Damien Hirst’s Formaldehyde Works Leak Noxious Gas

Apparently levels are not high enough to cause harm.

Damien Hirst poses in front of his artwork entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living in the Tate Modern, 2012
Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images.

Ever wished you owned one of Damien Hirst’s preserved animal sculptures such as Black Sheep (2007) or the seminal tiger shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)? Well, if you do splash out on one of these contemporary art masterpieces be sure to check the sealant as, according to an Italian study, the works have been leaking high levels of formaldehyde gas.

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, as reported by Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The works that were found to be “leaking” were Mother and Child (Divided) (1993), of a severed mother cow and calf, and Away from the Flock (1994) featuring a lone lamb.

A visitor walks past British artist Damien Hirst's "The Black Sheep with Golden Horns" <br> Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Damien Hirst’s The Black Sheep with Golden Horns

“Tate always puts the safety of its staff and visitors first, and we take all necessary precautions when installing and displaying our exhibitions,” a Tate spokesperson rushed to explain. “These works contained a very dilute formaldehyde solution that was contained within sealed tanks.”

Professor Righetti, who led the 2012 study, also emphasized the lack of risk to visitors to the Tate during that time, despite the high levels measured: “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 told the press.

Damien Hirst's artworks adorn his new restaurant. Photo: Pharmacy2 via Facebook

Damien Hirst’s artworks adorn his new restaurant.
Photo: Pharmacy2 via Facebook

According to the Telegraph Hirst apparently insisted on using the potentially dangerous chemical in the works, despite it being suggested to him back in 1991 that it would be better to use an alcohol-based liquid to preserve his subjects.

In fact, as the Business Insider points out, Hirst chose the material precisely for its hazardous, skin-burning properties. “If you breathe it in it chokes you and it looks like water,” the artist explains in the exhibition text on Tate’s website. He opted for formaldehyde seeking to “communicate an idea,” rather than merely using it as a preservative.

Meanwhile, another similar test revealed formaldehyde gas around some works in the Beijing Summer Palace but no specific levels have been revealed.

“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,” said a spokesperson for Hirst’s company Science Ltd. “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.”

The artist and entrepreneur Hirst, who turned 50 last year, recently opened his Newport Street Gallery in South London in the face of some saying the market for his work is on the wane.

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