Toxic Art – Alexander Calder’s Mercury Fountain

As an occupational hygienist, when visiting the Alexander Calder exhibition at Tate Modern last week I couldn’t help but stop and take notice of the pictures and description of one of the works created by this American artist well known for his mobiles and other “kinetic sculptures” . A mercury fountain.

While I was looking at the display, I overheard a comment by a young woman to her partner as they too read about this work

“It couldn’t have been real mercury could it. That would be dangerous”

I couldn’t help responding

“It was, and it is ”

Mercury, the magical Quicksilver, has been known since ancient times. A metal that’s a liquid at room temperature that flows like water.  Being a liquid, vapours are given off which can be inhaled and it can also be absorbed through intact skin. It’s highly toxic, affecting the brain, gastrointestinal system and kidneys. It’s particularly noted for causing neurological and behavioural disorders due to brain damage. Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. In Victorian times mercury compounds were used in the manufacture of felt for hats and the workers in that industry were particularly affected. This is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll’s “Mad Hatter” from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This was disputed by the esteemed Professor Hugh Waldron back in 1961, but the myth persists.


The exhibition website tells us the story of the fountain’s creation

In 1937 Calder was one of the contributors to the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic designed by Josep Lluís Sert for the International Exposition in Paris, where his Mercury Fountain was installed in proximity to Picasso’s painting Guernica. In the middle of the Spanish Civil War, Calder showed his support for the embattled Republic by creating a fountain that would run with mercury from the mines at Almadén – a valuable economic and strategic resource. (Tate website)

A 2007 study of historical exposures of the workers in Almadén mines to mercury indicated that had been very high

In the mine, the highest exposures occurred during drilling, with values up to 2.26 mg/m3 in air, 2194 μg/l in urine and 374 μg/l in blood. Furnace operation and cleaning were the tasks with the highest values in metallurgy, peaking up to 3.37 mg/m3. The filling of bottles with mercury by free fall gave values within a range of 1.13–2.43 mg/m3 in air; these values dropped to 0.32–0.83 mg/m3 after introducing a new ventilation system.

Occupational exposure limits for mercury are typically set at between 0.02 and 0.03mg/m3

I found it a little ironic that a work of art created in support of a government dedicated to improve the lot of working people celebrated an industry likely to have been responsible for poisoning the workers in the mine where it was extracted.

Although it seems likely that visitors to the exhibition back in the 1930’s would have been exposed to mercury vapours, given the relatively short period that they would have been in the vicinity their exposure would have been limited and its highly unlikely there would have been a significant risk to their health. However, I’d be more concerned about the staff working in the Spanish Pavilion.

Today the fountain can be seen at the Fundació Joan Miró museum in Barcelona – carefully displayed under glass. Hopefully appropriate measures are taken to protect the workers who have to maintain it from the toxic liquid and vapours.

Mercury fountain

Picture from the Fundació Joan Miró museum website


Suffering for art


I always like to think that “there's more to life than occupational hygiene” and make sure that I find time for other things that I enjoy. So last Saturday we drove over the Pennines to visit the Yorkshire Sculpture Park to take a look at the new art works on display and also to visit their latest exhibition by the American sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard. She specialises in creating massive abstract sculptures made from 2 x 4 and 4 x 4 beams of Western Red Cedar, carving them and cutting into them with a porable circular saw, assembling them like giant 3d jigsaws

We had booked on a curator's tour of the Ursula von exhibition, held as part of the Museums at Night event. The curator, Sarah Coulton led us on a tour around the rooms in the Underground gallery telling us about how the exhibition was put together, how Ursula works and giving her thoughts on some of the main pieces. It was really interesting to get the curator's perspective and getting insights on the artist's methods and motiivations.

Like most occupational hygienists, I find it difficult to switch off completely. So I couldn't help but wonder about whether the artist had experienced any problems due to exposure to wood dust, as the nature of her work and working methods must mean that she has a regular, significant exposure to wood dust. Western Red Cedar is a potent respiratory sensitiser causing rhinitis and allergic asthma. I found out the answer at the end of the tour when Sarah showed us a photograph of the artist wearing an a powered hood type respirator and told us that she had to wear it as she had become sensitised to the wood dust. In an interview she tells us

I wear respirators, not just the paper masks. And I hate the respirators. There’s a tremendous weight. I’m getting dents in my face, but I have to do it. I’m allergic to cedar because it’s been with me for so long.

Engineering controls, such as local exhaust ventilation would not be practicable. So the use of respiratory protection is the only option – other than avoiding exposure to the dust, and that would mean the end of her career as an artist – unless she changed to working in a different medium, probably not an easy decision for her after making a mark by working in wood in her own unique way. Perhaps she could have avoided developing asthma if she had taken precautions early in her career. But i suspect, that she, like many other workers, was not aware of the risk, or if she was didn't think she would be affected. Asthma is a debilitating condition, and although it is not fatal too often, it affects quality of life. And as a consequence Ursula knows the meaning of “suffering for her art”.