English artist Damien Hirst is no stranger to a little controversy. In fact, he seems to welcome it.
In a review, American art critic Jerry Saltz once wrote: "Damien Hirst has brought forth so much b.s., bad art, and blatant moneymaking that it's hard to remember that he's not just a truculent huckster."
As the brain behind such contentious pieces—like The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which features a tiger shark suspended, mouth agape in formaldehyde, or Love's Paradox, a diptych of two bisected cattle—Hirst is arguably one of the most polarizing figures in modern art.
But one scandal he probably didn't anticipate was a scientific study, published earlier this year in the journal Analytical Methods, that accused two of his formaldehyde installations at London's Tate Modern of leaking poisonous, potentially harmful fumes. "It has been found that the tanks are surrounded by FA [formaldehyde] fumes, constantly exuded in the atmosphere (likely via the sealant), reaching levels of 5 ppm [parts per million], one order of magnitude higher than the 0.5 ppm limit set up by legislation," the study said.
Now, somewhat surprisingly, the journal is submitting a retraction of the study's findings, calling its results "inaccurate and unreliable." In a statement issued today, the authors admit that after consultants performed their own tests, none of the artwork showed formaldehyde levels higher than 0.1 parts per million. Furthermore, they note that Hirst's installations were never any danger to the public.
The paper's lead author, Italian chemist Pier Giorgio Righetti, said he was testing a new sensor for the remote detection of formaldehyde when he discovered trace fumes at the museum's Hirst retrospective in 2012. The two supposedly noxious artworks were an encased lamb, titled Away from the Flock, and Mother and Child (Divided), which displays the severed corpses of a cow and her calf.
When questioned about the safety hazards the installations posed, a spokesperson for the Tate Modern didn't confirm the report's allegations, but commented that the works "contained a very dilute formaldehyde solution that was contained within sealed tanks." Hirst is widely known for his pieces that showcase immaculately preserved animals within formaldehyde-filled cases, and it's unclear what types of precautions the gallery took to ensure the safety of staff and visitors.
However, most reputable museums have processes in place to prevent potentially dangerous collection items from hurting people. For example, when institutions display radioactive artifacts, such as uranium glass or tools that were exposed to radiation, it's common protocol to "scrub" or decontaminate them before they're exhibited to the public.
Yet, it's impossible to ignore this one fact: The experts in charge of investigating the study's claims were from Science Ltd, a Hirst-owned company that's responsible for creating his famed formaldehyde works. "Science Ltd and the authors of the paper cooperated to conduct further tests on formaldehyde artworks using the equipment referred to in the paper as well as commercially available equipment used by Science Ltd to test the presence of formaldehyde fumes," the researchers added in a statement.
Whether or not the study's methodology was bunk—which appears to have been the case, and deserves its own, separate criticism—the journal retracted a peer reviewed paper based on the contradictory findings of the accused subject himself. According to Retraction Watch, Righetti personally contacted Analytical Methods requesting the retraction, and also reached out to the Royal Society of Chemistry with a warning that the team's data may not be reliable.
We can't say for sure if Hirst actually strongarmed the authors into renouncing their findings. These days, journals are more inclined than ever to retract studies that can't be replicated by other scientists. But what remains hazy is whether Analytical Methods should have allowed Hirst to play the witness at his own trial, so to speak.
The artist's allegedly dangerous installations were heavily pummeled in the media after the study was initially disseminated. Reports called his artwork "cancer-causing," "poisonous," and blamed him for putting museum staff at risk from poisoning. It's understandable that Hirst was eager to debunk the paper's claims. But plenty of checks and balances exist within the scientific community to evaluate dubious findings. Today, there's a growing effort by researchers to replicate studies before data is ever published, and it's confusing as to why the authors didn't first tap into that marketplace for an unbiased, third-party review.
So what now? Hirst was the victim of flawed science, but for an artist so preoccupied with dissecting the truth, he ultimately possessed seemingly little regard for transparency.