Diary note 43: Nature and Art

23 VIII 2021

Zheng Bo/Wanwu Council/Gropius Bau

It is not in my nature to join, rather to observe. Yet I joined a meditation around a tree led by the Hong Kong teacher and artist Zheng Bo. I first met him at dinner with some friends, outside a Vietnamese restaurant on a rainy evening and had been struck by the light linen garb he was wearing over his bare body. I had thought of offering him my scarf. Did he not feel cold, I asked? He answered by saying he went for a swim in a Berlin lake every morning at sunrise.

I told him I had seen his contribution to The Garden of Earthly Delights, a year ago, at Gropius Bau. I had been struck by the four videos of naked young men making love to ferns, a truly horizontal relationship. Did he not feel the Chinese tradition, especially Taoism, had a different attitude from western philosophy to nature as a whole? The western tradition maintains a distance between nature and man, while in Chinese paintings of nature for instance, man would be presented as a small particle within its movement? From here we started to talk.

We continued the conversation after having visited his personal exhibition this year. Again at Gropius Bau, where the director, Stephanie Rosenthal, is bringing new themes. He was artist in residence for 2020 to that Museum. He told me that looking out from his studio upstairs he had been gazing down at the treetops of the park surrounding the building and felt estranged. He had asked permission to single out a tree as his place of meditation. Indeed, the motto in the catalogue reflected this view. “For me a garden is more than a space to cultivate others; it is ultimately a place to cultivate ourselves.” As the park outside was a public space, this meant personalizing the space around his tree. Yet, as he started to attract onlookers for his qi gong- like exercises in communion with the tree, a platform of tiles had been laid, some ten by ten meters, on which participants could join. It was on this platform he asked me to join. I was the only aged participant, most of them being young. This made some movements, especially stepping backwards, onerous and out of order.

This was outside the building, but also inside the building his exhibition was mainly visited by the young. Singles and couples would wander into the room where videos were projected on large screens. They listened for a while and then sat down and stretched on the floor. What were they listening to? A conversation between the artist and a scientist about the common life of trees in a forest. It took me some time to discover the speakers, somewhere among the trees, but after a while I spotted the artist and his white linen shroud.

The exhibition was called Wanwu Council, which did not quite match the meaning council of ten thousand things, translated from the Chinese. Council could also have been rendered by gathering. The idea was to grant political equality to all life forms. Except for this democratic message, the originality of the show also lies in the method. No longer is Chinese culture seen as wrapped in its own separate identity, but as participating in a global conversation.

In western culture one had to go back to Saint Francis speaking to the birds or calling the sun his brother or to the great landscape paintings of Breughel to hear the same dialogue.