Ceramic tableware glazed with polluted dust harvested from Delhi’s air is a powerful art medium to connect people with its toxic risk

If you are served food on a ceramic plate or coffee in a mug glazed with polluted dust harvested from Delhi’s air, will you still eat and drink using them? This provoked an instant “yuck” or “no way” expression on the faces of those staring at the tableware produced exactly that way. Yet curiosity took over and visitors thronging the second edition of Common Ground: Indian Ceramics Triennale 2024 in Delhi reached out to pick up the smog-glazed cups to have tea so as not to miss the experience.

The ‘shocked’ expressions on people’s faces are the reason why the Dutch designer Iris de Kievith from the design studio Lab AIR in Rotterdam, Netherlands, has created ‘smogware’. She wants to provoke a response to the public health crisis around air pollution.

“This is our tool for raising awareness of the urgent situation. Smogware collects the settled solid particles and uses it to create a set of ceramic tableware. The glaze of the dust makes the problem of polluted air visible to people,” said Iris.

Iris, an architect, had also learned pottery. Afflicted with asthma, she had also joined a citizens’ group to take up the issue of local air pollution in her home town of Rotterdam. That’s when she started to join the dots and discovered the innate similarity between the components of air pollution and the glazing material that potters use.

Dust particles rich in metal oxides and chemicals with different melting points seemed like a potential glazing material for ceramic. She experimented by smearing dust paste on baked porcelain and fired them in the kiln to get the transparent glaze and it worked.

Thus started the smogware journey through the cities across continents to create tableware with locally harvested dust. People volunteered to join and collect polluted dust from the outdoor surfaces at a height above 4 metres. Widely different local editions of tableware have been created in different cities across the world  — Rotterdam, Milan, Beijing, Paris, Amsterdam, Jakarta and more. It is Delhi’s turn now.

This new experience in the second Indian Ceramic Triennale reflects how new frontiers are opening up for ceramics as a medium of expression. Clay is giving new shapes to the rapidly expanding horizon of ideas.

Anjani Khanna, one of the founding members of Ceramic Triennale, said, “This is giving voices to widely different expressions. This is exploring clay more deeply, showing how clay can be part of different narratives — binding it with other practices. This is meandering from personal, philosophical and spiritual spaces to more lived experiences.”

Decoding the science of pollution glazing

On display are the stacked jars of dust particles collected from different cities around the world in contrasting shades of colour. The colour of dust particles varies across cities, reflecting the varying mix of local pollution sources. Dust particles from European cities are black in contrast to the grey shades of Delhi dust.

This difference shows up in the glaze too — the glaze of Delhi’s tableware is a lighter tone.

This is such an amazing way to demystify what our scientists have been telling us about the composition of airborne particles and the tracer elements that identify pollution sources. The complex chemistry of elemental and organic carbon and the mix of tracer metals and chemicals that scientists use mystify the issue in popular minds.

Yet, looking at the contrasting lighter shade of Delhi’s dust particles vis-a-vis the black dust from Europe, it is much easier to understand the influence of a higher share of dust, sand and ash from biomass burning, etc. in this region. Also, the high quantum of dust particles in Delhi’s air offers a much larger surface area for the toxic metals and chemicals spewed by vehicles, industry, and plastic burning to cling on to the dust to be carried straight to our lungs.

The jet black dust from European cities, collected from the tunnels and freeways, has a higher share of combustion particles from vehicles and industry. This black mass deeply darkens the glaze.

Shade of glaze benchmarks air pollution risk

Iris also benchmarked the shades of glazing with the level of exposure to particulate pollution to help visualise the impact. Considering the volume of air people normally breathe and the ambient concentration of PM10 in a city (to account for the coarser particles collected from the surfaces), the gram of pollution inhaled at different stages of life is calculated and quantified.

For Rotterdam, this has been calculated for the lifetime of a citizen — spanning from 10 years to 85 years. For a Delhiite, this has been estimated for two, four, six, eight and 10 years of life. “This makes air pollution a personal story on a human scale,” says Iris. As the age is assumed to increase, the corresponding dosage of smog on tableware also increases to represent the years of exposure. So, interestingly, pollution with a high health cost becomes a zero-cost glaze.

Serving food on smogware

Smog-glazed tableware. Photo: Anumita Roychowdhury

It was exciting as well as intriguing to see smogware becoming a powerful medium of expression at the Triennale. Fiona de Bell of Cascoland and Saskia Verschelling of Save Projects from Netherlands joined hands with Iris to innovate the visualisation and the experience around the smogware.

Several of us gathered around a table to prepare food and eat from the smog-glazed tableware. The food recipe was curated by Shiva of “No Oil, No Boil” fame from Coimbatore and we prepared a range of salads from organically grown vegetables and greens from Tijara farms. The connection with air pollution was immediate.

The conversation inevitably moved towards Delhi’s air quality and what is needed to get clean air. But jars of pollution dust from seemingly cleaner cities in Europe stacked just behind the table as exhibited constantly reminded us of the obstinacy of the air pollution problem that simply does not go away — needing even harder action region-wide.

Iris mused, “When people ask me about the purpose of all this, I simply say,  aim for a day when there won’t be any more pollution left for me to harvest to make smogware.”

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