Barcelona, Spain, is rife with decorative fountains, so why not one flowing with mercury? As someone with a modicum of sense and some retirement savings, I normally avoid streaming pools of toxic metals, but this one sort of found me. On a trip to the Catalonian capital this weekend, I decided to check out a museum dedicated to the surreal artist Joan Miró. Entering the permanent exhibit, I saw a rather lovely fountain. On closer inspection, it was flowing with a silver liquid. Yup, mercury.
So the American artist Alexander Calder, better known for his amazing hanging mobiles, built the mercury fountain for the Spanish pavilion of the World Fair in Paris, back in 1937. For context, the mercury fountain was exhibited right next to great artworks such as Picasso’s Guernica and Miro’s The Reaper (an antiwar mural that has disappeared) at the World Fair. Calder donated the fountain to the Miro museum as a token of friendship with Miro.
It turns out that Almadén, Spain, possesses one of the world’s biggest reservoirs of mercury, a fact that the Spanish were celebrating in the 1930s. (I think the mines are now closed.) The museum security guard who asked me to stop taking photos of the fountain told me that there’s a great photo of all the artists standing together at the fair in front of the fountain, which was doing its ebbing and flowing right out in the open. Yikes. As you can probably tell from my shots, the fountain is now sequestered behind a wall of glass.
The security guard also told me that an employee dressed in an “an astronaut suit” cleans the exhibit every two weeks. (Bear in mind the guy was speaking his best Spanish for dummies to me, so I am guessing the cleaner is just in full-body protection). The security guard explained that the mercury also gets filtered bimonthly to remove dust so that the surface of the pool stays shiny. At this point his chemistry knowledge and my Spanish skills were both entirely exhausted.
But elemental enthusiasts should definitely check out the mercury fountain when next in Barcelona. (The rest of the Miro museum is pretty fantastic too!) And for diehard mercury fans, there’s apparently a museum devoted to the element in Almadén.