ART / The savagery of a dead sheep: Damien Hirst, sculptor, painter, curator and animal worrier, has gathered about him like-minded enfants terribles at the Serpentine. Andrew Graham-Dixon ponders the herd instinct

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Part chamber of horrors, part cabinet of curiosities, 'Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away' is Damien Hirst's ideal art exhibition. Its guiding themes are sex and death. There are bodies everywhere.

A notice at the entrance of the Serpentine Gallery cautions that some may find the contents of this show distressing, positively shocking even: a promise disguised as a warning and a surefire guarantee of high attendances. But superfluous, too, since its guest selector, Hirst, needs no assistance when it comes to promotion. The fact that this is his exhibition automatically makes it the biggest draw in town. If you haven't heard of Damien Hirst, virtuoso of dead animals and flies, the man who sold Charles Saatchi a tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde, the David Hockney of the 1990s (sort of) - well, it can safely be assumed that you went mad or ran away some time ago.

The exhibition opens as quietly and undemonstratively as might have been expected. A rubber hammerhead shark, zipped into a close-fitting leather bodybag, festooned with coconuts and drip-fed by polythene sacs filled with some bright but unnameable green liquid, dangles from the ceiling. A lifesize wax statue of the Virgin Mary, flayed like an anatomical model in medical school, stands bloodily to attention. What looks like an abstract painting in homage to or mockery of an older generation of English artists turns out to be a diagram of a full frontal nude: Julie from Hull, according to the label.

None of these, it transpires, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, are Hirst's. The fetishised shark and the skinned virgin have been imported from New York, where they were created by, respectively, Ashley Bickerton and Kiki Smith, while the split-beaver abstract in glorious AuerbachColour and splendid KossoffVision was made in London by Marcus Harvey.

Certain preoccupations may be deduced. Bickerton comes over as ecologically concerned, his shark in leather a protest aimed at Ernest Hemingway deep-sea fisherman types the world over. Smith, it may be assumed, is seeking to explode the myth of the Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth and to reclaim Mary Mother of God as a member of the universal sisterhood of women: the suppurating waxwork, flesh and blood with a vengeance, is her idea of what a cult image should be, real and mortal. Harvey's yoking together of Men Only subject matter and Auerbach- Kossoff handling, on the other hand, may be an attempt to show up British Expressionism, post- Bomberg, in what he sees as its true, macho-sexist colours: where others see pure painterliness, Harvey sees too much testosterone, endless dull ejaculations of oil on canvas.

Hirst, who like most practising artists understands how leaky generalisations about 'the art of today' invariably are, is offering up none of the usual curatorial hostages to fortune. No catalogue foreword, no statement of intent, accompanies the show. No attempt has been made to package up a job-lot of contemporary art as evidence of a new zeitgeist: this is not a Hayward Gallery exhibition. Hirst is not one for complex self-justifications, for fine critical distinctions, for the mock- erudite splitting of hairs (although he has been known to split the odd dead animal or two). The only thing that truly links the disparate works at the Serpentine show is the fact that Damien Hirst likes them all.

This makes it, in one respect, a refreshingly honest and no-bullshit exhibition. But it also complicates matters, because it leaves the viewer looking at all the art in the show through bifocals: trying to figure out, not just what the artist responsible for each piece may have meant by it, but also what it may have meant to the celebrated Mr Hirst. The two things are not necessarily the same. The feminist implications of Kiki Smith's Virgin or the eco-dimensions of Bickerton's shark may be there, but it seems extremely unlikely that they have anything to do with Hirst's reasons for including said works. They are there because they appeal to Hirst's morbid preoccupations and because their subject matter is his own.

The same may be said for much of the rest of the work in the show. Michael Joaquin Grey's contribution to 'Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away' is a shocking orange polyurethane cast of Rodin's statue of Balzac affixed, upside down, to the ceiling of the gallery. What Grey intends by the gesture remains unclear, but in the circumstances the sculpture has become a Hirst by proxy: a perfect model of Hirst's own, less than entirely reverent attitude to the art of the past, and his willingness to cannibalise and denature more or less anything if it should suit his purposes.

Jane Simpson's arresting construction, In Between, in which a spreading mess of butter is simultaneously melted and frozen by a halogen lightbulb and a refrigeration unit, may mean all sorts of things to Jane Simpson but, included here, it is no longer her own but Hirst's image and a work of art which works as a kind of precis of his abiding concerns: with mutability, with the fluid and unstable nature of organic matter. (Just like Damien Hirst to see a memento mori hidden in every pat of Lurpak.) Abigail Lane's fake plastic eyes on stalks of steel wire, likewise, become an image of Hirst's own half- serious obsession with the puny mortality of us all.

There are only three autograph Hirsts in the exhibition: one of his tongue-in-cheek spot paintings, a picture of bright coloured circles like Smarties in close formation; a sealed medicine cabinet full of drugs well past their use-by dates; and one of his now trademark dead animals in formaldehyde, a Geoffrey Howe this time, still fluffy but disconcertingly green, submerged in its transparent tank and haloed by air bubbles. But the cunning of this show is that it turns everything into a Hirst, of a kind: an object primarily of interest because of what it says about the preoccupations and obsessions of the artist-impresario.

The exhibition could be described as an extreme example of the widespread modern practice whereby artists hire others - technicians, usually - to fabricate their works for them. The difference here is that Hirst has managed to get people who are artists in their own right to make his work for him. This is not really a group show, or if it is, it is only superficially that because it is really something else in disguise: a monumental Hirst, a Hirst gesamtkunstwerk, a self-portrait formed from the conjunction of his own works and those of others, which have been, here, hungrily incorporated, made a part of his own oeuvre by implication.

Behind its sociability and implied cliquishness, its front of 'Damien and Friends', the real theme of 'Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away' may be the loneliness of the modern artist, and the loneliness of Hirst in particular. The whole show can be seen as one necessarily singular and necessarily eccentric artist's attempt to find or make for himself a like-minded community, to define a group of artists in whose company he feels comfortable. But the result is a schizophrenic exhibition, because it also recognises that the finding of such a community, in the chaotic and splintered visual culture that is every modern artist's inheritance, is an impossible fantasy. This is a show that works as a whole only if everything in it is viewed as a surrogate Damien Hirst, but which falls apart if the objects which it contains are viewed as the creations of their actual, literal, diversely babbling authors.

Hirst calls his dead sheep Away from the Flock and that, in the context, looks like something of an admission. The work is really another kind of self-portrait, banal and sad too: an image of the artist's knowledge that, when it comes down to it, he is on his own; an emblem of terminal separateness; a small bleat of discontent.

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(Photographs omitted)