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Damien Hirst’s Artworks May Leak Formaldehyde Gas

Where does art end and hazard begin?

A whiff of formaldehyde makes Damien Hirst's art even more controversial. (ANDY RAIN/epa/Corbis )
smithsonian.com

Editor’s note July 18, 2016: The scientific journal article discussed here was recently retracted. Independent research following the publication of the original study suggested that the reported levels of formaldehyde were incorrect, leading one of the authors of the study, Pier Giorgio Righetti, to request its retraction.

For anyone who knows art, the name Damien Hirst likely brings to mind a single color: blue. That’s the hue of the formaldehyde the artist uses as a medium in his most famous pieces of art, where preserved animals are suspended in tanks of the preservative fluid. There’s just one problem, reports Christopher D. Shea for the New York Times: Hirst’s famous formaldehyde pieces may leak toxic fumes.

That’s the conclusion of a new study published in Analytical Methods by scientists who used formaldehyde fume-sensing devices to monitor Hirst’s artwork during a show at the Tate Modern in London. If it seems like a stretch to conduct peer-reviewed research just to bring down a famous artist, don’t worry—the study was primarily devoted to showing proof of concept of a miniature, bracelet-style sensor that monitors formaldehyde levels in indoor air.

But the results point a finger at Hirst nonetheless: The study concludes that multiple Hirst works, including sheep, sausages and a cow immersed in the substance, leaked formaldehyde gas at levels up to five parts per million. To put that in context, the average amount of airborne formaldehyde in an American home is 11 to 20 parts per billion, and the permissible amount of formaldehyde in the air in American workplaces is 0.75 parts per million. When it is breathed in, formaldehyde can cause respiratory distress and long-term exposure to its fumes is associated with cancer.

The study’s authors warned of another danger—the risk formaldehyde gas presents to artwork. Since formaldehyde affects both proteins and amino acids, they explain, “such a reaction, besides being harmful to the proteins in our body fluids, can be devastating…in processes of restoration of artwork.”

Hirst hasn’t earned a reputation of being the "bad boy" of modern British art by accident—his work is designed to push buttons and elicit strong reactions. Formaldehyde gas accusations are only the latest in a series of scandals that have plagued the artist. Throughout his contentious career, Hirst has been accused of plagiarism, dragged through the press for announcing that he craves fame and excoriated for bringing his work straight to auction instead of displaying it first in a sale, a decision almost unheard of in the art world, which netted Hirst over $200 million in one fell, formaldehyde swoop.

Hirst denies any danger to art patrons—in a statement, he says that “our experts tell us at the levels reported by this journal, your eyes would be streaming and you would be in serious discomfort. No such complaints were made to us during the show.” The Tate concurs, assuring the public that it “always puts the safety of its staff and visitors first.”

Despite the disclaimers, formaldehyde can present symptoms in workers at much lower concentrations (0.1 ppm), and an OSHA document on the carcinogen notes that workers can develop tolerance to that level of exposure within a few hours, which can blind them to increasingly hazardous formaldehyde exposure. Where does art end and hazard begin? That’s a judgment call museums and art lovers who own Hirst works will have to navigate for themselves—but the formaldehyde kerfuffle will doubtless now put the artist’s controversial career up for dissection like his sharks, zebras and sheep.

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