Toby Smith

RARE EARTHENWARE

While journeys to extraordinary places are the cornerstone of luxury travel, this project follows more well-concealed journeys taking place across global supply chains. It retraces rare earth elements, which are widely used in high end electronics and green technologies, to their origins. The film, developed with photographer Toby Smith, documents their voyage from container ships and ports, wholesalers and factories, back to the banks of a barely-liquid radioactive lake in Inner Mongolia, where the refining process takes place. Unknown Fields Division, in collaboration with Kevin Callaghan, have used mud from this lake to craft a set of three ceramic vessels. Each is sized in relation to the amount of waste created in the production of three items of technology – a smartphone, a featherweight laptop and the cell of a smart car battery. The resulting film and 3 vases will be on display at the V & A from the 25th of April within the exhibition “What is Luxury?”

For press, broadcast or commercial enquiries please contact:
toby@shootunit.com

Rare Earthenware – 4K  Trailer

 

What is Luxury? – The V&A

25 April – 27 September 2015

What is Luxury? will interrogate ideas of luxury today. It will address how luxury is made and understood in a physical, conceptual and cultural capacity. Extraordinary works of craftsmanship will be on display including a couture gown by fashion designer Iris van Herpen and fine examples of haute horlogerie by British watchmaker George Daniels, alongside more unexpected projects which explore the cultural value of materials such as gold, diamonds and plastic. The future of luxury will be explored, asking questions about the role that time, space, privacy, well-being, social inclusivity and access to resources and skill may play in determining our choices and aspirations.

 

Rare Earthenware – Extended Essay

While journeys to extraordinary places are the cornerstone of luxury travel, this project follows more well-concealed journeys taking place across global supply chains. It retraces rare earth elements, which are widely used in high-end electronics and green technologies, to their origins. The film documents their voyage in reverse from container ships and ports, wholesalers and factories, back to the banks of a barely-liquid radioactive lake in Inner Mongolia, pumped with tailings from the refining process. Unknown Fields Division have used mud from this lake to craft a set of three ceramic vessels. Each is sized in relation to the amount of waste created in the production of three items of technology – a smartphone, a featherweight laptop and the cell of a smart car battery.

The toxic waste dug from this 10sq km tailing lake was discharged from the surrounding factories in Baotou City, Inner Mongolia and contains a cocktail of acids, heavy metals, carcinogens and radioactive material – including thorium and uranium – used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world, known as rare earths. China produces over 95% of the world’s rare earths and two thirds of this in Baotou; a pastureland turned wasteland on the edge of the Gobi Desert. At the nearby Bayan Obo mine, unpronounceable treasures – Erbium, yttrium, dysprosium, europium, neodymium – are drawn from the 56 million ton ‘Treasure Mountain’ deposit; the largest in the world.

Used in the manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines, electric car batteries, televisions, personal electronics and energy-efficient light bulbs, rare earths sit in a row at the bottom of the periodic table called lanthanides. Though as the name suggests they are not common, the word ‘rare’ in fact derives from the 15th century meaning ‘strange’ or ‘unusual ’. And this strange earth is increasingly what enables the contemporary technological luxuries of ‘featherweight’, ‘slim’ and ‘clean’. As our personal electronics tend towards the invisible, they conjure in their shadows an undeniably visible grey mountain, a 1km deep pit, and a 10km tailings lake, a counterweight to the apparent immateriality of computing, communications and electric energy.

Bayan Obo processes 100 thousand tons of rare earth concentrate per year using the sulphuric acid-roasting method and for every ton of rare earth concentrate produced 10,000 cubic metres of waste gas, 75 cubic metres of acid-washing waste water, and one ton of radioactive residues are generated.

Black with shimmering burnish, from the reaction of the mineral content during firing, each of the three vessels is the shadow of valuable technological object, whilst echoing in silhouette the highly valuable Ming dynasty porcelain Tongping or ‘Sleeve’ Vases. A one family global superpower, the Ming dynasty presided over an international network of connections, trade and diplomacy that stretched across Asia to Africa, the Middle East and Europe, built on the trade of commodities such as imperial porcelain.

These three vessels are artifacts of a contemporary global supply network that weaves matter and displaces earth across the planet. They are presented as objects of desire, but their elevated radiation levels and toxicity make them objects we would not want to possess and in this case the museum vitrine serves to protect us from the exhibit on display rather than the other way round. They are the undesirable consequences of our material desires.

All

BAYAN OBO, CHINA – DECEMBER 21, 2010

The highly restricted Bayan Obo Rare Earth mine. The treasure mountain deposit is certainly the worlds largest and, as of 2005, responsible for 45% of global rare earth metal production. Photographer Toby Smith gained access in 2010 by waiting until a Chinese national holiday and working below the radar of the authorities. Smith gained access to the mining area by hiding in the back of a pick-up truck. Using GPS coordinates calcualted from satellite photos he ran the final 10km across the desert to the mine-edge with a discete point and shoot camera.

BAYAN OBO DISTRICT, CHINA – DECEMBER 21, 2010

The massive centrifuges and grinding of a stage 1 rare earth refinery. According to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters (340,000 to 420,000 cubic feet) of waste gas—containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid—are released with every ton of rare metals that are mined. Approximately 75 cubic meters (2,600 cubic feet) of acidic wastewater, plus about a ton of radioactive waste residue are also produced. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=77723

BAYAN OBO DISTRICT, CHINA – DECEMBER 21, 2010

A worker steams cyrstals from an industrial scale precipitator in a stage 1 rare earth refinery. The cyrstals contain an elevated concentration of rare earth oxides that are then further refined before a usable concentration is acheived. According to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters (340,000 to 420,000 cubic feet) of waste gas—containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid—are released with every ton of rare metals that are mined. Approximately 75 cubic meters (2,600 cubic feet) of acidic wastewater, plus about a ton of radioactive waste residue are also produced.

BAYAN OBO DISTRICT, CHINA – DECEMBER 21, 2010

The highly toxic and radioactive tailings of a rare earth refinery. According to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters (340,000 to 420,000 cubic feet) of waste gas—containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid—are released with every ton of rare metals that are mined. Approximately 75 cubic meters (2,600 cubic feet) of acidic wastewater, plus about a ton of radioactive waste residue are also produced.

BAOTOU, CHINA  – AUGUST 04, 2014 

A rare earth acid bath cools in a bath of water after bing subjected to high temperature and pressure. The machinery was photographed in an industrial area producing medium size Neodymium Magnets.

BAOTOU, CHINA - AUGUST 04, 2014

A rare-earth refinery with centrifuges concentrates Rare Earth ore into industrial application before it is force dried into powder form. 76% of the world's rare-earth magnets are produced in China

BAOTOU, CHINA - AUGUST 04, 2014

A metal-worker extracts molten Lanthanum and Steel from a forge and decants into magnet molds before they are polarised.

GUANDONG, CHINA – AUGUST 2, 2014

Film still from “Rare Earthenware” depicting a Chinese worker assembling electronics on a conveyor belt production line. 60,000 factories Guangdong province with 10  million rural migrant workers. 58.5% of workers suffer from depression, 17% from anxiety, 4.6% have considered suicide.

SHIGUAI, CHINA – DECEMBER 20, 2010

Coal trucks grind down-hill from Shiguai open-cast coal mine to the main-highway. Congestion at the highway, weighing points and intersections often sees the vehicles jammed for days as China attempts to redistrubute its coal.

YIWU MALL, CHINA  – AUGUST 2014 

Film still from “Rare Earthenware” . "China Commodity City" was honored by the UN, the World Bank and Morgan Stanley amongst other world authorities in 2005 as the "largest small commodity wholesale market in the world. The International Trade Mart (Futian market) is the main one and the biggest. It currently covers an area of 4 million square meters, with 62,000 booths inside. 100,000 suppliers exhibit 400,000 kinds of products. The products come from around 40 industries and include 2,000 different categories of goods. 65% of these products are exported to over 215 countries and regions. 175 football fields of shops.

SHIGUAI, CHINA – DECEMBER 20, 2010

As China's thirst for coal continues to grow this open cast coal mine is being blasted, excavated and extracted by truck at break-neck speed. The mine is deep in the mountains of Inner Mongolia and is exploited by a number of firms simultaneously with cash being paid by the tonne at the weighbridge.

BAOTAO, CHINA – DECEMBER 17, 2010

Workers monitor the volatile mixture of lime with molten iron at one of the blast furnaces within the Baogang Steel Company. One of the most polluted regions on the planet, the giant industrial complex also processes much of China's Rare Earth concentrate.

BAOTOU, CHINA - AUGUST 03, 2014

A toxic lake of mine and refinery tailings stretch for over 6km from Baogang Iron and Steel Corporation. 10 sq km toxic tailings lake whereby 1 Tonne of Rare earth produces 75 tonnes of acidic waste water, a cocktail of acids, heavy metals, carcinogens and radioactive material at 3 times background radiation.

BAOTOU, CHINA – AUGUST 2, 2014

Film still from “Rare Earthenware” . The still shows Liam Young, from Unknown Fields, collecting radioactive mud from the tailings lake at the outflow of Baogang Iron and Steel Corporation. The mud was used to craft a set of three ceramic vessels. Each is sized in relation to the amount of waste created in the production of three items of technology – a smartphone, a featherweight laptop and the cell of a smart car battery.

JIUQUAN, CHINA - DECEMBER 15, 2010

Wind turbine blades lie stickpiled awaiting transport across the province. To supoort this massive program of renewable energy growth local government has developed huge renewable energy business parks. This park in Jiuquan houses 4 wind-turbine makers, employing 20,000 and producing 10,000 blades per annum.

SHANGAI SHIPBUILDING COPRORATION, CHINA - JULY 30, 2014

The massive bow section is lowered into place of a new bulk-loader vessel. China is the largest shipbuilding nation with 55 million DWT of ships built annually.

NANSHA CONTAINER PORT, CHINA - JULY 26, 2014

View from Monkey Island above the bridge of the Container Gunhilde Maersk as she loads with containers at Nansha port. 11.4 million containers processed annually at this port alone.

NANSHA CONTAINER PORT, CHINA - JULY 26, 2014

100s of containers an hour are simultaneously loaded and unloaded at break-neck speed between the vessel and the dock.

CAI MAP INTERNATIONAL, VIETNAM - JULY 25, 2014

The Captain of the Gunhilde Maersk container ship steers his vessel into the South China Sea with the assistance of a Vietnames Pilot and his Chief Officer.

NANSHA CONTAINER PORT, CHINA - JULY 26, 2014

View from Monkey Island above the bridge of the Container Gunhilde Maersk as she traverses the South China Sea.

RARE EARTHENWARE is a work by Kate Davies and Liam Young of The Unknown Fields Division in partnership with the Architectural Association. 

Credits:

Photography by Toby Smith

Ceramics by Kevin Callaghan and the London Sculpture workshop

Animation by Christina Varvia

With thanks to:

Michael Lockyer and Andrew Hancock of UCL Radiation Protection Safety Services

 

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