Killer pest may have hitched a ride in Royal Academy’s Weiwei sculpture
THE Royal Academy may have accidentally imported deadly Asian longhorned beetles into Britain inside an Ai Weiwei sculpture, the Government’s chief plant health officer has disclosed, as she warned of the dangers of bringing wooden items from abroad.
Prof Nicola Spence said she had been visiting Tree, which was installed in the Annenberg Courtyard of the academy in London in 2015, when she noticed the telltale signs that beetles had bored their way out of the wooden structure.
Asian longhorn beetles can kill broad-leaved trees such as oak by burrowing into their heartwood, and Defra has been battling for several years to prevent the insects from becoming established in Britain.
The sculpture was made from dead trees brought down from the mountains of southern China and sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, where the beetles are rife.
The Royal Academy was forced to close and fumigate the artwork, and has since introduced strict regulations to prevent similar infestations.
Speaking at the Royal Horticultural Society’s annual John Macleod Lecture in Westminster, Prof Spence said many people did not realise that wooden items, such as furniture, sculptures and picture frames may be infested with pests. “Asian longhorned beetles are a real and serious threat to us,” she said.
‘Sometimes our inspectors get involved because somebody will report an unusual pest that’s popped out of their chair’
“The art world is not immune from this. I went to the Ai Weiwei exhibition, took some pictures and I started having a closer look, and sure enough there were exit holes in this piece of art.
“So we got the Forestry Commission to come and do a survey and we had to liaise with the Royal Academy, and the exhibit was fumigated in an enclosed space. It was destined to travel to other European capitals, so that was a lesson learnt for the Royal Academy.”
Prof Spence said people sometimes even believe their furniture is haunted.
“Sometimes our inspectors get involved because somebody will report an unusual pest that’s popped out of their chair, and they suddenly find it in their conservatory,” she added.
“It’s often very poor-quality wood, covered in some kind of fabric. People buy them on ebay and think it’s a bargain and they get a plant pest coming out and the chair has to be destroyed.
“One family began to realise there was a sort of scratching noise coming from their headboard, and they couldn’t work out what was happening. They thought it was the neighbours, and eventually the pest control people came and sure enough there was an Asian longhorned beetle boring its way through their headboard.”
A spokesman for the Royal Academy said: “The work was inspected by the Forestry Commission, who found no sign of active infestation of Asian longhorn beetles. They recommended that if the works were going to stay in the UK, they should be fumigated as a precautionary measure.”
Prof Spence also warned that millennials were promoting trendy new foods which often contained viruses unknown to science. The ulluco potato, a hipster favourite because of its bright pink, green and yellow appearance, was found to contain several viruses which could have obliterated potato crops.
Prof Spence said Defra was considering an import ban on all organic material, as in Australia. Sue Biggs, director general of the Royal Horticultural Society, said: “It really doesn’t need me to tell you about the terrifying prospect of what is awaiting us on our doorstep, it’s over 1,000 pests and diseases now. For many people, wandering the olive groves of Italy and lavender fields of France are as much a part of the holiday experience as the cities and beaches.
“But we’re asking people to leave these beautiful plants where they are for future visitors to enjoy and not to bring them back home with them.”
Ai Weiwei, the artist, with one of his trademark works. Left, an Asian longhorned beetle