Each Of These Radioactive Vases Is Made From The Toxic Sludge Byproduct Of Your Phone, Computer, Car

Designers from The Unknown Fields Division are taking the toxic waste from a hellish tailing pond in Mongolia and making (dangerous, untouchable) art.

Each Of These Radioactive Vases Is Made From The Toxic Sludge Byproduct Of Your Phone, Computer, Car
Kevin Callaghan uses mud from a radioactive lake in Mongolia to make a vase inspired by Ming dynasty porcelain. [Photos: Toby Smith, courtesy of Unknown Fields]

Ceramic vases made from toxic mud created in the production of must-have products such as laptops and smartphones will present a markedly different perspective on consumer technology when they go on show at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum later this month.


The mud was collected from a toxic lake in Inner Mongolia into which thick, black chemical waste is pumped from neighboring refineries in and around Baotou, the region’s largest industrial city (read more about the place described as “hell on Earth” in this BBC story).

China produces an estimated 95% of the world’s supply of “rare earth” elements.

Baotou is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of the materials–elements found in anything from magnets and wind turbines and electric car motors to the electronic guts of smart phones and flat screen TVs.

The ceramics were produced by The Unknown Fields Division, a self-declared “nomadic design studio” headed by Liam Young and Kate Davies and developed within the Architectural Association in London, whose aim is to reflect the shadows luxury products cast across the planet.

“The vases are a way to talk about ideas around luxury and desire. How both are culturally constructed collective sets of values that are fleeting and particular to our time,” says Davies.

“These three ‘rare earthenware’ vessels are the physical embodiment of a contemporary global supply network that displaces earth and weaves matter across the planet.”

3 finished vases, conceived by Unknown Fields Division and produced with Kevin Callaghan, a ceramics artist, will be on display in the V and A Gallery.Photo: Toby Smith, courtesy of Unknown Fields

Adds Young: “The dominant media narrative about our technologies is based on lightness and thinness. Terms like ‘cloud’ of ‘Macbook Air’ imply that our gadgets are just ephemeral objects–and this is the story we all want to believe.

“In reality, our technologies should really be thought of as geological artefacts that are carved out of the earth and produced by a planetary-scaled factory.”

Unknown Fields travels the world to explore landscapes and infrastructures critical to the production of contemporary cities and the technologies they contain–often forgotten landscapes scarred by consumer demand.

With an approach that’s part design-focused, part investigative journalism the studio uses techniques such as film, animation and fiction to develop what they call ‘counter narratives’ that encourage an audience to consider how we might relate to these sites in different ways.

The “rare earthenware” project evolved out of a trip Unknown Fields organized last summer taking around 20 creatives from a mix of disciplines to visit Baotou’s toxic lake. The V&A was already keen to work with the studio, and commissioned the ceramics to feature in its What is Luxury? Exhibition opening on April 25.

The expedition traced the supply lines of contemporary technologies from the high street in London back through container ships and industrial ports in Asia to the factories of China and the refineries and mining pits of Inner Mongolia.


The team was accompanied by photographer Toby Smith who documented the trip during which toxic mud was gathered. Also involved was ceramicist Kevin Callaghan who produced the vases.

The ceramic vessels are made from the amount of toxic mud that is generated in the production of each of the objects of technology Unknown Fields chose them to represent: the smartphone, the flat screen computer, and the electric car.

“The size of each vase is a direct result from how much toxic waste each of these single objects generates in its production,” says Young.

“The surface finish of the vase also comes from the toxic material used. Because the heavy metals of the lake mud is so incredibly high, when it is fired in a pottery kiln those metals melt and create their own glistening glaze on the surface of the vase.”

In silhouette they echo highly valuable Ming dynasty porcelain ‘Tongping’ or ‘Sleeve’ vases, Davies adds. “Vases are traditionally objects of value and display wealth,” she continues. “Ming vases are particularly iconic objects of high value as well as being artefacts of international trade.”

Due to the mud’s toxicity, everyone involved had to wear dust masks, gloves, goggles and protective suits when handling the material at each stage of the production process and any waste was disposed of via hazardous material routes.


“An entire city is built beside this toxic lake in Inner Mongolia, yet for us to be safe when handling this material and get past the museum’s health and safety team we all needed fully body protection,” Young adds.

An important part of the project is an accompanying film in which Toby Smith and the Unknown Fields team depict a reverse journey back up the entire supply chain in a single, continuous panning shot ending in Mongolia’s rare earth mineral mines.

“The film presents the supply chain of tech gadgets as a continuous factory that stretches across the planet–almost like a continuous conveyor belt spanning from the Apple shop to the Mongolian rare earth mineral mines,” Young says.

“The three vases are presented as objects of desire, but their elevated radiation levels and toxicity make them objects we would not want to possess,” adds Davies. “They represent the undesirable consequences of our materials desires.”

A trailer is now online and the full seven minute film will be on shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum before being released online.

The V&A and Craft Council exhibition What is Luxury? runs April 25 to September 27.

About the author

Meg Carter is a UK-based freelance journalist who has written widely on all aspects of branding, media, marketing & creativity for a wide range of outlets including The Independent, Financial Times and Guardian newspapers, New Media Age and Wired.