Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Japan beef ban leaves Damien Hirst's cow art in a pickle

A cow preserved in formaldehyde, one of artist Damien Hirst's most famous works, ran into an unlikely obstacle on its way to a Tokyo museum: Japan's import ban on British beef.

Hirst's "Mother and Child, Divided", consisting of a cow and a calf each sliced in half, is part of a retrospective of Britain's controversial Turner Prize - and its eventful journey illustrates the challenge of taking increasingly complex works of modern art around the world.

Japan stopped beef imports from Britain after an outbreak of mad cow disease there. The Mori Art Museum had to convince customs officials that even the most adventurous gourmets are unlikely to tuck into Hirst's cow.

"I think my staff explained that it's not for eating", Fumio Nanjo, director of the Mori Art Museum, said at an art fair in Tokyo. That was only the start of what has become a battle to display the piece, Nanjo said.

Once the cow had cleared customs, another aspect of the artwork turned into a headache for the curators - the formaldehyde solution in which the animals are preserved. The original cow and calf, which won the Turner Prize in 1995, have started to rot, and the Japanese museum will be showing a new and improved version that is usually displayed at the Astrup Fearnly Museum in Oslo.

For their trip to Japan, the carcasses had to be taken out of their original formaldehyde solution, and will be re-pickled for the Tokyo exhibition. But health regulations are tighter in Japan than in Europe. Fearing that formaldehyde fumes could poison staff as the liquid is poured into the glass case that holds the cow, the museum has had to pledge to install a special ventilation system at its premises in the iconic Mori Tower.

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