Chinese artist Nut Brother fights pollution with rock music

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On a remote dirt road in China’s northwest Qinghai Plateau, a four-piece band dressed in hazmat suits and gas masks launch into a thrash metal number about the dangers to burn waste.

“A person’s life is just a breath, a breath filled with garbage,” the singer growls through his mask in videos of the performance.

The unusual concert is part of a nationwide series designed and led by Chinese artist known as Nut Brother, who stands in front of the camouflage-clad band, nodding softly at the distorted eight-string guitars.

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

Designed to draw attention to water, air and soil pollution in remote parts of the country, the “heavy metal” tour – pun intended – was Nut Brother’s most ambitious project. Backed by a loose coalition of 30 people conducting research, writing lyrics and composing hardcore bangers, he set out to visit 11 venues across the country last year, but the tour was cut short as coronavirus restrictions put a damper on been reinforced.

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

He added that the work is risky and takes place in a “complex and rapidly changing environment” where local governments and polluting companies often resent the highlighting of their failures. Its response is to be as open as possible, publishing any denials it faces, including kickbacks from polluters and letters from local governments demanding retractions.

“Our projects are not really radical; we don’t make things happen through confrontation, but rather we make things happen through imagination,” he said.

Nut Brother is one of the early social media handles of the Shenzhen-based artist who shot to fame in 2015 when he roamed the streets of Beijing. drag a big vacuum cleanerits nozzle pointed towards the city’s hazy sky, in a climax for public attention on China”airpocalypse” problem.

In 2014, Prime Minister Li Keqiang declared “war on pollution” after years of growing concerns about outsized levels of particulate matter in the air. A documentary by a Chinese state media reporter – titled ‘Under the Dome’ and published in February 2015 – directly implicated state-owned fossil fuel giants, attracting hundreds of millions of views before being censored .

At the time, the pervasiveness of air pollution and its official recognition sparked cultural attention on the issue. Some artists tackling smog mostly tried to convey a sense of frustration, depression, or despair, but others, like Nut Brother, began thinking about the social impact of their work, Kathinka Fürst said, researcher at the Norwegian Institute of 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 intention is up to interpretation, gives people like Nut Brother more leeway. to publicly address sensitive topics that activists might avoid for fear of official censorship.

“They’re not NGOs, they’re not protesters, they’re not directly involved,” said Fürst, who interviewed many prominent Chinese artists depicting air pollution about five years ago. . This flexibility creates a small, albeit fragile, space to draw attention to local issues without being perceived as a direct challenge to senior management.

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

But environmentalists worry that soil and water contamination issues are relatively neglected and harder to clean up than gray skies. In remote areas, poor industrial practices like burying copper-clad sludge, burning garbage or spraying chemical fertilizers mean that about a fifth of China’s arable land is contaminated with heavy metals.

One of the reasons these problems go unresolved is that they are often invisible to wealthy city dwellers. “Small places don’t have the power to speak up,” said Nut Brother. “In the mainstream, their voice is so small it’s imperceptible.”

Nut Brother’s work often highlights this tendency to react with apathy to distant environmental disasters. As he sucked up particles from Beijing’s skies, passers-by mostly ignored the man dragging an industrial-sized vacuum cleaner on a cart.

Despite the seriousness of the subjects covered, Nut Brother’s work is tinged with irony and humor. When he turned a muddy canal into a giant”fondueAn inflatable fish soup in the eastern town of Zibo, the installation quickly became an attraction on Chinese restaurant rating site Dianping.com thanks to a flood of positive reviews from fans.

Nut Brother has transformed a brown canal into a giant ‘pot’ full of inflatable fish to raise awareness of water pollution in the eastern Chinese city of Zibo. (Video: Nut Brother)

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

Building an audience remains an uphill battle, however. The pounding drums and distorted guitar riffs of the “heavy metal” tour caught the attention of young music fans, but didn’t always sit well with locals. Groups played in empty fields or puzzled villagers. In one instance, the concert had to take place in a hotel room after local authorities heard of the band’s arrival and shut down the show.

“We have encountered many villagers who have virtually no way to redress rights violations other than to petition or call the relevant authorities to complain,” Nut Brother said. “The suffering villagers are the quietest group. It is difficult to hear their voices in the outside world. In life, they don’t cling to fantasies or miracles, otherwise they suffer more.

The same goes for Nut Brother’s most recent project to draw attention to chemical waste in Huludao, a coastal city in northern Liaoning province. In a symbolic representation of local struggles to get the word out, Nut Brother has commandeered one of Beijing’s few remaining payphones as a listening post for outsiders to come hear about the health issues Huludao residents face. .

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

Lei said the smell of exhaust fumes from chemical plants in Longgang District of Huludao is noticeable almost every day. “Sometimes there’s no noticeable smell, but it just chokes you up and makes you want to cough,” he said.

In recent months, Lei and other residents had discussed organizing a protest, but their online discussion led to police summonses. “They are not solving the problem. They only ‘solve’ those who find and raise the issue,” he said.

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