Every Damien Hirst artwork revolves around death in one way or the other, but a recent scientific research shows that observers of his masterpieces may have come closer to it than they thought. The recent study conducted by the Royal Society of Chemistry shows that several of British artist's works have leaked dangerous amounts of formaldehyde gas while they were on view in London and Beijing. The investigators have examined several works by the proclaimed artist and discovered that the pieces leaked ten times higher levels of fumes than the legal limit. The dangerous gas is known to hurt asthma patients and even cause cancer after a longer exposure.
When Damien Hirst decided to use formaldehyde for the preservation of his critically acclaimed and highly sought-after works, he said that he was drawn to it because "it is dangerous and it burns your skin". “If you breathe it in, it chokes you and it looks like water" the artist stated, according to The Independent. The substance was used to "communicate an idea" rather that to preserve the work, but it seems that the chemical had other unintended effects as well. Royal Society of Chemistry measured the level of chemicals at two Damien Hirst's shows: the exhibition at Tate Modern and the exhibition at the Summer Palace in Beijing. Although all artworks were "covered with a lid and fully sealed with silicon gums," scientists used a special new technique to measure the leakage and discovered that the artworks were surrounded by high levels of fumes. "It has been found that the tanks are surrounded by FA fumes, constantly exuded in the atmosphere (likely via the sealant), reaching levels of 5 ppm, one order of magnitude higher than the 0.5 ppm limit set up by legislation." the abstract of the official Royal Society of Chemistry report states.
The report has caused a stir among the public and many blame Damien Hirst and Tate Modern for exposing the viewers to the dangerous gas. This isn't the first time that Tate is criticized for putting its visitors in danger. According to The Telegraph back in 2010, the acclaimed institution had to place Ai Weiwei's exhibition out of bounds to visitors due to carcinogenic dust particles emanating from ceramic sunflower seeds that were on display. Additionally, during an exhibition of works by Doris Salcedo, one of the visitors injured his foot on the crack in the floor that was created as the part of the installation. In an official statement for The Telegraph, Tate's spokesman rejected all accusations : “Tate always puts the safety of its staff and visitors first, and we take all necessary precautions when installing and displaying our exhibitions." and added that “These works contained a very dilute formaldehyde solution that was contained within sealed tanks.” Damien Hirst's exhibition was held at Tate Modern from April 4th till September 9th, 2012 and contained several animals submerged in formaldehyde, including well-known pieces like The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Away from the Flock and Mother and Child (Divided).
Pier Giorgio Righetti one of the authors of the research agreed with the Tate spokesman by saying that the scientific 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.” Additionally, Pier Giorgio Righetti, told The Times that the visitors shouldn't fear for their health because they were only temporary exposed to the gas. “I think it would have been a serious issue if the work had been there for a few months." the scientist added. The artist hasn't commented on the claims.
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Featured images: Damien Hirst in front of his The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 artwork photo via GQ ; Damien Hirst - Mother and Child (Divided),1993; All images are photo by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd via Damien Hirst official website unless otherwise credited