The first UK retrospective of controversy-courting conceptual artist Damien Hirst opens tomorrow at London’s TATE Modern. Responsible for the most expensive piece of artwork ever produced (a diamond encrusted skull, said to be worth £50m), and currently the richest living artist in the world, Hirst is the first to admit the line between artist and brand has at times been blurred. Regardless, at 46, Hirst has woven himself into the fabric of modern British art legacy. As part of the retrospective, expect to see works such as Pharmacy; a rare opportunity to see In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies) from which live butterflies will hatch; Hirst’s iconic shark, encased in formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living; and the infamous skull, For the Love of God – appearing alongside the exhibit in the Tate’s Turbine Hall. Wonderland talked to curator Ann Gallagher ahead of the launch.

For such an iconic British artist, why do you think it’s taken this long for a retrospective to emerge here in the UK?

There have been survey exhibitions of Hirst’s work before, such as at the Archaeological Museum in Naples, and at Tate we have included his work in many group shows and collection displays over the years. But it’s also worth noting that he is only in his mid-forties, so I think this is an appropriate moment to look back over almost twenty-five years of his practice.

With twenty years of work to curate, how was the process of delving into Hirst’s back catalog?

This exhibition seeks to give audiences the opportunity to make a journey through Hirst’s development as an artist. Bringing together for the first time the key elements of his early career, it traces the emergence of the themes and motifs that were introduced in his seminal series of works, and follows their development in subsequent transformations and incarnations: Arrangements of objects and animals in cabinets and vitrines, the life-cycle manifested by butterflies and flies, and his trademark spot and spin paintings.

Which pieces stood out as the most important to showcase and why?

We will be bringing together over seventy of his works, including those he exhibited at Freeze in 1988, and the seminal sculptures from the early 1990s, such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and Mother and Child Divided. Also on show will be important vitrines, such as A Thousand Years, and his medicine, pill and instrument cabinets.

What makes Hirst stand out as one of the most influential artists of his generation?

Throughout his career, Hirst’s work has been experienced by the majority of people through the filter of photographic reproduction and headline reportage. This exhibition will be an important opportunity for everyone to examine the works themselves at first hand and to appreciate why they became such iconic images.

What is your personal favourite from the exhibit and why?

One particular highlight will be In and Out of Love, a two room installation featuring live butterflies which has not been shown in its entirely since its creation in 1991.

Where do you envisage Hirst’s work ultimately sitting in British art history?

Hirst’s art uses a language that pays homage to the recent history of art as well as the wider aesthetics of display within Western culture. These connections range from the specific – such as with Francis Bacon or Jeff Koons – to more broadly art historical tropes, such as his use of the vitrine, his interest in precious materials, and his fascination with the memento mori.

Damien Hirst: In Retrospect runs from 4 April – 9 September. Tickets are £15.50, with concessions available.
Words: Jenny Cusack