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How Artists Are Fighting Air Pollution in Beijing

Eradicating China’s air pollution, one art project at a time.
Image courtesy of the artist’s Weibo.

It's no secret that pollution fills Beijing’s air most days and nights, resulting in a dense grey haze that turns the Chinese capital into something straight out of your favorite dystopian sci-fi flick (assuming it's Blade Runner). Unlike the inconsequence of Hollywood fantasy, air pollution in China directly results in millions of deaths yearly. With government intervention often proving insufficient and ineffective, local artists and a European design collective have directed their creative energies toward dealing with the city’s toxic air.


Brother Nut, a 34-year-old Chinese performance artist, recently spent 100 days wandering around Beijing armed with a 1000-watt industrial vacuum cleaner mounted on a cart, sucking in the contaminated air as he roamed. While this aspect of the so-called Project Dust is definitely not an effective strategy to deal with Beijing’s environmental epidemic, Brother Nut’s project extends beyond an absurdist air vacuuming performance. Enough dirt, dust, and detritus permeated the air to allow the artist to create a large “brick” out of the sucked-in fragments, effectively becoming a tangible representation of the amount of toxins one inhales within a few months in Beijing.

Smog Free Tower, a project by Studio Roosegaarde, is a practical approach to Beijing’s pollution epidemic, a departure from a more symbolic project like Brother Nut’s vacuumed bricks. The social design lab behind the project, founded by Dutch artist and architect Daan Roosegaarde, has created the world’s largest “vacuum cleaner,” clocking in at 23' tall and capable of purifying 30,000 cubic meters of polluted air per hour.

Artist Daan Roosegaarde with his Smog Free Tower. Images courtesy Studio Roosegaarde

Although the enormous vacuum was successfully tested in Rotterdam, the studio is still in talks with the Chinese government regarding its installation in Beijing. Perhaps the delay in installation is due to reluctance on the basis of pride, as the studio’s tower's perceived foreign intervention in an undoubtedly Chinese issue. Roosegaarde told The Creators Project, “Beijing should not be ashamed of their pollution, as this is a problem for every city. It should see itself as a place of innovation; once they have solved this [problem] in a new way, all cities will come to them to learn.”


Undoubtedly the most visually stunning work on this list is that of Beijing-based artist Kong Ning. As a form of protest-performance art, Ning created, donned, and paraded around in a bright orange “wedding dress” with an enormous, trailing tail at its end. The incredibly vivid color choice is a response to the “orange alerts” that the Beijing government has been issuing regarding the pollution, a level of alert where it is advisable to not leave your home. In an interview with BBC, Ning states that her protest originates in the belief that “[humanity is] married to nature” and hopes that her performance will help contribute to a strengthening of anti-pollution laws throughout China. While the work is definitely attention grabbing, the same BBC segment reveals how many onlookers believed she was involved with some form of fashion photo shoot rather than a public intervention.

Image courtesy of the artist’s Weibo.

Although there are no real metrics in determining which artist’s approach is most effective in combating pollution, an important take-away from the work of these artists is how people are starting to react against ineffective government measures in China, a country that is known to be less-than-kind toward those in opposition to the government.

Image courtesy of the artist’s Weibo.


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