Zheng Bo: Wanwu Council 萬物社

Curated by Stephanie Rosenthal with Clare Molloy
Gropius Bau, Berlin
21.6 - 23.8.2021

Zheng Bo (b. 1974, Beijing, lives and works on Lantau Island, Hong Kong) was the Gropius Bau’s In House: Artist in Residence in 2020. His background is in activism and socially engaged art. Collaborating with communities of people and, most recently, plants, he is interested in reshaping responses to climate crisis and creating equality for all species.

His residency began by asking the unusual question, “how can we humans sense the ways plants practice politics?” rather than, “what roles do plants play in human politics?” Combining ecological and participatory social practice, his new body of work includes drawing, filmmaking and leading workshops that consider this question from both scientific and spiritual angles.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Zheng Bo to slow down. Walking and drawing became part of his daily rhythm. Wanwu Council 萬物社 reflects the time he spent with plants in Hong Kong and Berlin. For him, art is a way of developing what he calls “ecosensibility” and considering all forms of life on Earth. Accordingly, this exhibition also takes place outside. Zheng Bo invites you to join him every afternoon for Ecosensibility Exercises 生態感悟練習 in the Gropius Wood, where you can get to know the community of plane trees.


Drawing Life 寫生

366 drawings, displayed in 24 solar term sets
Pencil on paper

For Zheng Bo, drawing means spending time getting to know plants. Sitting down to look closely at his “plant neighbors,” he describes how this peaceful practice “feels like a meditation.” This series of 366 daily drawings is called Drawing Life 寫生, a title that inverts the artistic practice of life drawing in which people are depicted, signalling instead how Zheng Bo focuses his attention beyond the human.

This room and the next bring together studies of local plant life on Lantau Island, Hong Kong. Living in a village on the island’s south side, Zheng Bo would climb a nearby hill each morning, stopping to draw plants that intrigued him. Using variations of line and shading, he sketched the flowers, leaves and stems of small plants.

The drawings are arranged on tables according to solar terms, 24 periods in the traditional East Asian lunisolar calendar, rather than dividing the year into twelve months. Zheng Bo believes that “to develop our ecological sensibility, it’s crucial to start with the way we think about time.” The solar terms are 14 to 16 days long and their names signal the changing seasons. The relevant solar term and date are written on each drawing in Mandarin Chinese.


Hong Kong’s subtropical climate has produced a dense evolution of luscious plants, which grow together as collective habitats. Zheng Bo would initially try to identify the species of each plant that he was drawing using apps, websites and books. However, he subsequently changed his approach to just being with what he describes as “the collective”.

For Zheng Bo, this means having a physical experience opposite to the fast-paced life of constantly moving. The COVID-19 pandemic forced him to spend more time at home. With thousands of plants growing on Lantau Island, he would hike for twenty minutes before leaving the main route for an old trail. Drawing became a way of sitting with multiple species, slowing down, looking carefully and appreciating nature.

Every plant is fascinating if you look closely enough, even the least respected of plants, such as those labelled weeds. The mind-set of pre-modern Chinese artists was ecological because they saw humans as just a small part of nature, which is reflected in how they drew classical landscapes. Zheng Bo continues this tradition. While drawing is a simple practice, it is also a way to see life, to sense life and to record life in all of its complexity.


In August 2020, Zheng Bo arrived in Berlin as part of his residency at the Gropius Bau. This room and the next bring together drawings from the artist’s time in Europe, including works from Berlin, Frankfurt and Lisbon. There is a clear change from Hong Kong’s subtropical plant life to the flora of northern and southern Europe.

He began to draw trees for the first time in Berlin. Looking out from his studio on the second floor of the Gropius Bau, he saw an extensive canopy of plane trees and realised that there is a small forest living next to the building. Rising between the cobblestones of the car park, Zheng Bo called this Gropius Wood. Observing their vitality he said, “They grew more each day in summer, produced lots of hanging fruits in autumn, and then all of sudden decided to shed their leaves when winter arrived. There are many birds, as well as bacteria, air, light and energy flowing through this place.”

Zheng Bo increasingly spent time outside with this community of over 100 plane trees. Planted in 1987, Gropius Bau’s trees have been practicing politics together for 34 years. Fossil records of plane trees show that they have existed for 115 million years, originating from the Lower Cretaceous period.


Many of the drawings in this room depict urban foliage from areas around Moabit, where the artist in residence flat is located. Zheng Bo often visited the nearby lake Plötzensee, where he focused on sketching the ecosystem by the water. This small glacial lake formed in the last ice age and is surrounded by a variety of dense vegetation with various flora and fauna. The artist believes that “plants should never be considered alone – they are bridges to other forms of life.”

During Zheng Bo’s residency programme back in 2020, which was titled Botanical Comrades 植物同志, as well as drawing Berlin’s plant life he organised outdoor group events for each new solar term. This was a way of developing understandings of the politics of plants. Activities included drawing weeds in Gropius Wood and walk-readings in Tiergarten, where people would read passages from the Dao De Jing to the trees.

Attributed to the 6th Century BCE sage Laozi, Dao De Jing is a foundational Chinese text about ecological thinking where humans are just one of many life forms sharing the universe. Speaking of the walk-reading experience Zheng Bo emphasised how “trees, birds, soil and spores help us to breathe deeply and to sense expansively.”


The Drawing Life 寫生 series is on-going and continues wherever Zheng Bo travels. The works in this room and the next were done after Zheng Bo’s Gropius Bau residency, having returned to Hong Kong’s subtropical climate.

One set, drawn in quarantine, depicts the growth of a small fern that accompanied Zheng Bo over a whole solar term. Others were drawn in Kowloon near the university where Zheng Bo teaches, and on Lantau Island, where he lives. This spring the lychee trees in his village bloomed spectacularly. Zheng Bo’s neighbour asked him to draw a lychee tree planted by her late-father on the family’s land, highlighting the history that plants hold within them and the stories they can tell.

The artist has emphasised the sustainability of drawing as a simple practice. He says, “I only need to have a piece of paper and a 6B pencil. For one year, I have used only three pencils, so this practice needs very few resources.” Committed to reusing materials, here the drawings are collectively displayed on wooden boards. These boards rest on granite stones that have been removed from around the trees in Gropius Wood, connecting the inside and outside of the exhibition.


The Political Life of Plants 植物的政治生活 1

4K video, black and white, colour, 2 channel sound
31 Min., Loop

Zheng Bo focuses on the molecular level of plant life, considering how they build communities and practice politics with their bodies. In the forest, trees work with fungi for nutrition and insects for pollination. Zheng Bo’s new film is a portrait of Grumsin, an ancient beech forest in Brandenburg and one of Germany’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.

He speculates about the forest’s political life by experimenting with image and sound, and is influenced by the style of early 20th century Soviet cinema. Zheng Bo’s film is also underpinned by his conversations with the leading ecologists and biologists in Berlin. They include Roosa Laitinen, who investigates plant adaptation, and Matthias Rillig, specialising in biodiversity and soil ecology. This scientific aspect is met with close-ups of branches, reminiscent of Zheng Bo’s drawings, and images of the forest’s canopy and lakes. Zheng Bo sees the forest as a queer assembly where the trees take part in a congress of their own unique more-than-human form. He believes that “if we really want to move into a future where humans are not the centre of the world, we need to treat other forms of life and materiality with full respect, biologically, intellectually and politically.”

Ecosensibility: Zheng Bo
Cinematography: Raban Jakob Friedrich
Sound recording: Joscha Eickel
Editor: David Roeglin
Sound design and music: Filip Caranica & Contemporary Sound
In cooperation with the Schering Stiftung


Ecosensibility Exercises 生態感悟練習

Drinking Sun Exercise 飲⽇功, 15 Min.
Drawing Weeds Practice 繪稊修, 60 Min.
Collecting Tree Qi 採樹氣, 60 Min.
Maypole Dance 五⽉柱, 60 Min.
Sacred Grove Ritual 神森禮, 60 Min.
Grass Wood Song 草⽊歌, 15 Min.

During his residency, Zheng Bo tested simple everyday methods to connect with plants, aiming “to move away from the human-centric ways of our contemporary life.” Believing that bodily exercises are as important as theoretical discussions, he sketched weeds, sang to trees and honoured forests. These became daily practices called Ecosensibility Exercises 生態感悟練習.

The videos in this room provide an introduction to the exercises. You are invited to join Zheng Bo on the platform in the Gropius Wood to practice the exercises in the afternoon. The times for these exercises are listed on the wall.

Inspired by many cultures, he learnt to sense tree energy with a qigong master in Hong Kong, researched a Japanese ritual honouring trees as sacred beings and was taught the Drinking Sun Exercise by Indigenous Mari artist Joulia Strauss.


Wanwu Council 萬物社

Three day meeting to be held in August, 2021

In Daoist philosophy the word wanwu means “myriad happenings” or “ten thousand things”, including all forms of existence in the universe. Zheng Bo invited twelve artists, scientists, activists and gardeners to form what he has termed the Wanwu Council. He asked them to channel the voices of light, plane trees, water, bees, foxes, weeds, seasons, soil, histories, communities, spirits and microbes.

Meeting over three days this summer, and wearing the scarves presented here, they will write a manifesto about the Gropius Bau becoming wanwu, embracing a more-than-human future. You too can write your suggestions for the manifesto and place them in the nearby box, a selection of which is displayed on the wall.

Zheng Bo believes that becoming wanwu means “we will stop treating plants as dumb beings; we will respect their intelligence; hear their voices; understand their ideologies and preferences; engage them as equal partners in making decisions, from local to planetary.”


Gropius Wood

In 2020 Zheng Bo was the Gropius Bau’s In House: Artist in Residence. The artist’s studio is located on the second floor of the building. When Zheng Bo looked out of the studio window in summer, he saw a flourishing forest of plane trees. He has renamed the car park Gropius Wood to reflect the vibrant community who live here.

This platform is an invitation to spend time with the trees, who have been living here since 1987. You can join in with Zheng Bo’s Ecosensibility Exercises 生態感悟練習 here every afternoon from Wednesday to Monday.


⇀ Guided Tour:
Stephanie Rosenthal and Zheng Bo

⇀ Interview:
“How Do Plants Practice Politics?”

Exhibition texts by the curators. Installation images by Eike Walkenhorst. Curatorial Fellow: Leonie Schmiese. Project Management: Katharina Heise. Exhibitions Fellows: Sophya Frohberg, Anna Viehoff. Head of Communication: Pablo Larios. Digital Communication: Natalie Schütze. Communications Fellow: Nele Daut. Head of Organisation and Marketing: Katrin Mundorf. Technical Lead: Bert Schülke. Technical Office Exhibitions: André Merfort. Technical Office Events: Felix Paul Petzold. Education Curator: Jennifer Sréter. Exhibition Texts: Louisa Elderton, Clare Molloy. Proofreading: Katharina Küster, Leonie Schmiese. Translation Exhibition: Texts Utku Mogultay. Exhibition Architecture: Andreas Lechthaler und Sebastian Koepf - Andreas Lechthaler Architecture. Exhibition Graphic Design: Julia Volkmar – Studio for Spatial and Graphic Design. Exhibition Installation: EMArt Ruben Erber. Lighting: Marc Aldinger. Media: visionb. Sound Mix: Contemporary Sound. Paving: Hacke und Hobel. Horticulture: Alpha Grün. Stage construction: Bühnenverleih Frank von Wysocki. Partners: Wall, Bouvet, Schering Stiftung. Media partners: Monopol, Frieze, Berlin ArtLink.