Chinese artist Nut Brother fights pollution with rock music

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On a remote dirt road in northwest China’s Qinghai Plateau, a four-piece band dressed in hazmat suits and gas masks launches into a thrash metal number about the dangers of burning trash.

“A person’s life is but a single breath, a breath laced with garbage,” the singer death-growls through his mask in videos of the performance.

The unusual concert is part of a countrywide series conceived of and led by the Chinese artist known as the Nut Brother, who stands in front of the band dressed in camouflage, gently nodding his head to 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 additional scrutiny from authorities and online critics, has developed a knack for highlighting overlooked environmental and social issues in China using quirky, social media-ready performance 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 areas 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 sights across the country last year, but the tour was cut short as coronavirus restrictions were tightened.

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

He added that the work is risky and takes place in a “rapidly changing and complex environment” where local governments and polluting companies often take offense at their failures being highlighted. His response to him is to be as open as possible, publishing all the pushback he faces, including bribes from polluters and letters from local governments demanding retractions.

“Our projects are not really radical; we don’t get things moving through confrontation, but rather we move things forward through imagination,” he said.

Nut Brother is an early social media username of the Shenzhen-based artist who became famous in 2015 when he wandered the streets of Beijing dragging a large vacuum cleaner, its nozzle held up toward the city’s smoggy skies, during a high point for public attention to China’s “airpocalypse” problem.

In 2014, Premier Li Keqiang declared “war on pollution” following years of mounting concern about off-the-charts levels of particulate matter in the air. A documentary by a Chinese state media journalist — called “Under the Dome” and released in February 2015 — directly implicated state-owned fossil fuel giants, drawing hundreds of millions of views before it was censored.

At the time, air pollution’s pervasiveness and official acknowledgment led to cultural attention on the issue. Some artists who tackled smog were mostly trying to convey a feeling of frustration, depression or hopelessness, but others, like Nut Brother, began to think about the social impact of their work, said Kathinka Fürst, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for 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 intent is up to interpretation, gives people like Nut Brother greater leeway to publicly tackle sensitive topics that activists might shun for fear of official censure.

“They aren’t NGOs, they aren’t protesters, they’re not directly involved,” said Fürst, who interviewed many of the leading Chinese artists depicting air pollution about five years ago. That flexibility creates a small, if fragile, space to draw attention to local problems without being perceived to be directly challenging the top leadership.

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

But environmentalists fear that problems of soil and water contamination are comparatively overlooked and may be harder to clean up than gray skies. In remote areas, poor industrial practices like burying copper-laced sludge, burning trash or spraying chemical fertilizers mean that about one-fifth of China’s arable land is contaminated with heavy metals.

One reason these problems aren’t addressed is because they are often invisible to wealthy urbanites. “Small places have no power to speak out,” Nut Brother said. “In the mainstream, their voice is so small it’s imperceptible.”

Nut Brother’s work often highlights this tendency to react with apathy to faraway environmental disasters. When he sucked particulate matter from the Beijing skies, passersby for the most part ignored the man dragging an industrial-sized vacuum on a cart.

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

Nut Brother turned a brown canal into a giant “hot pot” full of inflatable fish to raise awareness of water pollution in the eastern Chinese city of Zibo. (Video: Nut Brother)

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

Building an audience remains an uphill battle, however. The thumping drums and distorted guitar licks of the “heavy metal” tour drew attention from young music fans but didn’t always land well with locals. The bands played to empty fields or bemused villagers. In one instance, the concert had to take place in a hotel room after local authorities heard of the group’s arrival and shut down the performance.

“We met many villagers who basically have no channels to redress rights violations other than to petition or call the relevant authorities to complain,” Nut Brother said. “Villagers who suffer are the most voiceless group. It is hard to hear their voices in the outside world. In life, they don’t clasp to fantasies or miracles, otherwise they suffer more.”

The same is true of Nut Brother’s most recent project to draw attention to chemical waste in Huludao, a coastal town in northern Liaoning province. In a symbolic portrayal of local struggles to get the message out, Nut Brother commandeered one of the few remaining public pay phones in Beijing as a listening post for strangers to come hear about the health problems Huludao residents face.

“Nut Brother’s campaigns are great, and they make more people aware of the things happening in Huludao. But many domestic journalists are still under a lot of pressure and are afraid to report on this matter,” said a 39-year-old Huludao resident, who only gave his surname, Lei, out of concerns for repercussions for speaking to foreign media.

Lei said the smell of exhaust gas from chemical plants in Huludao’s Longgang district is noticeable almost every day. “Sometimes there isn’t a noticeable odor but it just chokes you and makes you want to cough,” he said.

In recent months, Lei and other residents had discussed arranging a protest, but their online discussion led to summons from the police. “They don’t solve the issue. They only ‘solve’ those who find and raise the issue,” he said.

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