At his best Damien Hirst speaks to our incomprehension in the face of life's great mysteries. All that meat and medicine, suspended in tanks or lined up on shelves, is really just a formalisation of futility. To the subjects of life and death all the artist can bring is a sense of order and containment that only a madman would mistake for control.
Herein lies the power and the humanity of Hirst's art. It's there in the dead shark, 1991's 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living', the blunt fact of fatality staring us in the face but remaining something much less quantifiable, an impossibility – the clue is in the title. And it's there in those abbreviated cycles of life – the rotting cow's head to Insect-O-Cutor journey of the flies in 'A Thousand Years' (1990). Playing God, the artist resorts to a sardonic illustration of cause and effect.
What does it mean to try and cheat the inevitable – as illustrated by Hirst's displays of pills or surgical instruments – or, as witnessed by the cigarette butts in their giant ashtray or lined up like specimens, hasten it? What role does art play in the process? The questions Hirst first asked 25 years ago certainly bear repeating, but why should we keep looking at his work? You'll think this in Tate Modern's retrospective. The show delivers a streamlined, hit-heavy package. Perhaps it makes curatorial sense to smooth Hirst's passage into the pantheon of greats. It buries the duds but the cows and fish wind up looking like so many ways with surf and turf.
Filing past 'For the Love of God', the diamond skull in its darkened Turbine Hall chamber, as you might a dead royal lying in state, you sense that the camp, funereal nature of Hirst's art reached a theatrical high point in this 2007 work, even if the ideas behind it hit a crescendo a decade-and-a-half earlier. Moving through the exhibition, there's fun to be had in witnessing the artist bringing to market ever-glitzier products, and seeing the work's evolution – white sheep, black sheep, white tank, black tank, big shark, small shark, gold, more gold – less as a creative progression than as a grotesque sort of distortion, noting as you go that the mark-up on diamonds was never going to be as interesting, or as creative, as the mark-up on dead fish.
Yet we know enough about Hirst to know that the image of the glib showman isn't the complete picture. Among the notable omissions haunting this show, for instance, are the 'Blue' paintings he exhibited at the Wallace Collection in 2009. These weren't great pictures by any measure, but what Hirst was grappling with in that work and what in the end got the better of him – the weight of Francis Bacon's influence, his own leaden touch – reveals a more difficult, fallible and interesting artist than the one showcased here. The abiding impression is that Hirst's first major UK survey tells us what we already know but doesn't quite get the measure of its subject. And that's the disappointment however you slice it.