as part of Meetings on Art.