Artists strike back: air pollution’s most creative responses

As poor air quality becomes a more pressing issue for citizens worldwide, the recurrence of smog and lingering airborne particulates has inspired some surprising responses from those living in it. As polluted air becomes a fact of daily life, numerous individuals have taken it upon themselves to draw attention to the problem in colourful, and wonderfully effective ways. Here’s a round-up of some of the best.

In April this year, Greenpeace activists in the UK took it upon themselves to adorn 18 prominent statues around London with face masks to draw attention to sub-standard air quality, highlighting the fact that many of the statues’ levels of elevation would make them subject to dangerous levels of air pollution. Two activists scaled Nelson’s column, to fit the Admiral’s statue with an emergency, nautical-themed face mask, whilst other statues to receive protective treatment included the footballer Thierry Henry, wartime prime minister Winston Churchill and political leader Oliver Cromwell.

Meanwhile, during the Paris climate talks in November 2015, the French capital experienced a major subversion of 600 billboard advertisements across the city,  implemented by artist collective Brandalism. The ironic posters created by the group criticise the various corporate sponsors of the climate talks, aiming to highlight the hypocrisy of their support for the major environmental event, when their own advertisements feed the public’s desire to consume unsustainable products, contributing to the problem. One target was Volkswagen, whose imitation poster reads: “We’re sorry that we got caught”, referring to their notorious emissions scandal which led their vehicles to produce illegal levels of pollutants.

Brandalism Volkswagen poster COP21
Image courtesy of Brandalism

Gaining notoriety during Beijing’s red alert “airpocalypse” in December 2015, Nut Brother (aka Wang Renzheng, a Shenzen-based artist) spent days roaming the streets of Beijing armed with an industrial vacuum cleaner, hoovering up the particles of dust and other pollutants filling the air and people’s lungs. Attracting attention across the city with his large vacuum, his ultimate aim was to form a brick from his harvested pollutants, to illustrate the tangible threat posed by the pollutants we usually cannot see. Nut Brother’s performance came to prominence during the red alert smog episode, coinciding with a global opportunity for change during the Paris climate summit talks in Dec 2015.

Nut Brother roams Beijing with his vacuum
Image courtesy of artist’s Weibo

Kong Ning is another prominent performance artist inspired by the air pollution problem in Beijing. She has caught the public eye through wearing outrageous, symbolic dress designs: a 10-metre long wedding dress decorated with 999 face masks in a piece titled “Marry the Blue Sky”; and more recently she has paraded a self-made bright orange wedding dress through Beijing, in reference to the “orange alerts” relayed by the government, advising people to stay at home due to severe air pollution.

Other responses in China have included the dismal sight of a couple in Chongqing posing in their wedding outfits, connected mouth-to-mouth by a tube joining their face masks. In Beijing in 2014, twenty performance artists wearing face masks prostrated themselves in front of the imperial sacrificial altar at the Temple of Heaven. Whether playing dead or merely praying that air conditions will improve, they successfully drew attention to the air quality problem.

Chongqing wedding couple smog masks
Image from Chinanews.com

Imaginative and creative representations of the invisible killer like these may play an essential role in the campaign against air pollution, visualising the crisis worldwide and helping keep the campaign urgent and fresh.

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