Beijing, China, 1974
Zheng Bo was born in 1974 and grew up in Beijing. After a year of military training, in 1993 he moved to the United States to study computer science and art. Upon returning to Hong Kong, he received an MFA from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2006, and a PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester in 2012, supervised by Douglas Crimp. Zheng went on to teach socially and ecologically engaged art at China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media.
Zheng describes his ongoing socially engaged practice as “new public art,” in which praxis is indispensable from everyday concerns for public issues. For him, the artwork takes on the form of social participation, intervention and engagement beyond individual expression. The role of the artist thus becomes an “initiator” and a “catalyst” whose work is founded upon his collaboration with other citizens and other species. Not privileging his own aesthetic concerns, it is difficult to circulate new public art within the market. Zheng considers himself an artist, a writer and a teacher who “investigates the past and imagines the future from the perspectives of marginalised communities and marginalised plants.”
At the heart of Zheng’s practice are the notions of relationality and equality. In 2004, he collaborated with migrant workers in Hong Kong to create ‘Happy Meal’, in which five Filipino and Indonesian domestic helpers take turns to tell jokes, showcasing their wit beyond the domestic sphere. The follow-up in 2013, titled ‘Sing for Her’, features the Filipino song “O Ilaw” performed by a group of domestic helpers in Central, Hong Kong. Alluding to the nation’s aspirations for independence, Zheng’s rendition prompts reflections on the rights and political demands of Hong Kong’s Filipino workers, whilst transposing those on the periphery of economic and political realms to the centre of Hong Kong’s artistic and cultural narrative.
While “critical art” risks diluting its subject matter by interlacing political motivations, Zheng succeeds in revealing cultural nuances where power relations are most profoundly manifested. Rather than a political proposal, Zheng’s new public art exudes above all a pragmatism that reclaims aesthetics from the narrow confines it is often reduced to.
In recent years Zheng’s interest has shifted to the reciprocity between plants and politics, the central probe of which is a new way of thinking about nature and society. Emerging from his multiple projects about weeds in urban environments is a new discourse around ecology that addresses the semiotics of plants in relation to Asian modernities.
A case in point is ‘Pteridophilia’ (2016-present), an ongoing investigation into the politics of ferns. Conceived by juxtaposing pterido- and -philia, the moniker imagines intimate relationships one can have with ferns. Simultaneously, it begs basis of mutual understanding and pleasure beyond functional values defined by our contemporary system. In the second chapter filmed in January 2018, a man makes love to a bird’s nest fern then eats it. Whilst this plant is widely used in cuisines from across Asia for its antioxidant properties, Zheng goes one step further, and addresses the morality of consuming it versus having sex with it. The questions that surface in the third chapter are ones of power, control and submission. Incorporating plants into the semiosis of social life, ‘Pteridophilia’ mounts a sensitive and thoughtful encounter between humans and plants – the acceptance of that yearning to connect through body rather than language in order to transform pleasure. Positioned against the flux of mechanised society, Zheng suggests in his provocative practice that our fantasies are essential to weaving new fables of posthumanism, extending our desires to dissolve into other forms of life, and to renew our understanding of the politics of life.
Zheng Bo has worked with a number of museums and art spaces across Asia and Europe, most recently Asia Art Archive (Hong Kong), Parco Arte Vivente (Torino), UCCA Dune Art Museum (Qinhuangdao), Villa Vassilieff (Paris), Ming Contemporary Art Museum (Shanghai), Sifang Art Museum (Nanjing), and Hong Kong Museum of Art. In 2018 his works have been included in Manifesta 12, Cosmopolis #1.5, the 11th Taipei Biennial, the 2nd Yinchuan Biennial, and the 1st Thailand Biennial. Zheng Bo’s work is held in several permanent collections including Power Station of Art (Shanghai), Hong Kong Museum of Art (Hong Kong), Singapore Art Museum (Singapore), Cass Sculpture Foundation (Goodwood) and Hammer Museum (Los Angeles). In 2016, he received Commendation for outstanding achievements in the development of arts and culture from Secretary for Home Affairs, Hong Kong SAR Government.