Burning Coal, Taking Pictures on the Cell Phone

The Arts Environment


BEIJING - Last Saturday I spent a moment staring at a picture of a naked man pulling a cart of coal in an underground mine. Throughout the 3 Shadows Gallery, designed by the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, you could see the juxtaposition of coal + ice (煤+冰), a show produced by Asia Society’s Orville Schell.


But as I walked through the exhibit, and looked at the pictures of receding Himalayan glaciers and the toils of working in the coal industry, it was the iPads and iPhones taking pictures of each other that struck me most.


At first, I just thought about it because I imagined that everyone, just like me, was going to go back to their office or home and blog about the event, and people have written pieces about it in both English and Chinese. Here is the NY Times piece.  But then it dawned on me: oddly, for the first time in the 1.5 years I’ve been living in Beijing, that just as I took pictures with my Blackberry (yes, try to get all the product placements in there), I too was using coal. I come from Washington state where 80% of electricity is not from fossil fuels, and hydro and wind power interests fight to get their electricity on the grid. So, as I have lived in California, Illinois, New York and now Beijing, I have had to get used to the idea that using electricity pollutes the air and emits greenhouse gases. I still remember staring at the television screen as someone simulated turning on a lawn mower to turn on the television, trying to symbolize the burning of fossil fuels to power a TV, and I stared with confusion.


The premise of the exhibit was that working in a coal mine is tough and dirty, our lives today demand the electricity produced from the coal of these mines, and as a result we are left with greater greenhouse gases and ever melting glaciers in the Himalayas. Yet while China and the United States both rely heavily on coal for their electricity, I was not sure wha,t if anything, I can do in my own personal life from seeing the exhibit.


I suggested to my language partner CZ, who covers environmental issues for Caixin Magazine, that maybe they could give away small stickers of the glaciers you could put on the back of your phone; images of glaciers would slow down that habit of charging your phone every time you are near an outlet. The problem is that while I’m talking about stickers and trying to reduce coal use, Steve Jobs is lauded for getting millions of individuals to buy something they didn’t know they needed, an iPad. The iPad only increases the need for coal-produced electricity.


What I took away from this perhaps more than anything was the emotional distress of two lead participants. I watched and listened to David Breshears, a mountaineer who filmed an IMAX movie about Mt. Everest. Granted, he seemed to be slowed down by jetlag and a broken leg, but you could see that he honestly seemed emotionally moved by the glaciers that were no longer as large as they were eighty years ago when England’s George Mallory climbed the Himalayas.


The second takeaway for me was the comments of Orville Schell. I had been paying attention to his work since early 2009 when he helped organize a report that set out ways that China and the United States could work together to mitigate climate change. It struck me because it was one of the few efforts I had seen that did not only want to change China, but also recognized the fact the United States emits 80% more greenhouse gases per person than China. This report and subsequent reports have made it to the State department, including Secretary Hillary Clinton’s desk. Yet, as I briefly talked to Schell last Saturday he lamented that nothing is happening in the United States, and its not much better in China.


I said to CZ, as we introverts tried to mingle unsuccessfully, that the people in the crowd were not those that I usually saw at environmental events around Beijing. It seemed that the event had drawn more of the art scene folks to this event, including a famous science fiction writer from Taiwan. I don't know what that means for the goals and hopes of Breshears and Schell.


Before attending the event I had tweeted that perhaps the two hours it took to get to the event in some ways represented the distance from the common people’s lives. I was thinking of seeing climate change in a trendy gallery, forgetting for a moment all the common Chinese who breath air polluted by coal soot every day. Many of the attendees, both Chinese and ex-pats who attended took taxis or perhaps their own cars. I took four subways and a bus. CZ said that in the heart of the city there is no space for something like this.


A few days later I learned about an art exhibit of works by 100 young artists at the Ditan park in the heart of the city, or at least more so than coal + ice. The exhibit was primarily made up of different light exhibits, with some focusing on the balance between humans and nature. The exhibit also included a low-carbon car show, but by the last day when I arrived the cars had already been removed.


This exhibit did not have any naked men pulling carts of coal, but rather cute sounds and funky shapes amid the trees and grass of the park, with the dutiful security guards pacing back and forth. Yet no more than the exhibit on the outskirts of town was there a tangible sense of what humans could do to create better balance with nature. Just like at the 3 Shadows gallery, at Ditan park, all one could do was take pictures on their cell phone and walk to the next piece.



**Photos of the exhibit provided by Chris Eberhardt.



China, Climate Change, United States, Ai Weiwei