‘The Dutch guy’ blows rings around smog

IN China, Daan Roosegaarde is known to many as “the Dutch guy” who made rings out of smog particles, a story widely circulated on the Internet two years ago. This week, he is back to China with a smog-free tower, an outdoor ionizer smog vacuum cleaner, which has been installed in Tianjin, a metropolis bordering Beijing and Hebei Province.

Now Roosegaarde is working on the next idea as part of the smog-free project — smog-free bicycles that will process smog and release clean air as bikers peddle.

The 37-year-old artist and innovator first visited China eight years ago, when he attended a design week in Shanghai, where he established his studio’s Asian office three years ago.

He sees Shanghai as his pop-up office to launch future projects — including the smog-free bicycles.

“Sometimes, Chinese people are a bit ashamed of the pollution, concerned about losing face,” Roosegaarde tells Shanghai Daily.

“I don’t see it like that. Pollution is a global problem, serious in many cities around the world. Why not use creativity and technology to solve it here?

“Why not make a platform in China, a place for innovation, where people from other parts of the world can come and learn from you? It should be seen as an opportunity to evolve rather than a shame,” he adds.

Roosegaarde turned smog into an opportunity when he brought a 7-meter-tall ionizer to a Beijing park for exhibition last year.

It instantly became a hot topic — while many people enjoyed cleaner air in the park, others suspected its functionality and questioned whether it is more artistic and symbolic than effective.

Roosegaarde answered with research by the Eindhoven University of Technology which showed the tower captured and removed up to 45 percent of the ingested PM10 and up to 25 percent of the PM2.5 within 20 meters of the tower.

He also acknowledged it was just a first step. “It is an innovation, something new. Naturally, some people will doubt it, but we go step by step. We know that one tower will not solve all the problem of a whole city, but step by step, we can have clean air,” he says.

“So it is not just about the ring or the tower, but an ongoing project that will continue to have new solutions like the smog-free bicycles we are working on right now.”

Roosegaarde considers the tower successful as it has achieved both goals — to create a park with clean air and to engage people to think what can be done to have the whole city smog free.

“These are powerful bottom-up approaches to improve the life in the city today, while at the same time the government has declared war on pollution and committed to fighting it from top down. These two approaches meet somewhere in the middle and life is improved,” he says.

The smog-free tower has also intrigued clients from other smog-heavy countries like Mexico and India to get in touch with his team.

It all started three years ago, when Roosegaarde looked outside the window of his hotel room in Beijing.

“I have visited Beijing and felt the smog before, but that particular time it became very physical,” he explains as he shows a picture of the China Central Television headquarters building he took at the time in two consecutive days — clear on the first and heavily polluted on the next.

“One day it was there, and the other day it was not. I immediately thought maybe I could use it to my design. Van Gogh has paint, and I will have the smog particles.”

He compressed the smog to make rings out of it, and didn’t expect it to become successful instantly.

“People around the world bought the rings, including many Chinese, who bought the cubes and creatively made them into necklace or bracelets, etc. People also sent us photos where they proposed with the smog ring,” he recalls.

“I see these pictures the biggest compliments. It becomes part of people’s lives. What’s fascinating is that they see it as a sign of hope and beauty, hoping for clean air and for better life. We’ve also built a relation with the Chinese public through these rings, activating them to action.”

Beauty and poetry remain at the heart of his design, which often focuses on the vision of future landscapes, inspired by nature’s gifts like fireflies or jellyfish.

When he first exhibited in Shanghai eight years ago, he brought the project “Dune,” made of thousands of light-emitting fibers that react to people’s motions. In 2015, he was commissioned by the Van Gogh Foundation to bring the master’s works to life at the 125th anniversary of his death. The result is a 1-kilometer van Gogh path, inspired by “Starry Night Over the Rhone.”

The solar-powered path lights up in the evenings and has quickly become popular. “There is no lack of money or technology in the world, but a lack of imagination. Poetry triggers imagination,” he says.

“Technology is important but I see it as a companion, a tool that keeps me informed. In the end it’s all about finding links between poetry and pragmatism, as well as between history and future. By making new connections you can provide new solutions and improve lives.”