BEIJING • Chinese artist Brother Nut can point to some success from his Beijing exhibit that used 10,000 bottles of yellowish water to raise awareness of contaminated rural groundwater, although it did not go down so well with the Beijing authorities.
The central government acknowledges that years of unbridled economic development have resulted in areas of the country with contaminated groundwater.
While it has stepped up clean-up projects in recent years, environmental activists say awareness of the issue lags far behind that of air pollution, while enforcement of quality standards is patchy.
"People have focused more on air pollution because smog is easy to spot. But not much attention has been put on water," said Brother Nut, who previously drew attention to air pollution by making a brick from smog particles that he had collected with a vacuum cleaner.
He uses a pseudonym and says he does not want to use his real name to "protect" himself.
So last month, he set out to change things. He filled 10,000 bottles with water from the small county of Xiaohaotu in north-western Shaanxi province and set up an exhibition in a narrow lane in Beijing with shelves of the bottles to mimic a supermarket. Xiaohaotu residents say the water is contaminated with pollutants.
While that prompted the environmental bureau covering Xiaohaotu to launch an investigation and oil giant Sinopec to partly stop drilling in a gas field residents say is the source of the contamination, the Beijing authorities took a dim view of the art and confiscated most of the bottles.
They said Brother Nut had broken trademark regulations by using bottles labelled with the popular Nongfu Spring brand.
When Brother Nut took the remaining bottles and his exhibit on the road, local officials pounced to confiscate them, saying he had parked illegally and was driving without a licence.
He even tried to organise a heavy metal concert in Xiaohaotu on land he says was "deeply contaminated by heavy metals", to raise awareness.
To avoid breaking laws prohibiting public gatherings, he planned for an audience of 200 sheep. But he could not find a single sheep and suspects local officials had moved them elsewhere.
The legal department of Nongfu, China's largest bottled water company, declined to comment on the case. There were no immediate answers to calls to Nongfu public relations office, the Xiaohaotu government and the Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce.
Drawing attention to social issues has been a staple of China's art scene since the 1980s, propelling activist-artists like Ai Weiwei to global stardom, although it has become less prevalent in recent years as the Chinese Communist Party under President Xi Jinping has been increasingly intolerant of any form of dissent.
Residents of Xiaohaotu, where the average annual income is about 10,000 yuan (S$2,037), have complained for years about local water pollution. They say the groundwater, used to farm and drink, was polluted by the Sinopec gas project launched in 2005.
Huabei oil-and-gas company, the Sinopec subsidiary in charge of the project, declined to comment and referred Reuters to an online statement announcing that drilling had been partly suspended pending the outcome of the environmental investigation.
The Xiaohaotu environmental bureau found that the local water contained levels of heavy metals, such as iron and manganese, that exceeded national standards by as much as 4.2 times. Its investigation continues.