Rotting Fish Display Bursts Into Flames At London Gallery, Delays Opening

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Sometimes art needs a bit of advice from science – in this case, the mixture of chemicals that can cause a rotten fish installation to spontaneously combust.

The artwork, called "Majestic Splendor" by Lee Bul, was indeed a splendor to behold, but perhaps not in the way the Korean artist expected. Hours before the exhibition preview, it burst into flames. 

Dozens of rotten fish – stitched with sequins and beads, sealed in plastic bags, and fixed to the wall in rows – caught fire and caused cosmetic damage to the Hayward Gallery in London.

"During an incident yesterday, an artwork caught fire in a contained space within the Hayward Gallery which required attendance from the fire brigade," a spokesperson for the gallery told Artnet News.

A previous exhibition of "Majestic Splendor" in 1997 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was also plagued with problems. During that exhibit, the museum was filled with such a terrible stench, they had to remove the installation from MoMA’s halls. This time around, they used a chemical to prevent the smell of putrefaction as a precaution. Unfortunately, that spawned an even greater predicament.

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"Following expert advice regarding the materials used in Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendor we took the decision, along with the artist, to remove the artwork from the exhibition," a spokesperson told Frieze. "During the de-installation, a small fire broke out and the fire service attended."

The chemical in question was potassium permanganate, which was added to the sealed bags to subdue the pungent smell of decomposition. However, it also increases the flammability of certain combustible compounds – such as those released by decaying fish. It’s also possible that the gases released from the corpses led to a buildup of pressure that caused the bags to explode.

The damage occurred in Gallery 1 and will require some minor work to fix. A security contractor was checked for smoke inhalation as a precaution.

The installation is a commentary on the ephemeral nature of beauty, according to a 1997 MoMA exhibition catalog. "The austere grandeur of the title contrasts with the trinkets pinned to the decaying fish, thus undermining the womanly virtue of self-sacrifice," notes the catalog. "Here, as in other works, Lee strips the facade of Korean society and reveals the dominance of male objectives in women's lives."

Thankfully, no one was harmed in the case of the fish that spontaneously combusted at a London museum.

[H/T: Artnet News]

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