A few weeks ago, news broke that two works by Damien Hirst, Mother and Child (Divided) and Away from the Flock had been leaking toxic formaldehyde gas. Researchers discovered levels of formaldehyde at five parts per million in the areas surrounding the sculptures, ten times the advisory limit. So far, no Hirst-related deaths have been reported, and hopefully the discovery will prevent any from happening. In more than a few cases, though, art has actually killed people; whether involving large-scale metal sculptures and gravity, or an impulsive, grab-the-nearest-sculpture violent rage.
Richard Serra is perhaps the first artist who comes to mind on the topic of deadly art, due not only to the intimidating nature of his large-scale abstract metalworks that rely on balance and tension to stay put, but also because of the real damage caused by them. Besides a number of crushing installation-related injuries, a 1971 incident at the Walker Art Museum has become infamous. Rigger Raymond Johnson was killed by Sculpture No. 3, after a plate, weighing 5,212 pounds, broke free from its support, falling on him.
Another monumental sculptor, Alexander Calder, also made a work that inadvertently resulted in the death of art handlers. During the installation of Five Disks: One Empty at Princeton University in 1971, one workman was “riding” the sculpture, another standing below it, when a cable snapped on the crane they were using to lower it into place. Both workmen died on the scene.
If you’re reading this and thinking, all I have to do to avoid deadly art is not become an art handler, you’re out of luck. Some sculptures have been responsible for the deaths of innocent art viewers, too.
Christo and Jeanne Claude are best known for their large-scale wrapping installations, but for the 1991 work, The Umbrellas, the artist couple had 3,100 umbrellas fabricated out of aluminum and steel, each weighing 485 pounds and standing at a height of 12 feet, installed in outdoor public settings across a total of 30 miles in California and Ibaraki, Japan. On October 26, 1991, unusually windy conditions uprooted one of the umbrellas, which rolled across a street, only to be stopped by a boulder. Sadly, it trapped 33-year-old Lori Mae Matthew in between. The artists attended her funeral and ordered the deinstallation of the piece. Across the Pacific, however, another tragic accident occurred when the 51-year-old Masaki Nakamura was electrocuted by a 65,000-volt power line that touched the crane he was using to take the umbrellas out of the ground.
In a way, it’s not shocking that accidents occur when artists precariously balances pieces of metal weighing hundreds of pounds. But in all too many cases, pieces of art have been used intentionally as weapons. In February 2013, the 76-year-old Frederick Gilliard was sentenced to four years in jail for the murder of his wife. The cause of death? Multiple stab wounds and a blow to the head. The weapons of choice? A carving knife, and a statue of an Easter Island head.
Unlike the statue itself, Gilliard’s use of a decorative object to commit murder is far from unique. In June 2013, Devendra Singh was sentenced to life in prison for beating his wife, Charlotte Smith, to death with a four-pound wooden sculpture of an elephant. Smith asked Singh for a divorce, which sent him into a rage that culminated in an attack that the trial pathologist called “extreme,” and “one of the most severe head injury cases” he had ever seen.
If three makes a trend, then 2013 was the year. A Santa Ana man named Richard Gustav Forsbergwas found guilty of beating his cancer-stricken wife to death with a one-pound statue of a goddess, before dismembering and cremating her body, and lying to her friends for six months about her whereabouts.
The stories of statues being used as murder aides are countless. Take the ungodly case of Mark A. Bechard, who allegedly beat at least one nun with a religious statue, and killed two. These murders are unsurprisingly impulsive, probably due to the fact that, as Clue fans might imagine, the sculptures are almost always impromptu implements to deliver blunt force.
In December 2015, the 62-year-old Michael Gallagher was charged with killing his mother with a statue of himself. As it turned out, the mini-me wasn’t such a great weapon of choice. Gallagher also strangled and smothered her with a pillow and a garbage bag. Just a few months ago, Donald Arrington of Chicago allegedly killed Lloyd A. White by beating his body with a statue, then stabbing him 45 times, attempting to light the body on fire, and driving away in his Mercedes. Investigators found pieces of the statue strewn around the victim’s body.
Still, not all victims of death-by-statue are human. In February of last year, 23-year-old Nicholas Patrikis apparently committed a string of strange crimes, including stealing a knife from an Oyster Bay Cove home, and breaking onto a school bus and stealing a student’s Nintendo. But before he burglarized the home, he killed the family cat with a frog statue.
When it comes to deadly art, perhaps Hirst’s formaldehyde isn’t really what we should be worried about.