Belljar is the second work in the Width of Air series, which interrogates the act of data collection and measurement in the context of climate change and environmental damage. Like Snowglobe, the first work in the series, Belljar was realised as part of my work in collective Stereotropic Anecdota, alongside Tom O’Dea.
Like Snowglobe (MSMS_001), Belljar has a “scientific name”, Shanghai Air Monitorin Station_001 (SAMS_001). For the purposes of the Width of Air concept, it is important that each piece appears on first impressions to be a valid scientific experiment in the public realm. As such, the installations and the work around them exist under the umbrella of research carried out by the Stereotropic Anecdota Department of Environment.
Belljar is a site specific work, a response to the Shanghainese modes of coping with severe environmental damage in the form of air pollution. The piece is a bonsai tree living inside a bell jar, placed outside on a main road in Shanghai. Inside the bell jar, an air quality sensor measures the air pollution, relaying the information live online to the Department of Environment website and to a display alongside the miniature tree.
When I arrived in Shanghai I immediately had a strong physical response to the air pollution – I found it hard to walk outside, I was continuously deeply coughing, I felt exhausted, my eyes were sore. I quickly donned a mask, as many other Shanghainese residents do, and sought respite in buildings with air purifiers. I, like so many others, was creating safe microenvironments within which to exist as a coping mechanism for the city’s extreme pollution.
The pollution is a consequence of high usage of motor vehicles in the city, overlaid on China’s baseline pollution from factories and power stations. These activities have brought the country great wealth, but at a cost. Each year loses 6.5% of its GDP to air pollution related health problems in the workforce, and that’s without even considering the longer term problems associated with children’s development in highly polluted environments. The air pollution is a product of aspiration – for economic growth and for personal wealth in the case of car ownership. The creation of microenvironments is a product of the aspiration for respiration.
There’s a socio-political element to this – the pollution creates a common problem, but one that only the well-off can afford to avoid. And with the health and developmental impacts of air pollution, it is likely to increase inequality in a country where the top one percent of households holds one-third of total assets. Yet, Under the Dome, a documentary by journalist Chai Jing that explores the impacts of this pollution, was censored in China just 3 days after its release in what one colleague dubbed “the largest act of censorship in the history of humanity”.
Stereotropic Anecdota has responded to this dark irony by creating Belljar. The bell jar’s use as a piece of scientific equipment to create discrete atmospheres where small animals would suffocate is captured in the piece, with echoes of Sylvia Plath’s tormented cry for help. The bonsai’s tranquility is highlighted and juxtaposed against the micro-environments we each create in seeking purer air, but the tree is separated from the viewer – evoking a fragility and otherworldliness.
At first glance, it seems to be another valid scientific experiment. The piece is etched with its name and the message “Do Not Touch” in English and Chinese. And just below, the live digital display which tells us not the air quality index – Shanghai’s ever present measurement – but instead the air purity. But who is this purity for? Who can enter the bell jar?
What is the point of measuring the air inside the bell jar if no one can experience it?
Belljar (SAMS_001) is a work by Stereotropic Anecdota (Kat F Austen and Tom O’Dea) at PCI NYU Shanghai and NYU Shanghai Gallery. With thanks to Christian Grewell and studio assistants Shelby Firebaugh and Dylan Crow.