BY: TREVOR HEWITT
As Beijing is engulfed by its worst ‘airpocalypse’ of the year, one artist is taking to the streets to help us visualize just how bad pollution really is.
For the last 100 days, Nut Brother, a Chinese activist-artist, has been pulling toxic smog through the black nozzle of his industrial vacuum cleaner. The 34-year-old artist, whose real name is Wang Renzheng, used the device to remove dust and other harmful pollutants from the city’s atmosphere, before transforming them into a single dark brown “smog brick.” Every day, for four hours a day, the artist posted the date, the weather and the location he would be vacuuming on his Sina Weibo account (link in Chinese).
Renzheng tells the Guardian that smog, which researchers attribute to roughly 4,000 daily deaths in China, is only getting worse. “You have nowhere to hide. It is in the air all around us.” He says that the project was meant to bring attention to the deadly levels of pollutants in China’s atmosphere. “I want to show this absurdity to more people,” Renzheng told the Guardian. “I want people to see that we cannot avoid or ignore this problem [and] that we must take real action.”
Earlier this month, Chinese authorities announced pollutant levels in the Chinese capital increased to over 40 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) air quality index. The number represents levels of PM 2.5, airborne particulates smaller than 2.5 micrometres that are classified as carcinogens by WHO. The announcement came within 24 hours of Renzheng finishing his 100-day project and only 24 hours after the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris.
Critics claim that the project is a gimmick. “What can be collected to make a brick is by no means PM 2.5, but PM 250,” a Weibo user wrote (link in Chinese). Others disagreed. “[This means] nearly everyone in Beijing would have a brick in their stomachs. Older people, maybe five,” said one of the many comments on an online photo gallery of Wang’s project. “If all of the dust in Beijing was collected together, it would be enough to build the world’s biggest environmental protection bureau,” another added.
Using around 100 grams of dust and smog, Renzheng added the mixture to several kilograms of clay, something he admits makes his brick not much different from any other ordinary one. “I’m not doing any scientific research,” he says, adding that the brick should be viewed as a symbol and not a solution to the air quality problem.
Wang’s next step is to give the brick to a local construction company, so that it can be reused in a building project. The end goal, he says, is to make the brick disappear into an endless mass of concrete, “just like putting a drop of water in the ocean.”