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When Is Bottled Air Worth $860? When It's A Work Of Art — And Protest


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In Beijing, last month, a piece of art sold at auction for $860. That doesn't sound like a lot until you hear this piece of art is a jar filled with air - ostensibly clean air captured in Provence in France. It's one of the latest examples of artistic protests against China's horrible air pollution. Reporter Didi Tang has been writing about this for the Associated Press, and she joins me now from Beijing. And, Didi, talk just a bit more about this pollution protest art and the artist behind it.

DIDI TANG: So the artist who created it and his name is Liang Kegang and he is artist in Beijing. And he told me that, when I was in Provence, I was just amazed at how clean the air is. And that's actually what resonates with most people living in Beijing. Even for me, I have been living here for two years but last year, when I went back to the States, when I saw the clean air and when I saw the blue sky, I was just amazed.

So he decide - he said, you know, that kind of idea came to him. He was going to capture a jar of air and brought to Beijing as a conceptual art, as a way to tell people, look, the air here is really, really bad and as his way to protest the dirty air in Beijing.

BLOCK: And that's all it is? It's just a jar with air inside it and some labels on it saying where it's theoretically from?

TANG: Yes. Yes. Actually, I did ask him to show me how did he create that art. And he told me that he went to this little town and he opened up the jar and then let it, you know, stay open for a few seconds and closed it. And that was it. That was the whole production of this piece of art.

BLOCK: And he managed to find a buyer.

TANG: Yes. Yes. And he was kind of curious. He was thinking, hey, how much would this jar of, you know, air will go for? So he did not really put it up for public auction, but he actually list it in a very small circle of artists and collectors throughout China. And he told me that he has - he had no expectations as far as the price would go. And then finally, someone from Chengdu, another city in southwest China which also has - had pretty bad air throughout, you know, the last year, and some artists and collector over there in Chengdu, and he bought it.

BLOCK: You know, it sounds like this is part of a wave of various kinds of artistic protest against air pollution and environmental problems in general in China.

TANG: Yes, yes. The most common ways we saw - we have seen oftentimes is related to death. You know, we had this case in February when probably a dozen artists in Beijing, they played dead in a Beijing park as their way to protest the smog. And then another case was a funeral, you know, kind of funeral burying people dying of smog in the city of Changsha, and that's in southern China.

BLOCK: A mock funeral?

TANG: Yeah, a mock funeral. So I was talking to Liang Kegang and he did tell me, he said, you know, artists, you know, they have those social responsibilities. They wanted to say something about it but that he has found, you know, the expressions to be a little bit on the dark side. And he told me that he was thinking about a lighter way to protest. And that idea of selling, you know, having a jar of clean air, that came to him when he was Provence last month.

BLOCK: You know, we're talking about some fairly lighthearted treatments of what is a really serious, deadly issue there in China. At its worst point in Beijing, how bad has the air been?

TANG: On days when the air was really bad, you could smell it. It was kind of like you were in a smoking room probably with hundreds of smokers. Probably, I'm exaggerating a little bit there but, you know, the visibility was cut down to probably 10 meters or about 10 yards also. You cannot see the buildings outside your own windows.

BLOCK: Didi Tang, thanks so much for joining us.

TANG: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's AP correspondent Didi Tang in Beijing. We were talking about artists protesting China's bad air pollution. The latest example, a jar that was labeled as containing clean French air that sold for $860. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.