TOKYO (Reuters) - 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, told Reuters on the sidelines of 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.
“The original cow was decaying very fast. This is the second version,” Nanjo said.
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.
This will involve major construction work, including drilling a new shaft through the ceiling. And builders will have to be fast: The last exhibition at the Mori museum closed on April 6, and the Turner Prize retrospective is due to start on April 25.
Despite ballooning costs and bureaucratic battles, museum director Nanjo vows to fight on.
“This is a major work for the show. So we cannot give up,” he said.
It’s not the first time one of Hirst’s preserved creatures is causing a stir. In 2006, Hirst had to replace his pickled shark, titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, with a new one after the original had begun to rot.
More recently, Hirst sold one of the most expensive works of art ever created — a diamond-encrusted platinum cast of a human skull — to an investment group for $100 million.
“History in the Making: A Retrospective of the Turner Prize” at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo’s Roppongi neighbourhood brings together works by all of the past winners of the Turner Prize and will run from April 25 to July 13.
While no one was able to comment on the precise whereabouts of the cow and the calf, they are believed to be kept in a cold storage room in Tokyo until they are to be immersed in formaldehyde again.
Editing by Hugh Lawson