In 2013, Beijing saw a mere 25 days of ‘good’ air quality.
The readings, with ‘good’ defined by US standards, demonstrate the single most pressing issue facing China’s population today: pollution.
In this city shrouded in smog, where thousands go about their daily lives wearing masks to fend off the toxic fumes, air quality readings regularly reach hazardous levels. In January 2013 they went off the charts. Internet users dubbed it the “airpocalypse”.
Yet many of the country’s artists are finding inspiration in pollution – and are turning to art to highlight, to protest and, in some cases, to search for solutions.
In April 2014, Liang Kegang, 46, travelled to the south of France on a business trip. Shocked by the contrast between Europe and China, he returned with a glass of Provence air, stored carefully in a rubber-sealed jar.
Back in Beijing, Liang sold the air by auction for 5,250 yuan (£494). Clean air was now a marketable commodity. “I was half joking and also taking a serious stance about air pollution,” he says, speaking from his office in Beijing, where he runs an art museum.
Liang is not only concerned about his own health but the wellbeing of his two children. He grew up playing on the beach in the coastal city of Qingdao. His offspring have no such luxury in Beijing. They must stay indoors.
“At home, I close all the windows,” explains the artist, adding that his seven-year-old daughter suffers from a chronic cough and sore throat. “I have no idea how it will harm us in the future. I worry about it very much.”
Pollution is a double-edged sword. China’s breakneck industrialisation, played out in just one generation, has pulled millions out of poverty. Yet the same economic miracle has wreaked environmental havoc. It is not only the air: almost 60% of groundwater in China is contaminated, as is over 19% of farmland according to the country’s environment ministry.
China is the world’s top producer and consumer of coal, accounting alone for roughly half of global consumption. And there are no signs that the country has any intention of slowing down: despite pledges by the government to tackle pollution, development remains the top concern of the Chinese Communist Party. China is already the factory of the world, producing cheap goods consumed by the West. To illustrate this – and complete his artwork – Liang is planning to sell a jar of polluted Beijing air in France.
He wants to invite children from the capital to collect the air with him so that “behind each jar of air, there is a kid and a story”. Liang insists that the problem is a worldwide one: “When European people are living their lives environmentally, it is based on the suffering of the Chinese people.”
Daan Roosegaarde is one European artist trying to make a difference. Roosegaarde, who splits his time between Shanghai and the Netherlands, is not concerned with just one jar of air. Instead, he has ambitions to create an entire smog-free open-air ‘oasis’ park in Beijing.
In 2013, an international school in the capital courted headlines when it erected a giant $5 million dome for children to play under, where filters pumped out clean air. Roosegaarde and his partner company ENS Europe, and Bob Ursem, experts in nano air purifiers, are going one step further. They are creating a vacuum tower where ionic filters will remove smog particles and blow out fresh air. The device, something akin to a giant vacuum cleaner, will create a vortex or bubble of high-pressured air of roughly 40 by 40 metres. The park will, he says, have 70% less smog than the rest of the city on any given day.
“You create a place where people can breathe, meet [and] exchange ideas,” explains Roosegaarde. He is at pains to point out that this is not the solution, which requires initiatives such as less cars and closure of factories. But it will offer both respite from, and draw attention to, pollution. On social media Roosegaarde’s team has been dubbed “The Smog Busters” and “Soldiers of Clean Air”.
Whether it turns out to be a publicity stunt or can make a real difference remains to be seen (the park is due to open next year). But the fact that Roosegaarde is supported by the Beijing government, which recently launched a $22m (£130m) project to try and make the city smog free by 2017, demonstrates changing times.
Smoke and smokescreens
For years, the Party hid the true extent of the pollution. In 2010 and 2011, the US Embassy recorded 80% of days in the capital as unhealthy or worse; yet the Chinese government announced good air quality almost 80% of the time. Officials hid behind high-tech, expensive air filters at home while glossing over the true extent of health risks outside – behaviour which, when exposed, caused outrage online.
Public anger, however, has found outlets. Matt Hope, a British Beijing-based artist, recently designed a smog-fighting bicycle that emits clean air as you peddle. In one of his most powerful images photographer Wu Di shot a young girl in front of Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. From her mouth, trailing on the ground like a giant elephant trunk or a grotesque growth, sit 445 white facemasks. They represent the number of masks that the girl would need to wear daily by 2030 – the year the government has promised that air quality will meet international standards.
Protests can be risqué. Earlier this year students at Peking University surreptitiously placed facemasks on statues of historical figures around campus. Couples have posed in masks in their wedding outfits. And last year, the artist Kong Ning photographed herself standing with her oil painting Smog Baby in front of the iconic Chairman Mao portrait that hangs over Tiananmen Square.
It is not only air pollution that has proved inspirational. The Beijing-based artist Yin Xiuzhen’s Washing River debuted in the southern Chinese city of Chengdu (she has since taken the piece international). Yin took water from polluted rivers and froze them into vast ice blocks. She then asked viewers to wash the bricks using clean water in a bid to cleanse us of our environmental sins.
From criticism to solutions
In 2010 Greenpeace staged a photography exhibition in Beijing called Hope and Pain: Exhibition of Water Pollution Along the Yangtze. It featured works by the great American photojournalist W Eugene Smith, who moved to Japan in the 1970s to record the devastating effects of mercury poisoning, which were juxtaposed with pictures by Lu Guang, a contemporary photographer who records industrial pollution in China. Former Beijing-based American artist Joey Foster Ellis then created an interactive foldable sculpture on wheels. Its role was to compare past and present and to represent mobilisation as a force for change and hope.
“Combating pollution can begin with yourself,” explains Ellis. “I find it something that individually someone can tackle, versus something more political, which deals with censorship and needs crowds.”
Pollution is often viewed as a non-political issue in China, unlike the call for democracy or human rights, allowing artists to freely express their angst and anger. Yet the very fact that ordinary people feel they can protest, and are affected daily and palpably by the toxic waste, might prove one of the biggest threats to the Party’s hegemony on power.
It is also fast becoming a killer. In 2012 an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report estimated that 3.6 million people would suffer premature death from pollution by 2050, mostly in China and India.
Roosegaarde, for one, does not want to “capitalise on the misery of other people”. Yet he also believes beauty can be derived from something vile. In this case, Roosegaarde is going to use the smog sucked up in the park to create stones similar to diamonds. They will go into rings, which will then be sold, the profits going back into the larger project.
“The last thing you want to do is put [art] in a museum saying, ‘Please do not touch,’” he says. “By buying a ring you donate clean air to the city. It’s great that a crisis like this forces us to be creative.”
Photograph: Joey Foster Ellis