Zheng Bo’s Pteridophilia

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Published in “Seven Boundary-Pushing Cultural Moments of 2018,” New York Times Magazine, October 5, 2018.

You hear it before you see it. There are these moans and grunts and you’re like, “What is going on?” And then you just arrive at it. You see a screen through the bamboo trees, and you enter the enclave, with well-hidden speakers around it. I saw it just by happenstance, walking through the botanical gardens in Palermo for the Manifesta art biennial, and I was completely transfixed by it.

The video installation features men interacting with a forest: licking the plants, hugging them. You’re seeing these men, who are naked, so the whole thing seems very sexual, but when you start watching it — this film is about 10 minutes, maybe? — you realize that’s just the surface. It’s about this yearning that people have to connect with someone or something. In our contemporary life, there is such a distance now, or they’re a lot more guarded when it comes to opening themselves up to that kind of vulnerability.

I’d never seen the naked male body applied in such a vulnerable way that doesn’t feel gimmicky or like it’s trying to be shocking. It’s not exploitative at all. It definitely made me reconsider how to present a naked body, because as an image-maker I deal primarily with black figures, and when people display people of color there’s often that slippery slope where that can get very exploitative. These are Asian men who are naked, and there’s nothing that is demeaning, nothing from the lens of the colonizer. It’s purely them.

Toyin Ojih Odutola is a Nigerian-American visual artist.