Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 1–4, 2016–19, 4K video, color, sound, 68 minutes.

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 1–4, 2016–19, 4K video, color, sound, 68 minutes.

Zheng Bo

Botanists and gardening enthusiasts have debated whether playing classical music helps a plant grow. But how about licking it? What if one starts to fellate the plant or, rather, one of its leaves? Nature abhors a vacuum, but does it really object to a nice long suck?

A young man moves his tongue up and down the length of a frond, tonguing the curled green bud at the end as though it were the head of an erect penis. Simultaneously, he moves his squatted ass crack up and down along another stem, groaning all the while, essentially being spit roasted by these two leafy exemplars of nature’s finest. In Pteridophilia 1–4, 2016–19, a suite of collaborations between flora and members of Taiwan’s queer community directed by Zheng Bo, nature is nurtured through the violence of sensuality. Save for one prolonged scene in which a young man munches aggressively on a bird’s-nest fern, I’d been told that no plants were harmed in the making of this film.

For Zheng, this work is political (he is, according to his bio, “committed to human and multispecies equality”). Elsewhere in this inaugural exhibition of New York University Shanghai’s new Institute for Contemporary Arts, Zheng extended this activist stance into a more immediate communal realm in the form of the workshop-based Eco-Socialist Garden, NYU Shanghai, 2019. Having helped members of the local community—among them, students, artists, philosophers, gardeners, and designers—form a pair of collectives and having asked them to posit schemes for the garden of NYU Shanghai’s new building and to write accompanying manifestos, he displayed the resulting proposals in a pair of dioramas and supplied takeaway texts. Both gardens combine an ecological consciousness firmly cognizant of the threats we currently face (one contains a geodesic lab, as well as a river made out of collected rain, in which “an alien rows a boat to ferry the people around”; the other, more ominously, includes a “death valley”) with classical Chinese, specifically Taoist, attempts at embodying and attaining harmony with nature. One, for example, alludes to a Parliament of Ten Thousand Things, a recurring Chinese philosophical concept whose origins can be traced to Lao-tzu and which attempts to displace the human being from the center of the cosmos by emphasizing the inherent multiplicity of the natural world.

We are, in fact, past due for such a reorientation, as the world continuously—and increasingly—reminds us. In the meantime, perhaps the radical offer of tactility, the New Erotics proposed by Pteridophilia 1–4, should be viewed as both a useful metaphor and a warning. In this dystopia we have engineered for ourselves, it is not too far-fetched to describe our relationship to nature as sadomasochistic. Nature has yet to give us the fuck we truly deserve—the fuck of annihilation—though it will surely come soon enough, leaving those boat-rowing aliens to sift through whatever will be left of our ten thousand things.