Liang Kegang, a contemporary Beijing artist well known for his conceptual art and performance work, recently took a business trip in Provence, a southern French province. While on a French mountain, Liang pulled out a jar and captured a jarful of the fresh air. Soon after returning to China, he successfully auctioned off the jar of French mountain air for $860 after presenting it to about 100 artists and collectors. Really.
As unbelievable as it might sound, it's not that surprising: Pollution in China is at an all-time high, with a national inspection campaign discovering that nearly 2,000 Chinese enterprises were violating state pollution guidelines. Another recent report from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau determined the air had high levels of PM2.5, which measures the number of hazardous tiny particles.
To give a sense of what that means, this measurement is 156 percent higher than the standard Beijing is trying to enforce, and 35 times the World Health Organization's recommended limit.
Case in point: The air in China has remained at a level of pollution that is hazardous to health, which is why a jar of fresh mountain air was able to sell at $860 (which is equivalent to 5,250 yuan).
In an interview with AP, Liang said that this auction was a form of protest. "Air should be the most valueless commodity, free to breathe for any vagrant or beggar," he said. "This is my way to question China's foul air and express my dissatisfaction."
The jar is labeled with the coordinates of where Liang found the air — which was in the French village of Forcalquier — along with his signature, the date, and "Air in Provence, France" written in French.
This is one of many protests that Chinese artists have undertaken to criticize China's problem with air pollution. In February, 20 artists had a performance art protest in which they wore dust masks and pretended to be dead at an altar in Beijing's Temple of Heaven park.
Last month, another group of artists in the city of Changsha had a mock funeral in which they "mourned" the death of the city's last resident, who had died from the pollution.