Art Talk  Zheng Bo

Currently residing on the beautiful island of Lantau, Zheng Bo has been working closely with a variety of plants, creating some amazing ecological artworks over the years.

Text: Ho Siu Bun
Translation: Perfect Ink Media
Photo by courtesy of artist

He also has a particular interest in EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) species.

Thanks to his work, which is related to a range of social and political topics, he has a good understanding of people in general but says he always feels ignorant when it comes to the complex world of plants.

“Scientists study plants only from a biological and ecological perspective,” Zheng says. “But it is interesting to learn the roles different plants have played throughout the history of mankind. Take the Opium War as an example. The conflict first started when the British came to China to buy tea, and both opium and tea are plant-based products. For hundreds of years, many important events in history were related to plants, but we only focused on human activities instead,” the artist adds.
Zheng often talks about the decisions plants make, but how is that possible? “In a recent conversation with Dr. Stephan Gale at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG), I have learned that the seeds of orchids are so small they need energy provided by fungi to germinate,” he says. “This kind of cross-species relationship between orchids and fungi was probably formed several million years ago through evolution. We often talk about cooperating with our own kind, but we never mention anything about how dependent our life is on other living beings. While most people consider themselves superior to other species, I strongly believe we are all equal,” he adds.

In 2013, Zheng moved from Beijing via Hangzhou to Hong Kong. With a strong passion for hiking, Zheng was impressed by the abundance of lush green vegetation in Southern China. His sketching sessions in the mountains have made him more observant and more able to appreciate nature. One of the signature features of his ecological creation is the use of species unique to the local environment. “Hong Kong definitely beats Beijing when it comes to biodiversity. There are so many species and varieties of plants in the country parks here!”

Zheng’s work often comes with a message related to eco-friendly practices. “Many people are concerned about climate change, but I have read The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and a lot of information from different organisations, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and I can tell you I am more concerned about the sixth extinction,” the artist says.

Words made from orchids
Zheng Bo’s exhibition, titled Life is hard. Why do we make it so easy?, is inspired by the thought-provoking TED Talk, “Life is easy. Why do we make it so hard?” by Jon Jandai, a farmer and activist for sustainable living from northeastern Thailand. Jandai described his personal journey returning from Bangkok to the countryside, to a farming life, and founded the Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance. His point is that life can be simple. Why do people move to big cities to toil as migrant workers when they can stay in their villages and work on the land?

Zheng creates his project based on Jandai’s talk but emphasises that all forms of life are created equal and all are precious. He believes that life on earth is supposed to be both easy and hard, but, as human beings, we often make our lives easy at the expense of other organisms and living beings in nature, making life extremely difficult for them. What Jandai advocates can merely change personal behaviours. Only by learning to live with other species in harmony and face crises together can we truly prevent the tragedies that are coming our way.

“Convenience is a fundamental aspect of our culture, but the price we pay is way too high. For example, many people like to buy bottled water when thirsty, and the bulk of these plastic bottles (each of which takes 100 years to decompose) always ends up in landfills. Part of the problem is that we want to make our lives easy. Let’s look at life in a more basic and general sense. There are actually 5,000 genes in one single bacterium, and it took hundreds of millions of years for it to evolve to become what it is today. That’s a lot of decisions to be made. I really hope my work can inspire people to have a newfound respect for all life on Earth, both large and small,” the artist explains.

Zheng’s original work was first presented at Thailand Biennale Krabi 2018. Upon learning that the local Orchid Grower Community Enterprise had been cultivating orchids and putting them back into nature to replace stolen ones, Zheng was inspired to create botanical slogans by growing orchid species native to Thailand with the help of local experts. Here, the artist works with the resident botanist at KFBG, replacing the flowers used in the original installation with local orchid species.

“As the letters will be displayed in mid-air, the audience will have to look up to reconstruct the whole slogan. I hope by discovering this text, made of living plants, viewers will think about the message I’m trying to get across,” he adds.
In the face of crises, Zheng is not particularly optimistic about the approach humans are taking to solve the world’s problems. “I don’t think we can sort this out unless we agree to work with other living beings and treat them as equals. After all, the Earth and the entire ecosystem have been constantly evolving for 4.5 billion years.” ▲

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