The founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, is said to have suffered from some peculiar syndromes himself – namely pteridophobia and agoraphobia, or the morbid fear of ferns and public spaces. Undoubtedly, he would find Zheng Bo’s current projects uncomfortable viewing, since they are odes to both.
For the past 12 months, Zheng has been a regular visitor to Taipei, working with groups congregated at Toad Mountain Village, one of the few remaining undocumented communities of military families that once dotted the outskirts of the city. Legacies of the complex and highly contested recent history of Taiwan, these villages were built by migrants loyal to routed Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang-Kai Shek, who fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war. Many have undergone demolition or gentrification in recent years but, supported by a group of cultural activists, Toad Mountain’s ageing population has successfully resisted redevelopment.
The residents are collaborators in Zheng’s Toad Commons (2015–ongoing), a community garden project where native species and weeds are being cultivated in three sections: an allotment now growing edible wild plants; a strip of land, or ‘Avenue for Mountain Spirits’, left for nature to take over; and the word 'ECOEQUAL' planted in wheat. At its launch, it is more building site than landscaped garden, the wheat just sprouts, the avenue little more than marked out with ropes.
However, as with other of Zheng’s garden projects, growth and change are part of the work. His intervention Weed Plot (2016), on the roof of the Sifang Museum in Nanjing, is a wedge of wild plants gathered from the earthworks of nearby property developments, and his recently installed Socialism Good (2016), at the CASS Sculpture Foundation, saw a Chinese political slogan from Beijing replanted in a very British landscape. All these works are semi-permanent and intended to go to seed. The weeds stand for the forgotten, the overlooked or the queer in normative societies: an unusual social allegory of the strength and ability of marginalized people to overcome imposed structures, given time.
This theme continues in an exhibition at TheCube Project Space. An extension of a previous show at Leo Xu projects in Shanghai, the title, ‘Weed Party II’, may be misconstrued – productively and otherwise: according to Zheng, two lonesome and slightly bemused teenagers sat in the opening at the original show, possibly looking for a psychedelic rather than aesthetic experience.
In the Taiwanese edition, a love letter tells his ‘Dear Weed’ of the artist’s relief at being able to use the Chinese word for ‘party’ in Taipei. (The character is banned in China itself.) The letter is installed alongside a new film, Pteridophilia (2016), in which a group of men walk naked into the forest and begin to study, then to engage in sexual encounters with ferns. Despite a deadpan style, it’s difficult not to find some humour in the carefully placed foliage, which maintains a level of almost Victorian modesty.
In an adjacent room, a collection of ferns gathered from local forests extends the historical reference, with echoes of the ‘fern fever’ that swept Britain in the late 19th century. Each specimen is proposed as a symbol for a new, hybrid political party. Alongside them are various references to culture and politics, including an illustrated book that the artist has copied by hand. The original publication was distributed by Japanese colonial forces, which occupied Taiwan between 1895–1945, to educate their Taiwanese subjects about edible wild plants. The fern featured at the top of the list for both abundance and nutrition. This unusual combination of intimacy and political engagement is at the heart of Zheng’s broad-ranging practice. Rather than the hectoring of politics, he approaches plants, drawings and communities alike with a unique tenderness and personal touch where anecdote and critique sit hand in hand.
First published in Issue 183