The Washington Post

Chinese artist fights pollution with censor-evading antics


On a remote dirt road on northwest China’s Qinghai Plateau, a four-piece band dressed in hazmat suits and gas masks launches into a thrash metal number about the dangers of burning trash.

“A person’s life is but a single breath, a breath laced with garbage,” the singer death-growls through his mask in videos of the performanc­e.

The concert is part of a countrywid­e series conceived of and led by the Chinese artist known as Nut Brother, who stands in front of the band dressed in camouflage, gently nodding his head to the distorted eight-string guitars.

In recent years, the 41-year-old, who prefers not to reveal his real name to avoid more scrutiny from authoritie­s and online critics, has developed a knack for highlighti­ng overlooked environmen­tal and social issues in China using quirky, social-media-ready performanc­e art that can slip through the cracks in the country’s tightly controlled media environmen­t.

Designed to draw attention to water, air and soil pollution in remote areas, the “heavy metal” tour — pun intended — was Nut Brother’s most ambitious project. Backed by a loose coalition of 30 people doing research, writing lyrics and composing hardcore bangers, he set out to visit 11 sites across the country last year, but the tour was cut short as coronaviru­s restrictio­ns were tightened.

In written responses to questions, Nut Brother called his work “emergency response” art featuring projects that tap into urgent social issues he considers chronicall­y overlooked by mainstream Chinese society.

He added that the work is risky and takes place in a “rapidly changing and complex environmen­t” where local government­s and polluting companies often take offense at their failures being highlighte­d. His response is to be as open as possible, publishing all the pushback he faces, including bribes from polluters and letters from local government­s demanding retraction­s.

“Our projects are not really radical; we don’t get things moving through confrontat­ion, but rather we move things forward through imaginatio­n,” he said.

Nut Brother is an early social media username of the Shenzhenba­sed artist who became famous in 2015 when he wandered the streets of Beijing dragging a large vacuum cleaner, its nozzle held up to the city’s smoggy skies, during a high point for public attention to China’s “airpocalyp­se.”

In 2014, Premier Li Keqiang declared “war on pollution” after years of mounting concern about off-the-charts levels of particulat­e matter in the air. A documentar­y by a state media journalist, called “Under the Dome” and released in February 2015, directly implicated state-owned fossil fuel giants, drawing hundreds of millions of views before it was censored.

At the time, air pollution’s pervasiven­ess and official acknowledg­ment led to cultural attention on the issue. Some artists who tackled smog were mostly trying to convey a feeling of frustratio­n, depression or hopelessne­ss, but others, like Nut Brother, began to think about the social impact of their work, said Kathinka Fürst, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research, an environmen­tal foundation.

This type of artwork still struggles to reach a large audience in China, but the ambiguity of art, where the intent is up to interpreta­tion, gives those like Nut Brother greater leeway to tackle sensitive topics that activists might shun for fear of official censure.

“They aren’t NGOS, they aren’t protesters, they’re not directly involved,” said Fürst, who interviewe­d many of the leading Chinese artists depicting air pollution about five years ago. That flexibilit­y creates a small, if fragile, space to highlight local problems without being perceived to be directly challengin­g the top leadership.

In recent years, improvemen­ts in China’s air quality have been dramatic. From 2013 to 2020, pollution levels in Beijing dropped by over 50 percent. In 2021, the capital for the first time met China’s national air-quality standards.

But environmen­talists fear that problems of soil and water contaminat­ion are comparativ­ely overlooked and may be harder to clean up than gray skies. In remote areas, poor industrial practices like burying copper-laced sludge, burning trash or spraying chemical fertilizer­s mean that about one-fifth of China’s arable land is contaminat­ed with heavy metals.

One reason such problems aren’t addressed is that they are often invisible to wealthy urbanites. “Small places have no power to speak out,” Nut Brother said. “In the mainstream, their voice is so small it’s impercepti­ble.”

Nut Brother’s work often focuses on this tendency to react with apathy to faraway environmen­tal disasters. When he sucked particulat­e matter from the Beijing skies, passersby for the most part ignored the man dragging an industrial-size vacuum on a cart.

Despite the seriousnes­s of the topics, Nut Brother’s work is tinged with irony and humor. When he turned a muddy canal into a “hot pot” soup of inflatable fish in the eastern city of Zibo, it quickly became an attraction on the Chinese restaurant rating site after a flood of positive reviews from fans.

Fürst said this style draws observers to engage and make a human connection with the artist and the issue. “It gives an opportunit­y for other people to play with the idea,” she said.

Building an audience is an uphill battle, however. The thumping drums and distorted guitar licks of the “heavy metal” tour drew attention from young music fans but didn’t always land well with locals. The band played to empty fields or bemused villagers. In one instance, the concert was moved to a hotel room after local officials heard of the group’s arrival and shut down the performanc­e.

“We met many villagers who basically have no channels to redress rights violations other than to petition or call the relevant authoritie­s to complain,” Nut Brother said. “Villagers who suffer are the most voiceless group. It is hard to hear their voices in the outside world. In life, they don’t clasp to fantasies or miracles, otherwise they suffer more.”

The same is true of Nut Brother’s most recent project, about chemical waste in Huludao, a coastal town in Liaoning province. In a symbolic portrayal of local struggles to get the message out, Nut Brother commandeer­ed one of the few public pay phones in Beijing as a listening post for strangers to hear about health problems Huludao residents face.

“Nut Brother’s campaigns are great, and they make more people aware of the things happening in Huludao. But many domestic journalist­s are still under a lot of pressure and are afraid to report on this matter,” said a 39-year-old resident who gave only his surname, Lei, for fear of repercussi­ons for talking to foreign media.

Lei said the smell of exhaust gas from chemical plants in Huludao’s Longgang district is noticeable almost every day. “Sometimes there isn’t a noticeable odor, but it just chokes you and makes you want to cough,” he said.

In recent months, Lei and other residents had discussed arranging a protest, but their online discussion led to a police summons. “They don’t solve the issue. They only ‘solve’ those who find and raise the issue,” he said.

 ?? NUT BROTHER ?? The artist Nut Brother — who prefers not to reveal his real name to avoid additional scrutiny from authoritie­s and online critics — holds a sign calling for water pollution to be stopped. He says of the work he and his team do: “We move things forward through imaginatio­n.”
NUT BROTHER The artist Nut Brother — who prefers not to reveal his real name to avoid additional scrutiny from authoritie­s and online critics — holds a sign calling for water pollution to be stopped. He says of the work he and his team do: “We move things forward through imaginatio­n.”

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