Mounting a major Damien Hirst retrospective was never going to be a picnic. There are giant sharks in formaldehyde-filled tanks to transport, glass cases to be filled with thousands of flies, a mini ecosystem for live butterflies to be created and a certain diamond-encrusted human skull with a reported eight-figure value to keep safe.
If there's anyone who wouldn't be rattled by writing the cheque for this kind of show, it's the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), which has been buying up some of the world's most valuable art over the last few years, including Cézanne's Card Players, bought for a record breaking US$250 million (Dh918m) last year, and Hirst's own Lullaby Spring, a medicine cabinet, for £9.7m (Dh57m) in 2007. The Qatar royal family have sponsored the Tate Modern show, the first big Hirst survey in London, and will organise the first Middle Eastern retrospective of the artist in Doha next year. "Hirst's work represents a defining moment in British art," said QMA's chair woman Sheikha Al Mayassa in a foreword to the exhibition's catalogue. She also spoke of her friendship with the Tate director Nicholas Serota and said that since the building of Doha's Museum of Islamic Art in 2008, the QMA has been "laying the ground for Qatar to become a leader in making, showing and debating the visual arts".
The British press has had fun hating the exhibition: Hirst has been called a "con artist" in both the broadsheet and tabloid press, and attention has been drawn to the extensive range of merchandise in the show's gift shop, which offers everything from spot-painting skateboards (£480) to paint-splattered plastic skulls that retail at £36,800 apiece. But it's still easy to see why Qatar wanted to be associated with Hirst: he's the biggest-selling artist in the world, and he knows how to put on a sensational show. The room filled with bright, palm-sized butterflies that hatch from pupae attached to primed white canvases, feed on sugar water and live out their natural lives, is another well-executed idea along the same lines – plus, it's always fun to be in a room full of butterflies.
Death is the concept that leaps out again and again – from the famous bisected cow and calf and the pickled shark to a huge canvas encrusted with dead flies, display cases filled with pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, and a giant, stinking ashtray.
Downstairs in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, the diamond-encrusted skull For the Love of God is in a dramatically dark (and carefully guarded) room on its own, where it sparkles under bright spotlights. Hirst has said that it is inspired by Mexican decorated skulls, and maintains that its message isn't bleak. "I just want to celebrate life by saying to hell with death," he is quoted as saying on a placard.
Hirst's anxiety about ageing is probably the most interesting thing about his art, and when he strays away from the showy meditations on fragility – including the hairdryer suspending a ping pong ball in the air, titled What Comes Up Must Come Down – things get dull. The endless spot paintings are pretty enough, but there's an awful lot of them in the show, and they offer nothing more than a meditative arrangement of colour and geometry. Hirst is a prolific artist – it has been well-documented that his spot paintings, for example, have long been made by assistants – and one of the exhibition's strengths is in its choice of material. An early, dripping, splotchy spot painting is key to seeing how his most ubiquitous series started.
When Hirst's work travels to Doha next year (in an exhibition that will not be a facsimile of the London show), it will follow Takashi Murakami's Ego, which runs until June at Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall, and which is also arranged by the QMA. "Underpinning the work of the Qatar Museums Authority is the belief that art – even controversial art – can unlock communication between diverse nations, people and histories," Sheikha Al Mayassa wrote in the Hirst catalogue. How these brash, spectacular exhibitions will be absorbed by a new generation of Arab artists in the Middle East we have yet to find out.
Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern continues until September 9