Iconic works of contemporary art by British artist Damien Hirst have been leaking high levels of formaldehyde gas, a report by a group of Italian chemists said on Thursday.
In the early 1990s, Hirst became famous for his series of works featuring preserved animal carcasses in containers of formaldehyde, including a dead lamb in Away from the Flock (Divided), 1995, a bisected cow and calf named Mother and Child (Divided), 1993, and the famous preserved tiger shark in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living(1991). They are considered masterpieces of contemporary art.
However, artnet reported that, according to a recent study published in the journal Analytical Methods, Hirst’s publicly displayed animal sculptures have been leaking high levels of formaldehyde gas, a known carcinogen.
“A study undertaken by Pier Giorgio Righetti at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy during Hirst’s 2012 exhibition at Tate Modern in London, and published in April in Analytical Methods, a journal put out by the Royal Society of Chemistry, revealed that the levels of the carcinogenic chemical around the cases were at five parts per million, which is ten times higher than the recommended limit[.]”
In 2012, the researchers took measurements using a remote sensor designed to detect formaldehyde at London’s Tate Modern gallery and the Summer Palace in Beijing, two museums where Hirst’s works were on display. The abstract for the study, quoted by The Guardian, says that the researchers found levels of noxious gas at ten times the legal limit around the tanks of several of the sculptures.
“It has been found that the tanks are surrounded by formaldehyde fumes, constantly exuded in the atmosphere (likely via the sealant), reaching levels of 5 ppm (parts per million), one order of magnitude higher than the 0.5ppm limit set up by legislation.”
Two of the works found to be leaking gas at the Tate were Away from the Flock, a 1994 work consisting of a lamb in Hirst’s trademark glass and steel box, and Mother and Child (Divided), another work from 1993 featuring four boxes with a bisected mother cow and a calf. A spokesperson for Tate gave a public statement explaining that the solution in the art was diluted and emphasizing the lack of risk to visitors.
“Tate always puts the safety of its staff and visitors first, and we take all necessary precautions when installing and displaying our exhibitions,” the spokesperson said to artnet. “These works contained a very dilute formaldehyde solution that was contained within sealed tanks.”
Pier Giorgio Righetti, a professor at Politecnico di Milano university in Italy, who led the 2012 study, also said to the New York Times that the levels of leaked gas were not enough to cause any harm to exhibit visitors, despite the high levels, because visitors would not have prolonged exposure to the formaldehyde.
“The research from Dr. Zilberstein team and myself 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,” he said.
The team of scientists also suggested it was possible the higher readings were due to a new coat of lacquer put on the works. However, this limited exposure to the gas may not be true for the staff of the museum, who frequently work long hours around the sculptures in areas with poor ventilation. According to Gizmodo, at least one gallery assistant came forward with a story of feeling ill while helping to install the 2012 exhibit.
“I’m quite alarmed,” she said. “I was in … poor health when I was at the exhibition, but we were working 60 hours a week, and on 12-hour shifts on the weekends, so I put it down to lack of sleep.”
Hirst recently opened the Newport Street Gallery to showcase his own art collection and the works of his favorite artists. The artist’s representatives had no response to the study.
Editor’s note: A spokesperson for Science Ltd. reached out to the Inquisitr with the following statement.
“We do regular testing and our experts tell us that at the levels reported 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 featuring the formaldehyde works. We don’t believe any risk was posed to the public.”
[Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images]