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?”
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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.
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