Even by Damien Hirst’s standards it was an unusual artwork – two windowless rooms swirling with live butterflies.
Visitors to the exhibit at the Tate Modern in London observed the insects close-up as they flew, rested, and fed on bowls of fruit.
But whilst the work, In and Out of Love, was praised by many art critics when it featured in the gallery’s Hirst retrospective earlier this year, it has now landed the artist in a row with the RSPCA.
Figures obtained from the Tate reveal that more than 9,000 butterflies died during the 23 weeks that the exhibition was open.
Each week it was replenished with approximately 400 live butterflies to replace those that died – some of them trodden underfoot, others injured when they landed on visitors’ clothing and were brushed off.
A spokesman for the RSPCA said: “In this so-called ‘art exhibition’, butterflies are forced to exist in the artificial environment of a closed room for their entire lives.
“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.”
The exhibit used butterflies of the Owl and Heliconius species, which come from tropical regions and live for up to nine months in the wild. Those used in the exhibition are believed to have survived for between a few hours and several days.
Visitors saw the butterfly pupae pinned to white canvases while adults specimens flew freely around the rooms, feeding on flowers and sugar water as well as fruit.
The Tate’s description of In and Out of Love said “the themes of life and death as well as beauty and horror are highlighted, dualities that are prevalent in much of the artist’s work”.
Defending the use of the creatures, a Tate spokesman said: “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 butterflies lived out the final stage of their natural life cycle inside this room. Approximately 400 butterflies were introduced to the exhibition over the course of each week, with many enjoying longer lifespans than in the wild due to the high quality of this environment.”
Many of Hirst’s most famous works feature dead animals. Among those on display at the Tate Modern were 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 exhibition also included The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a shark suspended in formaldehyde, and For the Love of God, a human skull covered in more than 8,500 diamonds.
The Tate previously faced accusations of animal neglect in 2009 when an exhibition at Tate Modern by Cildo Meireles, a Brazilian artist, featured a series of fish tank installations, resulting in the deaths of 12 fish.
A spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said: “Damien Hirst’s quest to be edgy is as boring as it is callous. It does not matter whether Hirst killed the animals himself or sat by while thousands of them were massacred for his own unjustifiable amusement.
“Butterflies are beautiful parts of nature and should be enjoyed in the wild instead of destroyed for something predictable and unimaginative.”
Dr Martin Warren, the chief executive of Butterfly Conservation said: “It is very sad to hear of the death of so many butterflies. Butterfly Conservation is concerned that this work represents a throwaway approach to living creatures and encourages a lack of respect for the environment.”
Tate Modern’s show was the first major retrospective of Hirst’s work to be held in Britain, and was one of the most popular exhibitions in the museum’s history, attracting nearly 3,000 visitors a day.
Spanning more than two decades of Hirst’s work, it included pieces from his infamous 1988 Freeze show which hailed a new era of conceptual art and brought attention to the Young British Artists movement.