China and Inner Asia
Pennsylvania State University, United States
In the past decade, scholars of ecocricitism, posthuman studies, and material-oriented ontology have stressed the profound “entanglement” among species (Hodder, 2012; Sheldrake, 2020), and argued that humans need to acquire "an aesthetic-affective openness" towards the non-human Other (Bennett, 2010, x). But what if such openness leads to an interspecies intimacy that seems excessive? This paper studies the Beijing-born, Hong Kong-based artist Zheng Bo (b. 1974)'s “botanical film” Pteridophilia (2016), in which lithe young boys perform acts of love and lust with (and within) the lush jungle of ferns in Taipei, in the context of Sinophone and global ecological art. Using my interviews of the artist and close analysis of the film’s handling of texture, lighting, and narrative, which mixes seduction with repulsion, sentimentality with cruelty, I argue that ecological art must reflect on and critique its own role in aestheticizing and anthropomorphizing the “other.” Comparing Pteridophilia with other Sinophone artworks that foreground the materiality of the human body, such as the “cadaver art” that flourished in mainland China in the early 2000s and the Taiwanese artist Ting Tong Chang’s Spodoptera Litura (2015), during which he performed a self-sustaining symbiosis with lava and plants, I articulate the potentials as well as limitations of using the so-called “Eastern methods” to cultivate ecological sensibility. Such methods often advocate radical egalitarianism among all beings and use antirationalist concepts to challenge the Judeo-Christian attitude towards nature, but they may also contribute to an Orientalist discourse and to a willful dismissal of social critique.