China's vacuum-cleaner artist turning Beijing's smog into bricks

As another coal-fuelled ‘airpocalypse’ engulfs northern China, Nut Brother hopes his ‘smog bricks’ will raise awareness

His idol is Subcomandante Marcos, the masked Mexican rebel; his weapon of choice a 1,000-watt vacuum cleaner.

Meet Nut Brother, the Chinese activist-artist attempting to vanquish toxic smog by sucking it up through a black plastic nozzle..

As the latest coal-fuelled “airpocalypse” engulfed northern China this week and world leaders gathered in Paris to debate the fight against climate change, Nut Brother hit the streets of Beijing hoping to raise awareness of his country’s deadly smog crisis.

For the last 100 days, the activist, whose real name is Wang Renzheng, has used the industrial appliance to extract dust and other lung-choking pollutants from the city’s atmosphere before transforming them into a dark brown “smog brick”.

“I want to show this absurdity to more people,” Wang, 34, said on Tuesday as pollution levels in the Chinese capital soared to levels 40 times higher than those deemed safe by the World Health Organisation.

“I want people to see that we cannot avoid or ignore this problem [and] that we must take real action.”

This combination of photographs taken on 1 November this year, top, and 1 December, show pedestrians in Beijing amid widely differing levels of air pollution.
This combination of photographs taken on 1 November this year, top, and 1 December, show pedestrians in Beijing amid widely differing levels of air pollution. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Until the onset of this winter, Beijing’s 20 million long-suffering residents had expressed some optimism that things were on the up, after a comparatively smog-free 2015.

But the city’s latest “airmageddon” – to which the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, made no reference during his address to the UN climate summit in Paris on Monday – has underlined the scale of the challenge that remains.

Despite government claims that “effective measures” had been taken to combat the hazardous smog, China’s capital has for days been coated by a putrid, nicotine-coloured haze.

PM2.5 levels hit 976 in Beijing suburbs

— Greenpeace East Asia (@GreenpeaceEAsia) December 1, 2015

Beijing's stunning World Trade Centre #COP21

— Tom Phillips (@tomphillipsin) November 30, 2015

View outside the office window right now. If you look carefully you can see the building opposite mine #beijing #air

— fishjourner (@fishjourner) December 1, 2015

“You can’t tell if it is night or day!” Liu Haishan, 38, a taxi driver, complained on Tuesday afternoon as he attempted to navigate through the gloom.

Beijing authorities claimed they had forced vehicles off the roads and shut more than 2,000 polluting companies in order to tackle the crisis.

But environmentalists attacked the government for failing to declare a pollution “red alert”, despite the appalling conditions.

“The shocking levels of air pollution we have seen in the last few days are a serious danger to the health of hundreds of millions of citizens,” said Dong Liansai, Greenpeace’s climate campaigner in China. “Moreover, the Beijing city government’s insufficient alerting system has compounded the problem.”

Nut Brother said he began plotting his one-man anti-smog campaign in 2013 when a now infamous spell of pollution – dubbed China’s inaugural “airpocalypse” – saw flights grounded, motorways closed and hospitals packed with wheezing patients suffering from respiratory complaints.

“It’s not healthy,” the artist said of the smog, which scientists blame for about 4,000 deaths a day in China, most caused by heart and lung problems and strokes. “You have nowhere to hide. It is in the air all around us.”

Pedestrians by an elevated highway in Beijing on 1 November, top, and 1 December 2015.
Pedestrians by an elevated highway in Beijing on 1 November, top, and 1 December 2015. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Nut Brother, who was born in Hubei province and is based in the southern city of Shenzhen, began to execute his plan in July after convincing a restaurant owner to contribute 10,000 yuan (£1,000) to his pollution-themed performance art project.

He ordered a vacuum cleaner from a manufacturer in Shanghai and began taking it on four-hour sorties across Beijing’s urban sprawl, gobbling up pollutants as he went. Photographs published in the Chinese media this week showed him pushing his vacuum cleaner past some of Beijing’s most celebrated landmarks.

One image shows him sucking up dust outside Rem Koolhaas’s cloud-puncturing China Central Television headquarters; in another he is seen strolling past the portrait of Mao Zedong at the entrance to the Forbidden City.

Nut Brother said his attempts to suck up smog from Tiananmen Square – perhaps the most heavily guarded public space on earth – had triggered his only brush with the law. “They sent a plainclothes policeman to follow me but they didn’t impede my movements,” he recalled.

Smog chokes cities in China

Chinese websites and social networks were covered with reports of the artist’s quirky smog-harvesting campaign on Tuesday in Beijing.

Reporters flocked to the artist’s temporary home – a 60-yuan-a-night youth hostel near the Lama Temple – to see his vacuum cleaner up close.

“It is terrible today,” he complained of the latest bout of severe pollution, Beijing’s worst of the year.

Despite grabbing headlines this week, China’s unconventional environmentalist remains a relative enigma. “I’m passionate about the environment but I don’t know if that qualifies me as an activist,” he said when asked how he defined himself. “I think I’m a normal person, just like anyone else.”

The same spot in Beijing on 1 November and 1 December.
The same spot in Beijing on 1 November and 1 December. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

In a 2012 interview with the Shenzhen Daily, Nut Brother said his “spiritual idol” was Subcomandante Marcos, the essay-writing, rifle-toting leader of Mexico’s Zapatista rebel group.

On Tuesday, the artist conceded it would take more than one vacuum cleaner to purify China’s skies. But he said he hoped to bring some of the Zapatista leader’s creativity to one of his homeland’s most pressing problems.

“[Subcomandante Marcos] used imaginative ways to change society,” Nut Brother said. “That is the path I want to follow.”

Additional reporting by Christy Yao


Tom Phillips in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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