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Matt Hope and his homemade-in-China bicycle at his Caochangdi studio in Beijing. Sun Peng / China Daily
My China Dream | Matt Hope
While other people armor up in masks to battle the smog, Matt Hope has a better solution. He shows off his 'anti-pollution' bike to our reporter Xu Lin.
Matt Hope joins the Beijing brigade of cyclists on the road each day, but his bicycle is special. It looks like a prop out of an off-mainstream sci-fi movie, and it attracts much attention and not a little alarm every time he rides out on it.
The 37-year-old Beijing-based artist is a natural facilitator, and has been "inventing" contraptions since he was a student.
His homemade-in-China bicycle has a respirator attached, and when he puts it on and starts cycling, electric sparks fly from the back wheel. A passer-by excitedly shouts "fadian!" in Chinese, which means, "he's making electricity".
"People are always talking about the bad weather. I think it makes sense to create a bike that cleanses the air for the person riding it," says Hope, who is originally from London, and now has a 200-square-meter studio in Caochangdi Art District, next to Beijing's Fifth Ring Road.
Hope graduated from the Winchester School of Art in London and then attended the University of California, San Diego. He became an artist in 2004, and is very much into experimental art, some of which is very inventive.
"The idea is to make people think about individual strategies to tackle problems. When something breaks, I try to fix it. The bike is me trying to 'fix the air'. Rich people can have expensive air filters, but I cannot afford them, so what should I do?" he says.
Hope's respirator on two wheels uses the same principle as power stations in cleaning up the air. As the cyclist pedals, a mini-generator attached to the back wheel creates electricity for the high-voltage transformer in front that generates a static charge called the corona charge.
A mesh container attached to the pannier rack attracts dust particles, which stick to a metal trumpet. The air, now cleansed, is propelled along a tube to the mask that the cyclist wears.
Hope bought the bike from the supermarket for 200 yuan ($32), the cheapest he could find. Other parts were from the "pile of junk" he has collected in his studio. He is a great collector of broken things, and he takes them apart and utilizes the parts for other projects.
"It's both interesting and satisfying to reuse broken things, because I can give them new lives or make them different," he says.
It took him only five days to finish the bike in October last year, but it did not generate much interest until January when a friend shot a video and uploaded it online.
"What a cool bike! He really looks like a pilot," says an online comment on Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, while other netizens also spoke highly of his innovation and jokingly said they wanted a similar bike, too.
In January, air pollution in Beijing reached record high levels, and smog shrouded the city for 25 days in a month and PM 2.5, particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, became a major concern. Hope's bike became part of the buzz.
Right now, Hope uses a regular bike instead of his innovative two-wheeler, for fear that he may damage it. He is also in discussion with organizers interested in exhibiting it abroad.
It has been quite an adventure for Hope, who came to Beijing in 2007 after being commissioned to do some large-scale sculptures. He soon realized that it was much cheaper to practice his art in China than in other countries. So he never left.
"I was doing similar stuff in London but coming here allows me to do more experimental things because it is cheaper and I can create more works. I have more fun here," he says.
He had wanted to live in China long before the opportunity arose, because he was drawn to the energy and activity of the country which he was seeing so much of on television.
"In China, it seems you go through lots of things very quickly. It seems to be the ideal place to recycle something like this because you can build up stuff very quickly, too," he says. Hope observes that old things are destroyed and new things are made to replace them, just like buildings, and the whole process is a work in progress that is never finished.
"I like China, which is enormous not just its population and land, but also its history. Caochangdi is quite a community and I can communicate with the other artists," he says.
Hope has produced many interesting works, such as industrial designs and sculptures and experimental prototypes. For example, when he first came to Beijing, he made a machine that can collect water from the air because the weather is so dry.
"His work is beyond art. Ever since we were in art college together, he has deconstructed common perceptions in the real world to build new inventions like the bike. His work commonly changes one form of energy like sound or light into another while at the same time taking your original idea about his art and expanding it," says his best friend Jon Phillips, designer of Hope's website.
As for the blue-and-yellow exercise machines, which are quite common in Chinese communities, he upgrades them too.
The walking exercise machine gives off light when one walks on it, and the weight lifting machine can generate electricity.
It may take several months before he gets to create anything concrete. For example, he is now experimenting with wires to make a sound sculpture, along with projects that combine art with various disciplines such as physics and engineering.
"The most difficult thing is to try to find the answer and keep on track. It takes on different stages before you get it right, and sometimes you don't know where to go," he says.
But one thing keeps his dreams alive.
"Beijing is still inspirational for me. The feeling I get here is great for an artist because I see different things and get more ideas," he says.
Contact the writer at email@example.com.
Upgraded versions of public exercise machines at Hope's studio. Xu Lin / China Daily
(China Daily 04/02/2013 page18)