A bizarre but award-winning gallery display of cow and calf carcasses turns out to be leaking abnormally high levels of formaldehyde gas, reveals a new study.
The Mother and Child Divided was a floor sculpture by Damien Hirst composed of a halved calf and cow, with each half immersed in a tank of formaldehyde solution. Each of the vitrines was then placed side by side with enough space for curious onlookers to see the insides of the mammals.
The installation, which was showcased in Tate Modern in London in 2012, was spectacular, to say the least, it received the prestigious Turner Prize in 2007.
But now such achievement is more likely to be overshadowed by new data that show the tanks that contain the cows and other animals on display such as sharks actually have leaked formaldehyde gas that's around 10 times than the allowable limit.
"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," said the study published in Analytical Methods.
The reading was conducted remotely using a bracelet equipped with a sensor that was sensitive to silver nitrate and formaldehyde. The data picked up the sensor from the atmosphere were then sent via Bluetooth to a smartphone while a special software converted the readings to visual data showing them in either gray or colored scale.
In general, formaldehyde is a naturally occurring organic compound that can be present both indoors and outdoors, as well as certain types of food although in very low amounts. While exposure to extremely low formaldehyde doesn't cause any acute adverse effects, regular exposure or significant inhalation may lead to watery or burning sensation of the eyes, coughing, wheezing, nausea, and irritation of the skin.
Nevertheless, the researchers want to make it clear that despite the high levels of formaldehyde gas in the indoor atmosphere, the exhibit, which ran for six months, did not put the visitors at risk.
The gallery has also assured the public that it's always been careful when displaying exhibits. "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," said the spokesman.
Formaldehyde gas was also detected in the artworks displayed in the Summer Palace in Beijing, China.