“We cannot continue living in the fantasy that humans own this planet. How can art institutions move towards a more-than-human future?”
The Beauty of Plants: Zheng Bo at Gropius Bau
Yes, we all know that there’s a major exhibition of Yayoi Kusama happening at Gropius Bau right now… But have you already seen Zheng Bo exploring the beauty of plants and flowers?
Entering the exhibition, one quickly becomes aware of the holistic approach that Zheng Bo pursues. In the form of ecological activism, the relationship of man to nature, ecology and culture is dealt with. In addition to drawings (366!) that are the stand-out pieces in the exhibition, one can also participate in workshops and watch a new film by the artist.
Zheng Bo, who already was Gropius Bau’s In House: Artist in Residence in 2020, has been spending time with plants every day since spring 2020, drawing them, listening to them, learning from them, and changing his perspective. As a peaceful practice and meditation, he therefore invites viewers to join this practice and participate in the workshops he himself oversees.
In the Drawing Life 寫生 series, 366 drawings have been created, organized in different rooms according to season and corresponding time of creation. The simplicity of the room’s layout also reflects the ecological approach. Pencil works on paper are presented between wooden and glass panels on a foundation of stone.
„I would encounter thousands, millions of plants. When something caught my attention, I would stop, find a place to sit, and draw. But I also know that it doesn’t matter what I decide to draw – every plant is fascinating when I really look, even the most common one. I’m drawing living plants. It’s a practice to see life, to sense life, and to record life, albeit in a very limited way. Initially I was curious to learn the names that our ancestors and scientists have given to the plants. I used two apps, one book, and two websites to make sure that I got the right identification. After a while, finding out the name was no longer important.“
If there is one thing that is striking about Zheng Bo’s drawings, it is the accuracy and care with which they were made. In this, even when looking at them, the habits and characteristics of the pandemic are noticeable: Routine, repetition, precision and simplicity. And at the same time, looking at itself becomes a meditation, almost a contact with nature: the ritual becomes an experience for Zheng Bo not at all dissimilar to those of Pandemic. „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.“
Following the East Asian Lunisolar Calendar, which divides a year into 24 solar terms periods according to agricultural and astronomical events, Zheng Bo held events at the start of each new solar term during his residency. Walk-readings, drawing weeds are meant to help understand the change the seasons and experience a calendar that does not conform to the capitalist mode of production.
„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.“
An experience in which the connection to plants can once again be felt for oneself is also the new circa 30-minute film by Zheng Bo. Made during his time as artist in residence in a beech forest in Brandenburg, it is accompanied by two molecular biologists and shows conversations between them and the artist about the politics of plants. Formally, the film borrows from Soviet cinema in the early 1920s.
And if you still haven’t learned enough about plants and trees, you can participate in daily events under the title Botanical Comrades 植物同志 (led by the artist himself) and work on your ecosensibility…
The exhibition truly manages to change one’s own perspective, to break out of habits. Especially in times of the pandemic, when the desire of many for nature, peace and quietness has become greater, the rooms in the Gropius Bau form a haven of peace in the hustle and bustle of Berlin. At the same time, one rethinks the approaches of Western societies, which are oriented toward performance and productivity. You can visit the exhibtion until 23 August 2021. Tickets can be booked here.
Words by Antonia Schmidt