words by charmaine li
For a new exhibition, artist Zheng Bo leads a series of exercises to help visitors move beyond a human-centered perspective of the world. Can these practices teach us how to bond with other natural life forms?
On a Friday afternoon in July, I find myself getting intimate with a plane tree in a parking lot. Standing with my feet shoulder-width apart, I arch my back and look up at its leaves, then draw my gaze down the length of its trunk and curl forward with my chin toward my chest. I repeat this sequence for two to three minutes while trying to synchronize my breath with the flow of my movements. During one deep inhale, with my head tilted back and my lips slightly parted, I see wavering leaves drenched in sunlight from a new angle. Feeling calm and at one with the tree’s essence, I realize it’s the first time I’ve spent so much time communing with a plant.
In fact, there are four other people facing this plane tree and we’re all slowly undulating our bodies towards it as cars whizz past and people chatter at the museum terrace nearby. One of the people with me is Chinese artist Zheng Bo, who, barefoot and donning a lightweight tan-colored tunic, is leading one of his Ecosensibility Exercises 生態感悟練習 (2021). The series of six exercises is part of his exhibition Wanwu Council 萬物社—on show at Gropius Bau in Berlin until August 23—which invites visitors to rethink human-centric perspectives and envision a more equitable coexistence between all species on Earth.
In the midst of a climate crisis, Bo believes we can work towards repairing some of the damage by confronting the reductive belief of human primacy on the planet and reconnecting to nature in more nuanced ways. “Collectively, if we don’t change, we are on the path to extinction,” Bo told Atmos. “And not only are we killing ourselves but we’ll be dragging a great majority of life on this planet with us. So there’s an absolute urgency for us to leave our ego-centric way of living.”
The Interconnectedness of All Life Forms
Many of us are accustomed to viewing plants as sustenance or decorative objects, if not downright ignoring their presence in our daily lives. It’s not an uncommon position if you’ve been socialized to see and navigate the world through a Western, anthropocentric lens.
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In the title of the exhibition, Bo introduces us to the Daoist notion of wanwu, a phrase that can be translated to “ten thousand things” or “myriad happenings” — and refers to the infinite possibilities of life in all things (not just in humans). It’s important to note that wu (or “things”), in Chinese, doesn’t refer to individual, isolated entities as it does in the Western context, but rather phenomena, happenings, and histories that are always in flux. For the Hong Kong-based artist, wanwu offers a more expansive model of how living beings can relate to each other on the planet.
With the Ecosensibility Exercises, Bo intends to help hone our ability to sense and respect the natural forms of life that surround us. Every afternoon during the exhibition, he meets visitors on a platform amid a forest of plane trees, where Gropius Bau’s parking area is located, to conduct these practices. Whether it’s ‘Collecting Tree Qi 採樹氣’, ‘Drinking Sun Exercise 飲⽇功’, or ‘Drawing Weeds Practice 繪稊修’, Bo’s exercises guide us—momentarily—to acknowledge the multifaceted existence of plants and the interconnectedness of all beings.
Collectively, if we don’t change, we are on the path to extinction.
For Bo, being attuned to nature isn’t merely about shifting our perspective to fight the ecological crises, it can also enrich the quality of our lives. “Personally, I like to go on a walk and feel that there are many vibrant lives around me,” said Bo, who has been working with plants in his socially engaged art practice since 2013. “It brings a lot of beauty and joy to my life. So the practice isn’t just about saving ourselves and other lives, it’s also about living a good life.” This latter statement is in line with a growing body of research that shows how being in and with nature can have positive effects on our physical, social, and emotional well-being.
Making Time to Practice
When asked about where the idea for the Ecosensbility Exercises came from, Bo described it as a culmination of several events. “The idea started taking shape a few years ago in Hong Kong when I started taking groups out on silent walks and to draw weeds on the street,” he recalled. “Then, last year, I met [Indigenous Mari artist] Joulia Strauss at a show in Berlin and she taught me how to drink the sun, which was such a simple and beautiful practice. This got me thinking about how every culture has their own method of connecting to nature.”
Each of the Ecosensbility Exercises is either conceived by Bo (for example, the ‘Drawing Weeds Practice’) or inspired by another culture that the artist clearly credits (such as the ‘Sacred Grove Ritual 神森禮’, which is rooted in a Japanese ritual that honors trees). “I think anyone can do these exercises. They’re not difficult to learn,” he explained. “The difficulty is actually doing them as often as we can and then coming to realize how other species live.” Ultimately, the exercises are about developing a regular, embodied practice of being present, learning from, and, even, revering other natural entities.
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While Bo doesn’t characterize the exercises or his art as a form of ecological activism, he’s convinced it’s crucial for us, humans, to go beyond seeing ourselves as the center of the world in order to imagine a better future. “On a metaphorical level, I like to think about my projects as gardens that grow over time,” he said. “In the process of gardening, I’m not only cultivating other beings, but I’m also self-cultivating, which is a notion that’s very much of the Chinese philosophical tradition.”
Some weeks after participating in the ‘Collecting Tree Qi’ session with Bo, I walked into my living room and spotted the sad browning tips of my spider plant hanging off the bookshelf. Guilt set in. Despite learning how to sense the qi (which refers to the vital life force in Daoist philosophy) of a tree, I realized I hadn’t continued the exercise on my own—nor had I paid enough attention to my plants to notice they were in dire need of water.
It reminded me of something Bo said in an interview with the museum: “Perhaps our ideology has already shifted but having a different ideology doesn’t always mean that we have changed our practice. So, for me, an important part of our transformation is to change our sensibilities.” It also reminded me to carve out some time to collect qi from my rubber tree this weekend.
The video instructions for Zheng Bo’s ‘Ecosensibility Exercises’ are online. The exhibition ‘Wanwu Council 萬物社’ is on show at Gropius Bau in Berlin until August 23.