Damien Hirst Tate Modern retrospective opens

Cigarette butts, butterflies and that shark go on show as artist shrugs off critic's claim he is a 'spent force'

He is either the presiding genius of contemporary British art, justifiably making a fortune by thrilling audiences with his memorable reflections on life and death. Or he is an empty con artist, making a fool of us and raking in millions from buyers with more money than sense. On Wednesday, the paying public can decide as the largest UK exhibition of Damien Hirst work opens for a five-month run at Tate Modern in London.

The blockbuster retrospective brings together 70 works and covers everything Hirst is particularly known for – from pickling sharks and killing flies to painting spots and encrusting a skull with diamonds and selling it for a claimed price of £50m.

They are also the things that get his critics foaming. Does he care about what they say about his art?: "I don't think you can. I only care what people say when it's true. I'm sure there were people around when they were doing it in the caves, going 'I like your cave, but I hate that crap you've got on the walls'."

Many have complained that Hirst is only in it for the money. "Money is important and money can sometimes obscure the art but ultimately the art has got to be more important than the money or I wouldn't do it," is his reply.

"Money is so important because so many people haven't got any – it's the key isn't it, more important than languages, it's the key to the world, it can save your life. People without money can die – you can't afford an operation, you die."

Conspicuous wealth is certainly on show at Tate Modern. Hirst's For the Love of God, a small human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, is displayed in a darkened room with its own security in the vast Turbine Hall.

In the shop, rolls of wallpaper Hirst created specifically for the show are on sale at £250 each, along with £310 butterfly deckchairs and sets of 12 bone china butterfly plates for £10,500. Those who really want to say "stuff the recession" can pay £36,800 for a limited-edition plastic skull (painted in "household gloss").

The show includes a room full of live butterflies happily feeding on fruit and drinking from pot plants with their own entomological consultant on hand to check they are living their short lives as comfortably as possible.

Staff will check visitors' hair and clothing to prevent breaks for freedom through the plastic curtains. One journalist walked for five minutes through the entire show, unaware that one butterfly had taken audacious refuge on her turquoise coat. It was escorted back home by the show's curator Ann Gallagher.

There was no such hope for the flies feeding on a rotting cow's head in Hirst's 1990 work, A Thousand Years. The flies emerge from maggots before feeding and dying on the installation's light trap, with the smell of electrocuted insects just beginning to waft in to the gallery.

An even greater, more unpleasant smell emanates from Hirst's work Crematorium, a huge open ashtray of the same smoked cigarettes used when the piece was created in 1996.

The show begins with some of the artist's earliest work including his first spot painting made when he was still a student at Goldsmiths, University of London.

"It is a little bit embarrassing that room," said Hirst, "but I think it's important to tell the story like that. The room is only important because I went on to make the other works. When I made those things, I was thinking they were the greatest things of the 20th century and I realised very quickly they weren't, so there's disappointment in them in terms of what I thought they were and what they are.

"Art is about magic, so something like the shark, I imagined it was one thing and what actually appeared when I made it was beyond that."

The shark suspended in formaldehyde, a work entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is one of Hirst's best-known works but, before that, visitors will see his very first attempt on the theme: 76 fish displayed in two vitrines and collected, Hirst said, from Billingsgate market in the Citroen of his dealer Jay Jopling.

"I stank his car out for about a month. He swapped me the car for a spot painting and I've still got the Citroen and he's still got the spot painting – the car's not worth as much as the painting. I wouldn't swap him his new car [a Maserati] for a spot painting."

In truth, Hirst could buy a car park full of Maseratis but says he prefers to spend his fortune on art. He owns about 2,000 works and plans to open his own version of the Saatchi gallery in south London in 2014.

Hirst, aged 46, was the leading figure in the Young British Artists movement and his work sells for crazy prices.

Some people, however, regard him as a spent force. One critic, Julian Spalding, published a book at the weekend arguing that Hirst's work is 'con art' and owners of his work should sell soon before the penny drops.

Hirst hit back, saying the comment was "more about selling a book than selling art".

Hirst said people have an opportunity at Tate Modern to make a judgement for themselves.

"I didn't start considering a retrospective until I got to the point when I was ready and I've enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I think it looks good. I'm maybe a little bit proud of it. It looks a lot fresher and more exciting than I thought it would."

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern 4 April-9 September

• This article was amended on 3 April 2012. The original referred to Goldsmith's college. This has been corrected.


Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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