Culture / Art Republik

Report: Damien Hirst Art Leaks Deadly Gas

Hirst is an acquired taste but if you were among those who found his work sickening, science may just agree with you.

Apr 25, 2016 | By Staff Writer

British artist Damien Hirst is extremely provocative and divisive but apparently some of his work might also be deadly or at least sickening. The notorious works of art (basically dead and variously sliced up animals preserved in giant tanks) in question at London’s Tate Modern gallery have evidently been quietly reeking…literally. Scientists testing a new sensor for the remote detection of formaldehyde gas (a known carcinogen) in the 2012 exhibition found levels well above those legally permitted, it emerged last week.

According to an AFP report, the findings were published in the monthly journal Analytical Methods. The scientists insisted they did not believe their findings showed there was a risk to the public at one of Britain’s most popular attractions, visited by 5.8 million people in 2014.

“It has been found that the tanks are surrounded by formaldehyde fumes, constantly exuded in the atmosphere (likely via the sealant), reaching levels of five ppm (parts per million), one order of magnitude higher than the 0.5 ppm limit set up by legislation,” the journal abstract states.

One work that emitted high levels was “Away from the Flock”, a 1994 exhibit showing a lamb preserved in formaldehyde solution in a glass and steel box.


Gas was also detected around “Mother and Child (Divided)”, a 1993 work which comprises four boxes containing a calf and cow, each bisected, although the exact level was not written in the journal article.

Unrelated to Hirst’s preserved bloody works, the scientists found similar results in the Summer Palace in Beijing, particularly around some artworks. No levels were given in this case and the study’s authors suggest the results could be blamed on new lacquer painted on old works. This illustrates that formaldehyde is found all around us, particularly in applications of lacquer and the like in furniture. Typically, only prolonged exposure is harmful.

“Tate always puts the safety of its staff and visitors first, and we take all necessary precautions when installing and displaying our exhibitions,” a spokesman for the Tate Modern said.

“These works contained a very dilute formaldehyde solution that was contained within sealed tanks.”

Later in the week, Hirst responded on his website to the study, which was led by Pier Giorgio Righetti at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy.

“We do regular testing and our experts tell us that at the levels reported by this journal, your eyes would be streaming and you would be in serious physical discomfort. No such complaints were made to us during the show —or at any other shows or sites featuring the formaldehyde works. We don’t believe any risk was posed to the public.”

In a statement, Righetti said the research “was intended to test the uses of a new sensor for measuring formaldehyde fumes and we do not believe that our findings suggest any risk to visitors at Tate Modern”.

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