After Ai Weiwei’s Tate exhibition was effectively quarantined for its impact on visitors’ health and well-being, we thought we’d investigate the art world for a few other pieces and exhibitions that ended up being a little more than curators and artists bargained for. From the Tate Modern’s numerous Turbine Hall offenses to falling sculptures, environmental devastation, and out of control Richard Serras, here are a few works we’d only want to admire from a safe distance.
Richard Serra’s “Sculpture No. 3”
In November 1971, Richard Serra’s “Sculpture No. 3” was installed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A sculpture formed from two 5-ton steel plates balanced against each other much like “One Ton Prop” above, the installation turned deadly when rigger Raymond Johnson was trapped underneath a plate that slipped its support and fell. Johnson was killed, and his wife filed a lawsuit against the artist, the museum, and the piece’s fabricators for wrongful death. The safety slots that would have held the steel plates in check were later discovered to have been shoddily built; in the end, it was the fabricators who were found negligent and the artist was exonerated.
Though, according to ArtFlaw, “In October 1988, 2 workers were pinned for several minutes when the 32-ton steel Richard Serra sculpture, ‘Reading Cones,’ toppled from its jacks in the Leo Castelli gallery.” So, how safe are Serras really?
The Met’s Falling “Saint Michael the Archangel”
In 2008, another art work accident occurred at the Met: a 15th century “Saint Michael the Archangel” relief by artist Andrea della Robbia fell from its wall mounts onto the floor. Fortunately, the 62” x 32” terra-cotta relief fell during the night or early morning, so no one was harmed by the heavenly visitor. Still, not something you want to get blessed with.
“Big Bambu” at the Metropolitan Museum
Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds caused a stir because visitors were restricted from interacting with the piece. Some exhibition-goers called for the Tate to let visitors willingly risk their health anyway, which the Tate does not seem inclined to do. But the Metropolitan Museum is! “Big Bambu” (2010) from Doug and Mike Starn presents an enormous structure of bamboo poles that roosted atop the Met’s roof. Visitors were allowed to climb up the structure, but only after signing a release that freed the museum from any danger of lawsuit.
Maurice Agis’s Inflatable “Dreamspace”
In July 2006, an inflatable, inhabitable sculpture that artist Maurice Agis had installed in Country Durham, England lifted up and blew away. The multicolored bubbles that make up the work look pretty innocuous, but factor in a few engineering mishaps and you end up with the death of two women who fell from the installation while it was in flight. Though several people including Agis himself attempted to hold the sculpture down as it floated away, the lift off was inexorable. It turns out that the construction company hired to install the piece didn’t use enough tethers to connect the work to brackets in the ground. In the end, the artist was charged with a $10,000 fine, which was later decreased to $2,500.
Christo and Jeanne Claude’s “The Umbrellas”
Christo and Jeanne Claude’s “The Umbrellas: Joint Project for Japan and U.S.A.” was conceptualized in 1984, but not carried out until 1991. Composed of hundreds of six-foot-tall 485-pound umbrellas installed on the coasts of California and Japan, it’s a peaceful work about interconnection. Yet, due to a failure of the joint holding an umbrella in place, Californian Lori Keevil-Matthews was crushed to death against a boulder when the umbrella escaped its socket. After the tragedy, Christo called for the installation to be dismantled, but then during the dismantling process in Japan, worker Masaaki Nakamura was electrocuted when the arm of the crane he was operating struck a high-voltage power line.
Robert Smithson’s “Island of Broken Glass”
Robert Smithson, earthwork artist of “Spiral Jetty” fame, planned an unrealized work that proved too deadly to carry out. “Island of Broken Glass” proposed to dump 100-tons of broken glass onto a patch of rock off the shores of Vancouver, British Columbia. Following immediate outcries from the environmentalist community due to concerns of the threat to marine and bird life, the project was canceled. Who would want to roost on a pile of broken glass anyway?
Christo and Jeanne Claude’s “Over the River”
Christo and Jeanne Claude’s work seems to be fraught with danger. But then wouldn’t anything this big? The proposed plan for “Over the River” calls for “a snaking ribbon of porous polypropylene, totaling nearly six miles,” suspended above the Arkansas River in Colorado. PBS reports that locals feel “taken advantage of by the work,” and have doubts about its safety. From fears of accidents caused by heavy machinery on the relatively small US Route 50 to concerns about the environmental impact of enclosing the river, the project is far from accepted by the community. When we reached out to ROAR, Inc. a nonprofit environmental organization that has been fighting the Christo/Jeanne Claude project area, in August they provided us with the following statement:
The environmental review of the proposed Over the River project is guided by NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). Topics covered in that review process are related to environmental issues and concerns such as safety, traffic, public access to homes, businesses and recreation areas, air and water quality, energy use and vegetation and wildlife, among others. Evaluation of the proposed project as a work of art is not part of the process, nor is it within our mission or purpose. Accordingly, it is ROAR board policy to avoid commentary on all matters related to the artistic qualities of the OTR project.
Wolfgang Laib’s “Pollen From Hazelnut”
Here at Hyperallergic, we are obviously very sensitive to allergies. That’s why Wolfgang Laib’s “Pollen From Hazelnut” (1998-2000) at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC has us so worried. The piece is literally an enormous pile of hazelnut pollen, and at last visit, there were no signs or guards in place to warn of the material. For the nut allergic, this piece could easily turn fatal. It’s pretty though!
You missed a Calder. In his book of interviews, The Portraits Speak, Chuck Close interviews Richard Serra and asks him about the Walker accident:
“Speaking of death and nastiness and Calder, not long after the accident with the piece that you were building in Minneapolis, where unfortunately a rigger was killed, there was a similar thing in Princeton where a Calder stabile fell on somebody and killed a worker. There was no press, no coverage, because a ‘happy’ piece of sculpture fell on the person… Don’t you think that people attacked you when that happened to you? If they couldn’t attack your work, they found another way to do it. I think what was done was outrageous and was an effort to kick you essentially while you were down. I think it was because the work seems aggressive, confrontational, scary, all those things, and if that work kills someone people have an immediate kind of—Well if your killed by a ‘happy’ Calder stabile, which implies that it is stable and not going to fall over are you any less dead?”
Serra’s answer is long and interesting – he credits the backlash against him in New York at the time as pushing him out of the studio and inaugurating his nomadic shipyard work. No where does he blame shoddy fabrication:
“Yeah I think people prefigured or prejudged what happened. And they didn’t know it was a rigger’s error. They thought that one of my pieces, given what I was doing, probably caused the accident, that I was up to no good, and they condemned me for it…”
I remember when the Serra fell at Castelli. it took out weight-bearing supporting columns in the gallery, which put the building at risk. Subway service at Broadway-Lafayette was halted for a few hours. and serious injuries were inflicted. but heck, Serra’s work costs an arm and a leg, for sure!
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