These Ming Vases Are Made of Toxic Sludge

Unknown Fields Division traveled to e-waste purgatory and back to source his toxic sculpting material.

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Apr 10 2015, 10:00pm

Film Still, courtesy of Toby Smith/Unknown Fields, via

The toxic sludge that forms our gadgets has been shaped into traditional ceramic vases by Unknown Fields Division. Earlier this year, a team of architects, writers, and designers traveled down the global supply chain (read: Holiday Doc Unwraps the Less-Than-Festive Factories Behind Christmas) retracing “rare earth elements, which are widely used in high-end electronics and green technologies, to their origins.” After three weeks, they ended up in Inner Mongolia at a lake near Baotou, one of the radioactive sources of these materials.

Shielded from the toxins by masks and skin protection, the group collected waste from the lake and transported it to a London workshop. “Each [ceramic vessel] is proportioned as a traditional Ming vase,” explains Unknown Fields Division, “and is made from the amount of toxic waste created in the production of three items of technology—a smartphone, a featherweight laptop and the cell of a smart car battery.”

Unknown Fields' sculptures will be exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in What is Luxury, a showcase of the group’s larger investigation into e-waste. In addition to the exhibition, the group has released a trailer for Rare Earthenware, a documentary of their research filmed in a single, panning shot as a visual metaphor for the “global conveyer belt.”

Both the ceramics and Unknown Fields Division’s film will premiere at the V&A Museum in London on April 22. Watch the trailer for Rare Earthenware below for a look into the group’s journey and production process.

Find out about more of Unknown Fields Division on their website.

Rare Earthernware is a project by Unknown Fields, Directed by Kate Davies and Liam Young. Unknown Fields Film and Photography is developed in collaboration with photographer Toby Smith with animation assistance from Christina Varvia and ceramics work is developed in collaboration with Kevin Callaghan. 

Via Discover

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