(Bloomberg) – One morning after rain in the eastern Chinese city of Zibo, two people dressed as fishermen toss dozens of giant inflatable fish and peppers through the polluted, dark brown water of the Yueyang River , shouting: “The Zibo fish fondue!”
Crowds of people are pointing, taking videos and laughing at the giant “soup”. A few days later, on April 1, 2021, a video of the performance was uploaded to the internet, garnering over 10 million views. As a joke, someone posted an entry for “Zibo Hotpot Fish” on the famous city guide dianping.com which quickly became the top rated page in the “local food” category.
The man behind the show was Nut Brother, a performance artist who has been stirring public opinion on pollution in the country for seven years, believing that humorous and creative environmental activism can have a powerful effect. Six months after its hotpot show, the city government built new sewage treatment tanks in an attempt to clean up the river.
His strategy is risky in a country where activism is increasingly suppressed and where art and literature are closely scrutinized to ensure they conform to Communist Party ideals. Nut Brother and other climate activists must find ways to get their message across to the public, without crossing an invisible “red line” that would end their careers. It is a means of raising awareness which, according to the artist, is increasingly subject to censorship.
“The good thing about performance art is that it can be interesting and absurd, but at the same time it’s like sending a flare into the night sky and making people look up,” said- he declared. “Before it was deleted, the message had already spread.”
Nut Brother doesn’t reveal his real name, which he says doesn’t matter. His nickname came from a social media site he used. “Like Banksy, it’s just a symbol,” he said, referring to the anonymous British graffiti artist. The 41-year-old, who lives in Shenzhen, majored in Chinese at Hubei University and began focusing on art in 2011. His first pollution project in 2015 attracted international attention.
He spent four hours a day for 100 days rolling an industrial vacuum cleaner around Beijing, sucking up pollution from the air, as bemused passersby watched. He documented the project on a blog, then molded the accumulated particles into a clay brick, which he left anonymously at a construction site to have a permanent home in one of the city’s buildings. .
Nut Brother has been able to continue exposing some of China’s most egregious pollution problems, in part because its campaigns align with President Xi Jinping’s own policy goals of cleaning up the country’s environment and building a stronger economy. sustainable. China has made tremendous efforts to strengthen environmental protection over the past decade. Artists such as Nut Brother contribute to this goal by raising awareness of environmental issues, said Ellery Li, project adviser at the Beijing-based China Youth Climate Action Network.
His projects “are all very close to everyday life, like music, hot pot or drinking water, but once you get closer, you find the messages are so striking,” Li said. relies on government policies to solve environmental problems, but projects like this are just as important because they make people realize that there are so many problems that are invisible but exist.”
Yet the government prefers changes to be made from the top down and provincial authorities are wary of public criticism. Some domestic environmental groups have been silenced and international NGOs now face additional scrutiny following a 2017 law.
“I sometimes feel very helpless,” Nut Brother said. “There is no room for confrontation to resolve issues in China as this would quickly alert authorities and actions would be crushed.”
Unlike artists like Ai Weiwei, who take a stance that challenges China’s one-party system, environmental artists in China like Nut Brother try to work within the confines of the system. Performance art can grab the public’s attention in a less confrontational way, he said.
In 2018, Nut Brother filled 10,000 bottles of a popular spring water brand with drinking water from a village near Yulin in Shaanxi province that had been polluted by three local coal mines and a oilfield owned by China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. He stacked the bottles in a display outside Beijing’s hip 798 art zone. Authorities closed the stall after two weeks, but the Shaanxi local government investigated the pollution in the village and announced that a new water supply with purification would be installed.
Last year, the artist toured the country with friends as a “heavy metal” band, performing impromptu concerts in eight venues that had been polluted by metal mining and smelting. In a town in Inner Mongolia, they sang about poisoned sewage:
“The mountains have become a sea, the meadows have become a lake.
Fish show white bellies, dogs have brain damage
And the hearts of migratory birds are broken.
The homeland has become a cemetery.
Now he says the protest space is shrinking and he and his friends are being harassed more often by the police.
In his latest project, the artist found a public phone booth in Beijing that hadn’t been used for years and invited citizens of Huludao in Liaoning Province to use it as a helpline for complaints. Huludao is home to mines, chemical plants and one of China’s largest zinc and lead smelters, and has a history of toxic air. Efforts by residents to raise the issue through mainstream channels or media are being blocked or censored, the artist said. From 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. every Saturday, city residents can call the line, and anyone can drop by the Capital Kiosk and answer the call. Nut Brother is collecting responses from those who listened to the grievances, but his social media posts about the project have routinely disappeared and he says no Chinese mainstream media will cover it.
“The changes of the last decade mean we need to have more creative plans if we are determined to solve environmental problems,” he said.
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