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RARE EARTHENWARE

Designer: Unknown Fields (nomadic design research studio); Collaborators: London Sculpture Workshop (ceramics) (United Kingdom), Toby Smith (film and photography) (United Kingdom), Christina Varvia (animation assistance) (Greece); Location: Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China; Years: 2014–15

Rare Earthenware makes visible a critical but often unseen aspect of the global supply system, the rare earth elements used to make electronics and renewable energy technologies. More than 95 percent of the world’s rare earths come from China and the majority are from Baotou, one of the most polluted regions on the planet. As with conflict minerals, rare earth extraction can lead to or aggravate existing conflicts and the mining and processing of these materials can be highly toxic. And yet, rare earth elements continue to be used widely in the technology that supports daily life.

Three vases were made from toxic mud—a mixture of acids, heavy metals, carcinogens, and radioactive material—dug from a tailings lake in Inner Mongolia. Each corresponds to the amount of toxic waste created in the extraction of rare earths used in the production of three high-tech products.

Unknown Fields collaborates with the London Sculpture Workshop to fashion vases made from mud collected at a
radioactive tailings lake, 2015. The vases’ shapes evoke prized Ming dynasty porcelain. Photo: © Toby Smith / Unknown Fields