Exhibition at Gropius Bau brings together 366 works on paper by Zheng Bo
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Exhibition at Gropius Bau brings together 366 works on paper by Zheng Bo
Zheng Bo, Botanical Comrades 植物同志 What Do the Trees Want?, 24.10.2020. Gropius Bau, Photo: Laura Fiorio.

BERLIN.- Ecological crises, political upheaval and global health emergencies increasingly endanger planetary life. For Zheng Bo, such predicaments stem from the delusion of human primacy on Earth. Global repair requires stepping beyond human perspectives and accepting the interrelatedness of all life forms. With Wanwu Council 萬物社, the Gropius Bau is presenting an exhibition by the Hong Kong-based artist and teacher, who was also the Gropius Bau’s In House: Artist in Residence 2020.

Zheng Bo’s art, which is also a form of ecological activism, invites us to reconsider the relationships between nature and culture, humans and nonhumans, equality and ecology. Through films, outdoor participatory exercises and a daily practice of botanical drawing, Zheng Bo takes as his subject the politics of all life forms. From spring 2020, he committed to spending contemplative time with plants every day, drawing, listening and learning from nature. Alongside a new film and workshops, the exhibition brings together the first year of this daily practice, presenting 366 works on paper, drawn primarily in Hong Kong and Berlin.

The story of Zheng Bo’s new series Drawing Life 寫生 (2020–2021) begins with the global pandemic and the abrupt changes in travel, life and individual consciousness that this situation necessitated. Living in Hong Kong and, like many others, facing restrictions on movement, Zheng Bo turned to the most elementary of artistic practices, nature drawing, which requires nothing but simple materials, time and the ability and inclination to observe. Finding an ethical and philosophical imperative through this activity, he describes his thinking: “Nowadays it’s no longer about our abilities to draw. It’s about our willingness to draw, to sit with other lives and draw them.” Although he could often go outside, there were times when, facing a mandatory quarantine after he was able to travel again, he drew the same fern for 14 days, indoors. The resulting contemplative series, Drawing Life 寫生, responds to current global conditions and is a keystone of the exhibition.

Gropius Bau Director Stephanie Rosenthal says: “It is my great pleasure to welcome Zheng Bo back to Berlin. During his 2020 residency, Zheng Bo’s artistic research and practice challenged us to consider more-than-human perspectives, particularly the political life of plants: beings that build communities, work together and make decisions. Wanwu Council 萬物社 has the intention of collectively writing a manifesto to outline how the Gropius Bau can embrace a sustainable, multi-species future – a document that will be a useful tool for organisations around the planet.”

The title of the exhibition, Wanwu Council 萬物社, draws from the Daoist notion of wanwu, a term that means “ten thousand things”, “myriad happenings”, but also “more-than-human”, and designates the infinite possibilities of life in all of its forms. A core action of this exhibition is Zheng Bo’s organisation of the “Wanwu Council”, a group of artists, scientists and activists that will gather in August 2021 in Berlin. Each member of the council will channel another form of life or matter-energy: light, water, seasons, soil, microbes, weeds, plane trees, bees, foxes, communities, histories and spirits. The task of the council is to collectively write a manifesto for a wanwu future.

Additionally, Wanwu Council 萬物社 presents a new film that speculates on the central question Zheng Bo posed during his residency: “How do plants practice politics?” Titled The Political Life of Plants 植物的政治生活 (2021), the c. 30-minute long film has as its protagonist an ancient beech forest in Grumsin, Brandenburg, which is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. The film, which was supported by the Schering Stiftung, also features the artist in conversation with Berlin- and Potsdam-base scientists Matthias Rillig and Roosa Laitinen discussing how plants practice politics at a molecular level.

During his residency, entitled Botanical Comrades 植物同志, Zheng Bo hosted events on the start of every solar term, the beginning of a new period in the East Asian lunisolar calendar, which divides a year into 24 solar term periods according to agricultural and astronomical events. This structuring of time intends to “help humans to sense the change of seasons”. From these prototype events, including walk-readings and drawing weeds, stem Zheng Bo’s Ecosensibility Exercises 生態感悟練習(2021). Throughout the exhibition, Zheng Bo is leading exercises, every afternoon, taking place on a new temporary platform built within the “Gropius Wood”, the community of plane trees found west of the Gropius Bau building. These instructions for the Ecosensibility Exercises will also be accessible digitally and can be practiced anytime. Uniting these activities is the artist’s proposal that by overcoming the fiction of human primacy, we can rebuild coexistence for all, interdependent forms of life on Earth.

Wanwu Council 萬物社 frequently draws on the lunisolar calendar’s intuition that life forms and nature contain their own rhythms, an insight that the Gropius Bau has incorporated into its own programme. This exhibition’s schedule of exercises and openings, will begin on the Summer Solstice 夏至, and ends on the 14th solar term, The End of Heat 处暑.

Wanwu Council 萬物社 is curated by Stephanie Rosenthal with Clare Molloy.

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