Damien’s Hirst’s formaldehyde-filled installations don’t just ooze money and pretension — some may also leak potentially dangerous gas. As outlined in a paper published earlier this month in the chemistry journal Analytical Methods, scientists used a selection of the British artist’s works at Tate Modern as specimens to test a sensor that detects formaldehyde fumes.
According to the AFP, the works examined were “Mother and Child (Divided)” (1993), which won Hirst a Turner Prize in 1995, and “Away from the Flock” (1994), on view during the artist’s 2012 Tate Modern retrospective. Areas around the former reached fume levels of 5 parts per million (ppm) — 10 times the 0.5 ppm limit established by government legislation, the abstract reads; the journal does not divulge the ppm data for the latter work.
The naturally occurring chemical is normally present at low levels, usually below 0.03 ppm. Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that many humans exposed to levels of 1 to 3 ppm experience eye, nose, and throat irritation; when exposed to levels of 4 to 5 ppm, many are unable to tolerate prolonged exposure.
In a seemingly conflicting statement to the Telegraph one of the paper’s authors, Professor Pier Giorgio Righetti, noted, “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.”
So perhaps while hazardous, the toxic fumes are too isolated to actually cause harm — or maybe Righetti is suggesting that visitors don’t spend sufficient time next to a Hirst to actually be affected. Perhaps Hirst’s art, for all its shortcomings, is simply not deep enough to endanger viewers’ wellbeing?
Tate Modern, unsurprisingly, brushed off the claims in a statement: “Tate always puts the safety of its staff and visitors first, and we take all necessary precautions when installing and displaying our exhibitions.
“These works contained a very dilute formaldehyde solution that was contained within sealed tanks.”
Update, 4/21: In an interview with The Art Newspaper, Righetti elaborated on his doubts that museum visitors face health risks, stating:
The exposure time was too short…. And most visitors probably saw the installations at a distance since the objects were very large. Also, the fumes of formaldehyde probably decay exponentially in the surrounding space, so they would be harmful if you put your nose up against the glass which some people probably did.
What happened to the staff who were exposed to the fumes for five months [the exhibition run] is something the Tate should be concerned about.
Hirst’s company Science Ltd. has also shared the following statement on its website:
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.”
Update, 7/15: Righetti has retracted the paper’s findings, as announced in a joint statement with Science Ltd. The journal, Analytic Methods, had expressed concern that the published data is unreliable and launched an investigation into the study. Righetti and Science Ltd.’s statement reads as follows:
The corresponding author of the paper has unreservedly acknowledged that the paper is inaccurate and unreliable and has initiated the journal’s formal procedure for its complete retraction. Furthermore, he regrets any alarm or concern the paper may have caused.