Damien Hirst’s retrospective exhibition at London's Tate Modern drew nearly half a million visitors. Although it turned out there were heavy losses. The gallery says 9,000 butterflies died during a 23-week run of the solo show.
One of Hirst’s most important early creations, “In and Out of Love”, featured thousands of live butterflies, and was made up of two works shown from April 4- September 9.
In the humid upstairs room, tropical butterflies emerged from pupae attached to white painted canvases. Flowers and sugar water enabled them to fly, mate and lay eggs until they died. Hirst’s second installation featured monochrome gloss paintings with the bodies of dead butterflies fixed into the paint.
The 47-year-old artist used tropical butterflies from the Owl and Heliconius species that can live for up to nine months in their natural habitat. Those featured at the exhibition reportedly survived for between a few hours and several days.
“The butterflies lived out the final stage of their natural life cycle inside this room. Approximately 400 butterflies were introduced into the exhibit over the course of each week, with many enjoying longer life spans than in the wild due to the high quality of this environment,” a Tate spokesman explained. “The butterflies used in this [Hirst] work were all sourced from reputable UK butterfly houses and were selected from varieties known to thrive in the conditions created,” the spokesman added.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has nevertheless decried the deaths of the butterflies.
“There would be national outcry if the exhibition involved any other animal, such as a dog. Just because it is butterflies, that does not mean they do not deserve to be treated with kindness,” a spokesman for the RSPCA said.
Hirst made his name as the creator of a shark preserved in formaldehyde, and Mother and Child Divided, a cow and a calf sliced in half and displayed in glass tanks filled with formaldehyde, which won the Turner prize in 1995. The British artist explained he “tried to make a comparison between art and life in the upstairs and downstairs installations, a crazy thing to do when in the end it’s all art.”