Chinese artist stirs climate action with toxic soup, rock music
China’s famous environmental artist Nut Brother struggles to keep exposing problems as authorities tighten their grip on the media.
One early morning after the rain in the eastern Chinese city of Zibo, two people dressed as fishermen stir dozens of giant inflatable fish and peppers in the polluted, dark-brown water of the Yueyang River, shouting, “Zibo's hotpot fish!” (Also read: Chinese artist makes elephants and mushroom-headed figures from wool)
A crowd of people point, take videos and laugh at the giant “soup.” Days later, on April 1, 2021, a video of the performance was uploaded to the internet, garnering more than 10 million views. As a joke, someone posted an entry for “Zibo Hotpot Fish” on the popular city-guide dianping.com that soon became the most-liked page in the “local food” category.
The man behind the show was Nut Brother, a performance artist who has been stirring up public opinion over pollution in the country for seven years in the belief that environmental activism that is humorous and creative can have a powerful effect. Six months after his hotpot show, the city government built new sewage treatment tanks to try to clean up the river.
His strategy is a risky one 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 have to find ways to get their message across to the public, without crossing an invisible “red line” that would end their careers. It’s a way of raising awareness that the artist says is becoming increasingly subject to censorship.
“The advantage of performance art is it can be interesting and absurd, but at the same time it’s like sending up a flare into the night sky and forcing people to look up,” he said. “Before it gets removed, the message has already spread.”
Nut Brother doesn’t reveal his real name, which he says is unimportant. His moniker came from a social media site he used. “Like Banksy, it's just a symbol,” he said, referring to the anonymous UK graffiti artist. The 41-year-old, who lives in Shenzhen, majored in Chinese at Hubei University and began to focus on art in 2011. His first pollution project, in 2015, gained international attention.
He spent four hours a day for 100 days wheeling an industrial vacuum cleaner around Beijing, sucking pollution from the air, watched by puzzled passers-by. He documented the project on a blog and then molded the accumulated particles into a clay brick, which he left anonymously at a construction site so it would have a permanent home in one of the city’s buildings.
Nut Brother has been able to keep exposing some of China’s more egregious pollution problems partly because his campaigns align with President Xi Jinping’s own policy goals of cleaning up the nation’s environment and building a more sustainable economy. China has made huge efforts to strengthen environmental protection in the past decade. Artists such as Nut Brother help that goal by raising awareness of environmental issues among the public, said Ellery Li, a project advisor at Beijing-based China Youth Climate Action Network.
His projects “are all very close to everyday life, like music, hotpot, or drinking water, but once you go closer you find the messages are so striking,” Li said. “China relies on government policies to solve environmental problems, but projects like this are as important because they let people realize that there are so many problems that are unseen but do exist.”
Yet the government prefers that the changes be made from the top-down and provincial authorities are wary of public criticism. Some domestic environmental groups have been silenced and international NGOs are now under additional scrutiny as the result of a 2017 law.
“I sometimes feel very helpless,” Nut Brother said. “There is no space for confrontation to solve problems in China because it would quickly alert the authorities and the actions would be crushed.”
Unlike artists such as Ai Weiwei, who adopt 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 raise public attention in a less confrontational way, he said.
In 2018, Nut Brother filled 10,000 bottles from 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 an oilfield belonging to China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. He piled the bottles in an exhibit outside Beijing’s trendy 798 Art Zone. Authorities shut the stall after two weeks, but the local government in Shaanxi investigated the pollution in the village and announced that a new water supply with purification would be installed.
Last year, found the artist touring the country with friends as a “heavy metal” band, giving impromptu concerts in eight venues that had been polluted by metal mining and smelting. In a town in Inner Mongolia, they sang about poisoned wastewater:
“Mountains have become a sea, grasslands became a lake.
Fish show their white bellies, dogs have brain damage
And the hearts of migrating birds are broken.
The homeland has become a cemetery.”
Now he says the space for protest is narrowing 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 hasn't been used for years and invited citizens of Huludao in Liaoning Province to use it as a complaint hotline. Huludao is home to mining, chemical plants and one of China’s largest zinc and lead smelters, and has a track record of toxic air. Efforts by residents to raise the issue through traditional channels or media are blocked or censored, the artist said. From 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday, residents of the city can call the line and anyone can go to the booth in the capital and answer the call. Nut Brother is collecting responses from those who listened to the grievances, but his social media posts on the project have consistently disappeared and he says no Chinese mainstream media will cover it.
“The changes in the past decade mean we need to have projects that are more creative if we are determined solve the environmental problems,” he said.