Fern of Desire
If you haven’t thought about your sexual relationship with plants, Bo Zheng’s first solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Lissabon (until the end of August) provides the perfect opportunity to consider it. On display, a series of four videos titled Pteridophilia, numbered from 1 to 4; and an ensemble of pencil-on-paper drawings titled Drawing Life. The presentation of the two series is divided into two rooms in Kunsthalle’s basement space. The drawings are in the first, framed under soft spotlights, and hung together in two sets of nine. In the second, large pillows welcome viewers to a projection of the four looped videos (video lengths range between 15 and 20 minutes).
Zheng started the series Pteridophilia, which is to be understood as the love (-philia) of ferns (pterido-), in 2016, in Taiwan. The films are set in a tropical forest where young, naked men have many prolonged types of interactions with ferns, ranging from the sensual to the pornographic. What sparked this series was a residency Zheng did on the island. Zheng’s scope of research covers marginalised communities—including the prism of marginalised plants—but also long walks in nature and observation of the fauna and flora that surrounds him. At home, in Hong Kong, he studies nature on Lantau Island, where he lives. In Taiwan, he came across varied species of Taiwanese fern. The plant has been overlooked throughout history on the island, yet had aesthetic and biological qualities for Zheng. Flowerless, ferns reproduce by releasing spores. Their sexuality is somehow hidden, like many of the other subtle themes that run throughout the work.
In the first video, six young, naked men enter the forest, getting their bodies acquainted with the vegetation. Then, each in their respective spots, they begin to caress themselves and the ferns. Sensual gestures, mouth kissing the leaves, hands and fingers pulsating through the foliage, the young men are clearly aroused. But in this first iteration of Pteridophilia (presented here as a story in four chapters, ‘5 and ‘6 are apparently in the works), the desires or sense of chemistry slightly lack conviction, despite the strong erotic intent and the clarity of the climax. It carries some humour, though, as a light preamble of sorts, already perfectly setting the mesmerising beauty of the natural elements in which the scenes unfold.
The second film deserves a stand-alone. In an eco-porn category of its own, it shows a man mounting a large fern, thrusting it passionately and moaning, licking its smaller bits as if they were as many sexual organs. He also smells the earth on which the plant stands and brings it to his face. In turn, the camera often takes the angle view of the plant, as it if were a participating sexual partner, which, from that angle, the viewer is too. Opportunities for a varied range of empathies abound. The viewer’s gaze follows the alternative focusing in and out of the background, going from a detail to the larger picture, shifting point of views. Upon climaxing, the man devours the plant feverishly in an enraptured gesture of ultimate communion (some species of fern are comestible, we learn). Pornographic, ecological, ritual, the video blends a richness of possible tracks to follow.
The third video is more educational, specifically if the coveted knowledge revolves around BDSM practices with plants. Here the viewer is offered a visual catalogue of sorts: skin pressed on spikes (some species of fern have spikes, we also learn), spanking fronds, tying up one’s penis with vines, choking, peeing, and so on. After the introduction of notes of queerness and of sex with plants in the first two videos, Zheng BDSM’s chapter, staging an admittedly secret sexual practice, begins to form together a video-portrait of a world where sexuality with plants could be the norm, with its associated alternative practices.
In the last video, Zheng shoots many portraits of fern saplings, lingering on their strong but delicately drawn geometrical shapes, specifically those of fiddlehead ferns. Two men caress them together ecstatically. Perhaps, this is the threesome chapter of this educational journey. A sense of abandonment prevails, as well as of youth and contemplation, supported by much sexualised fingering on stems.
About the addition of the drawings to the exhibition—sketches of different types of plants—it seems superfluous in the space, except for the insight into Zheng’s practice, who entertains many other ways of integrating nature in his artistic practice than it is possible to grasp with the videos and drawings only.
Together, the films appear as a study of sexual practices with fern, from coming to age and passionate love to BDSM. Exposing everything as a sensual surface, skins and plants seem to be using arousal as a way for communication—a mind-expanding idea in itself. Eco-queer is the environment that originates Zheng’s work. Pleasure is here of a sexual nature, but it also comes from being in the jungle, with its warm rays of sunlight playing through the shades of green; paired with the sounds of a stream nearby, the chirps and whirrs of insects and birds, and the occasional breeze rustling of the leaves. This pleasure is summer-friendly and sensual, but it is ultimately part of another ecstatic sense, that of connection with nature.
To interpret these stories, we are invited to shift our gaze from its usual human-centric pivot to that of the general whole: what poets call cosmos, or rather the Dao, the absolute principle underlying the universe, often referenced by Zheng.
Besides the Dao, rather accepting of maintaining the harmony with the natural order, advocating for nature in our current dominant world philosophy is a political stance. Doing so in an alternative way establishes that stance further. In contrast, the protagonists in these videos are light, they have shed their preconceived ideas, society’s conventions, and judgement, to literally escape naked into the woods to make themselves one with nature. Here this communion is sexualised, but that is perhaps only to emphasise that the bond with nature is at a primal level, at least more so than constructions, romantic or otherwise, characteristic of sex between humans. On the one hand, we can view these works and ask questions about our own sexuality and our relationships with our bodies; on the other, we can ponder on our relationship with nature, and our bodies’ relationship with it.
Ultimately, exposing, documenting, or even just imagining these covered sexual and pornographic practices is at once a confusing and effective hook to invite us into developing a deeper reflection about our current environmental priorities, and our sense of place, as humans on the planet.
Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art critic, curator and writer. She is a regular international contributor to art publications such as Artforum, Frieze, Hyperallergic, and other publications including the South China Morning Post. She was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Hong Kong-based independent art magazine Pipeline that ran print editions form 2011 to 2016 where she curated thematic issues with artists, curators and other art contributors. She has a Masters degree in International Prospective from Paris V University.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.
Zheng Bo: The Soft and Weak Are Companions of Life 柔弱者生之徒-. Vistas da exposição na Kunsthalle Lissabon. Cortesia do artista e Kunsthalle Lissabon. Fotos: Bruno Lopes.