Rare earth metals (REM) are the fundamental materials that enable the ‘featherweight’, ‘slim’ and ‘seamless’ aesthetics of our contemporary technologies. As our personal electronics tend towards the invisible, they conjure in their shadows an undeniably visible grey mountain, a 1 km deep pit, and a 10 km radioactive tailings lake, a counterweight to the apparent immateriality of computing, communications, and electric energy.
Unknown Fields have used the toxic mud from this radioactive tailings lake in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, to craft a set of three ceramic vessels. Each vase is sized in relation to the amount of waste created in the production of three items of technologya smartphone, a featherweight laptop, and the cell of a smart car battery. With a slightly shimmering burnish, from the reaction of the mineral content during firing, the vessels are the material shadow of valuable technological objects.
The toxic waste dug from this 10sq km tailing lake was discharged from the surrounding factories and contains a cocktail of acids, heavy metals, carcinogens, and radioactive materialincluding thorium and uraniumused 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 treasureserbium, yttrium, dysprosium, europium, neodymiumare drawn from the 56 million ton ‘Treasure Mountain’ deposit; the largest in the world.
In silhouette they echo highly valuable Ming dynasty porcelain Tongping or 'Sleeve Vases’. Vases are traditionally objects of value that hold objects of value and display wealth, vessels for both meaning and transporting goods. Ming vases are particularly iconic objects of high value as well as being artifacts of international trade. 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 rare earthenware vessels are the physical embodiment of a contemporary global supply network that displaces earth and weaves matter 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. They represent the undesirable consequences of our material desires.
An accompanying film charts the unmaking of these objects of technologyreversing their journeys from container ships and ports, through wholesalers and factory floors, all the way back the banks of the barely-liquid radioactive lake in Inner Mongolia that is continually pumped with tailings from the rare earth refining process. The unmaking of our technologies is the making of these vases, carefully crafted from their toxic byproducts.
The Unknown Fields Division (UK/AU) is a nomadic design research studio directed by Kate Davies and Liam Young. They venture out on expeditions to the ends of the earth to bear witness to alternative worlds, alien landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness. These distant landscapesthe iconic and the ignored, the excavated, irradiated and the pristine, are embedded in global systems that connect them in surprising and complicated ways to our everyday lives. In such a landscape of interwoven narratives, the studio uses film and animation to chronicle this network of hidden stories and re-imagine the complex and contradictory realities of the present as a site of strange and extraordinary futures.
Unknown Fields Division
In partnership with the Architectural Association. Commissioned by The Victoria and Albert Museum.
Film and Photography in collaboration with Toby Smith, Ceramics work in collaboration with the London Sculpture Workshop, Animation assistance from Christina Varvia.