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Rotting art exhibit causes explosion and fire in London gallery

06 June 2018

An installation consisting of sequin-embroidered decomposing fishes sealed in clear plastic bags combusted and set fire to the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank. The installation by Lee Bul was part of an exhibition of the Korean artist's work and was scheduled to open on May 30 but blew up before the show's first preview.

Stock image
Stock image

Gallery officials discovered before the show that a chemical added to the fish bags to dampen their smell could become flammable after combining with gases released by the decomposing flesh, and art handlers were taking down the art as a precaution when it suddenly combusted and sparked a fire, a gallery spokesperson told Frieze magazine.

The installation, "Majestic Splendor", previously displayed at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, consisted of dozens of small, transparent bags fixed to a wall; each contained a rotting fish decorated with stitched-on sequins and beads, representing Bul's scathing commentary on the fleeting nature of beauty for highly ornamented women, according to the 1997 MoMA exhibition catalogue.

But after a custom-designed refrigeration unit for the MoMA installation failed, the smell was so strong that museum officials removed it, and subsequent showings included the odour-reducing chemical potassium permanganate.

This could have interacted with compounds produced by the putrefying fish to cause the explosion.

The Hayward Gallery said it had suffered minor damage.

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