Pickler of sharks, purveyor of rotting cow's heads, and now Turner Prize nominee, Damien Hirst specialises in the unusual. 'There's no world like the art world where you can have so much fun,' he says - but will Saatchi's protege admit to being a 'serious' artist?
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DAMIEN HIRST has nightmares about glass. Sharp-edged sheets of it encase his pale limbs, wrap his waistless torso, seal an unbreakable collar around his thick builder's neck. He cannot move or touch his own thinly haired skin, only glass. Locked down by his invisible stocks, he lies, lifeless as a museum animal in a long glass case.

Hirst's is a very public nightmare: he tells me about it at length. Five years after he started putting dead creatures in his steel-framed, bullet- proof glass cases, and began to become the most famous young artist - or perhaps simply the most famous artist - in a suddenly art-hungry Britain, the thought of placing the unshaven Damien in a case of his own sounds extremely saleable, even satisfying. Unfortunately for the rest of us, Hirst got there first. There he was in Esquire a few weeks ago, naked in a tank, eyes closed and long hair floating - as serenely lifeless, it seemed, as the vast tiger shark he famously pickled in formaldehyde.

Hirst had sold his nightmare, and his many critics' revenge-fantasy (last year GQ rated him the sixth most infuriating man in the world, one place above Michael Portillo). He, his fine-boned Californian girlfriend Maia, and his cute baby son Connor had gained six pages of Hello!-style family publicity. The project suggested a quick artistic intuition - Hirst once said of his work, "It's very easy to say, 'Well, I could have done that.' The fact is ... I did" - and a frightening readiness to use anything for art and attention. These twin instincts have always worked well for him: his short career has been a series of annual coups - winning Charles Saatchi as a patron in 1990, exhibiting maggots and a rotting cow's head in 1991, pickling his shark in 1992, bisecting a cow and calf before the international art world at the Venice Biennale in 1993, and floating a dead sheep in the Serpentine Gallery in 1994. This year he is a nominee (and 5-4 favourite) for the Turner Prize.

And Hirst, at 30, is famous. Not just famous enough to melt a Groucho Club waiter, previously all tiny goatee and touchy manners, into a sycophantic slush of eager service the afternoon we met - but famous enough to be a tabloid regular, an artist lots of people have actually heard of. Hirst is in the Daily Express, in Soho bars with Blur, Pulp, David Bowie and Dave Stewart, who wrote a song about him on his last album ("Damien save me and be my guide ... Cut me in half and I'll let you see/ What this whole wide world has done to me"). Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin, two other artists from Hirst's rising generation, make and sell Damien ashtrays, with his photocopied grin embedded in their glass bases to stub cigarettes out on. Hirst's own work is parodied in newspaper cartoons with the frequency of no other artist since Henry Moore. His fluffy embalmed sheep drew 48,000 people to the tiny Serpentine Gallery, its second largest attendance ever (Man Ray got the biggest). The vandalism of the piece with blue ink was the first attack on an exhibit there.

Hirst wants to be famous: "What I like about Picasso are all the money things, the fame, the stardom, the signing of the cheques and people not cashing them because they've got his signature on." Recently a magazine ran a competition where the prizes were signed Damien Hirst cigarette butts. He may have work on permanent show in Los Angeles, Jerusalem, Berlin and the Tate Gallery, but this is what's new about him: Hirst is in the cultural mainstream. Moore and Hockney may have been there once - Bacon too, at a stretch - yet Hirst has swum out alongside the footballers and soap opera actresses in a matter of years, rather than decades.

But how? Whichever way you sell him, Hirst is a conceptual artist, and for decades conceptualism has been quite arid to most people. Conceptual art used to mean quiet bits of fur and wood, lots of justifying your ideas, and much yawning and brow-furrowing from the small minority who ventured into vast, void-like galleries to look at it. Suddenly Hirst has made it frightening, or appalling - but above all provocative. "I get a lot of cab drivers saying, 'Oh, you did the sheep'," he says. "And they've never seen it."

PEOPLE who don't like Hirst of- ten attribute his success to bluffing. They say his work is only art because he says so, in his persuasively no- bullshit West Yorkshire tones, eyes fierce in that faintly menacing stubbled face, hair alternately as long as Lord Byron's or as cropped as a football lad's. Hirst maintains the image, this argument goes, by drinking the Colony Room dry and making sure newspaper diarists hear about it. His supporters present a more positive version of the same art-hooligan legend: "When Damien comes to town, the whole scene comes alive," says Jeffrey Deitch, a New York curator. "Parties form round him. People come to the bar where he drinks."

Today, Hirst arrives at the Groucho Club in a pinstripe suit and orders an Aqua Libra. He is quite small, with a shuffling walk, heavy brows and a curt desire to get the interview over. Upstairs in the thick-carpeted Club Room where Groucho members gather to watch television, he curls his legs up under him in a saggy armchair, lights regular cigarettes in the early evening gloom (there is a single dim lamp), and asks if we can break off to play snooker after half an hour.

He speaks flatly and plainly: "All kids draw and make things. I just never stopped." At first he twists his hair, and avoids explaining his art: "I'm a hypocrite and a slut and I'll change my mind tomorrow." His pinstripe suit is actually rather creased, flopping over his T-shirt and Seventies trainers like the kind of spoilt-rock-star pyjamas Johnny Rotten used to wear. A foreign art-buyer and his assistant interrupt us, and Hirst waves them downstairs to buy drinks on his tab. Does he do all his own work? "I used to. I do as little as possible now, though, because there's no point. I could say tomorrow, 'I want an office chair carved out of marble'. For me to go and learn how to carve marble would be 30 years' work ... and I'm not going to use it again. So you go and find somebody who can do exactly what you want, and hire them and have it done." Hirst scribbles ideas for his assistants on the back of cigarette packets and beer mats.

The phone rings. It is one of Hirst's assistants, explaining that the tank containing his sliced cow and calf, due to be exhibited in the Tate's Turner Prize show, is in danger of leaking formaldehyde and alarming the gallery's authorities. Hirst listens for long periods, nods, swears, and tries to remember how they stopped his shark seeping. This time the tank will have to be strengthened; it will take days; he arranges some meetings.

Five days later the sculpture is still not considered safe enough for the opening of the exhibition. It's not the first time Hirst and his assistants have alarmed a gallery: last summer a plan to exhibit a dead cow and bull in New York, under the title Dead Couple Fucking Twice, their cadavers rotting and copulating with the aid of hydraulics, was blocked by health authorities concerned that the gases released by putrefaction could cause an explosion, or gallery visitors to vomit.

Unrealised projects of escalating ambition and - potentially - repulsiveness are part of the folklore about Hirst, who says he collects colour photographs of diseases and was called "Omen" at school after the devil-child in the Seventies horror film. He has talked about entombing a whole herd of elephants in formaldehyde, even stitching together his own Minotaur from a bull's head and hooves and the corpse of a volunteer. Sometimes, he worries about such ideas: "I went into the Saatchi Gallery when the fly piece [A Thousand Years, a sealed eco-system of maggots, rotting flesh and electric insect-killer] was installed, and I found it really frightening. When I'm on my own it's all right, but when there are other people looking it's almost like Frankenstein - what have I created? I don't quite know why ... "

All this gore and its implications and controversies make good newscopy, however. "The accusation of sensationalism has certainly widened his reputation," says Jay Jopling, Hirst's dealer. Hirst's fame has spread thanks to the fattening of broadsheets with arts articles (like this one), more fashion- conscious arts television and, most importantly, the insatiable appetite of tabloids for controversies and celebrities. Hirst himself understands how criticism and disgust have springboarded his rise: "Brian Sewell just wants to be famous ... I do like him, though. He livens it up, just like when somebody put a bag of chips in front of my fish piece [for a photo] in the Daily Star."

Hirst's success is a very English phenomenon. He offends our view of animals. He has Jopling as his Malcolm McLaren (Hirst was a teenage punk, and named some of his early works after Sex Pistols songs). He has been in court to justify himself, like Oscar Wilde or the Rolling Stones. And the art itself owes much to the cheeky shock aesthetics of British advertising - to Charles Saatchi, indirectly - and, further back, to the boldness of British Pop Art. "Pop Art was the only acceptable modern art in this country," says Laure Genillard, a Swiss gallery owner working in London. "It was still very narrative, closely linked to cartoons, and Damien comes straight from there."

This Englishness is explicitly cited by the curators of a new show featuring Hirst and 21 other young British artists, like Rachel Whiteread, Sam Taylor- Wood, and Jake and Dinos Chapman, which has just opened in Minneapolis. "Brilliant! New Art from London" contains none of Hirst's animal pieces - for fear of their overshadowing everything else - but celebrates the city's young art "scene" as a successor to the mid-Sixties heyday of Hockney and Hodgkin. Indeed the same Minneapolis gallery held a show of the latter and their contemporaries exactly 30 years ago, called "London: The New Scene".

But the 1995 catalogue makes clear one big difference. While "The New Scene" sprang from the confidence and energy of Swinging London, the artists in "Brilliant!" have emerged from the less optimistic cultural ferment of the boom-and-bust capital. This ferment produced its first batch of exciting new art in 1988, when Hirst curated an exhibition called "Freeze" while still a student at Goldsmiths' art college. Frustrated by the established West End galleries' lack of interest in him and his contemporaries, he had spotted a derelict warehouse while visiting his then girlfriend near Surrey Docks. He found out who owned it, phoned them up, persuaded them to lend him the building and contribute pounds 12,000, got another pounds 10,000 out of Canary Wharf's developers, and got started.

"I kind of expected to be stopped," says Hirst, "but I wasn't." He hacked up the tiles of the warehouse's vast floors himself, strung up lights for its cavernous interior (the walls had no windows), and sent out taxis for Saatchi and the gallery owners on opening night. They came, and saw provocative art - Mat Collishaw exhibited a blown-up photo of a bullet wound, Hirst a grid of coloured spots painted directly on to the wall - but it was the improvised profes- sionalism of it all that struck them most. "Hirst was the first to DIY," says Julia Little of the Serpentine Gallery. And he made a sale. "Somebody comes into the exhibition and goes, 'I'll buy that [the spot painting]'," remembers Hirst. "And I was like, 'Oh really? How you gonna do that?' And they just said, 'You give me a certificate and some tins of paint and a brush, and I'll paint it wherever I want it.' That made me realise that you can sell anything."

GOLDSMITHS' taught (and still teaches) a course in self-marketing. Hirst quickly expanded his work from modest minimalism - his other work at "Freeze" had been some cardboard boxes stuck to the ceiling - into something more spectacular and expensive. In 1990 he met Jopling at another show he had set up, impressed him, and started having his work shown at Jopling's White Cube gallery, next door to a bullion retailer in St James's. The same year Saatchi started buying Hirsts.

This fast move to a wealthy patron and a West End gallery, while many of his contemporaries stayed in their marginal East End spaces, has made people suspicious of Hirst. Art Review calls his career "art as showbiz". Simon Wilson, a curator at the Tate, thinks of Hirst as "someone who went to a mainstream college, and operates within the mainstream institutions of Western art." Last year Hirst reprimanded the artist who tampered with his sheep as sternly as any portrait painter; last summer he threatened to sue the Saatchi Gallery for using the sheep in an ad. And despite his well-publicised scares, Hirst is careful to keep his art just palatable: "You really can't have any smell ... If it smelt you wouldn't look at it." His glass cases and formaldehyde have a similar distancing effect.

At times the weight of Saatchi's money can seem to crush all other meaning out of Hirst's work. Saatchi commissioned the shark (full title The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living), paid thousands of pounds for it to be caught off the Australian Bight, thousands for it to be injected with preservatives by the Royal Navy, and thousands for the architects of Brighton's Sea World aquarium to make its tank. You could retitle the piece The Physical Impossibility of Modesty in the Mind of Someone in Advertising. And Hirst could become trapped in a cycle of grander projects, which need bigger sponsorship, which demands wider publicity, which requires bigger projects ad nauseam. He has already diversified into pop videos, short films, plans for feature films and, next year, a book of his "ideas and obsessions and views on modern life".

CONFRONTED by all this personality and publicity and patronage and cross- promotion, it is very easy to forget about the art. Yet the sheer spectacle of Hirst's shark, mouth viciously agape but somehow mel-ancholy in its massive blue-tinted cage, suggests that his success owes much to artistic talent. Hirst's best, most notorious work suggests old-fashioned thoughts about mortality and death by a dramatic, physical presence, something lacking in most of his conceptualist predecessors' pieces. It is remembered.

When Hirst tries to explain this, he comes alive in his armchair. The dark eyes in his pale, ordinary face sharpen. "My background is people who weren't really interested in art," he says, gesticulating and speaking faster. "I always thought art didn't really work unless I could communicate to those sort of people too ... I was watching TV and listening to music before I ever went into an art gallery, and that's where the whole thing came from." Wilson agrees: "He wants his art to have a very direct visceral impact on the viewer. It's a sort of populism." This populism - "What the hell's wrong with sensational?" as Hirst puts it - is precisely what has made some middle-class gallery-goers uneasy about his work, while catching the attention of many more people who never normally look at art.

Hirst's mother, Mary Brennan, works in a Citizens' Advice Bureau in Leeds, and is particularly keen on an installation he made by pickling a shoal of different fish in two medicine cabinets, one half chasing the other. "That's my life - we all swim in the same direction and there are no openings," she says.

She drew and painted at school herself, then gave it up - her terraced life did not encourage such pursuits. Damien was born in 1965; within a few years he was following the path she couldn't, painting album covers on his friends' leather jackets and making collages. "I used to show them to my Mum's friends," says Hirst, whose father, a second-hand car salesman, walked out when he was 12. "They used to say, 'When you can draw something what looks like it's supposed to be, then come and talk to me'."

He never really did: "If you give me already organised elements I can arrange them, but if you give me nothing ... I can't decide what to put there." Instead he spent hours during his foundation course in Leeds staring at an aquarium and a stuffed tiger in the city's natural history museum. "I wanted to get that kind of reality in art," he says, wide-eyed. "It gives you a real kind of emotional feeling, thinking, 'This thing was actually walking around'." (Hirst says he regretted having his shark caught; he has got his animals from slaughterhouses since, not killed to order.)

The idea of drawing directly on the world stayed with him, despite being rejected from Central St Martin's art college, and having to work on a building site in Essex for two years. There he also learnt about populism: "I was with this guy who was a plasterer, and at lunchtime he was eating a stuffed heart ... I was thinking, 'I'm not like these guys. I'm an artist.' And I saw a bee come over to some flowers and get all the pollen out. I was looking and thinking, 'How does it do that?' And then the guy who was eating the stuffed heart said, 'How does that bee do that?' "

By now Hirst has allowed the interview to over-run. He has let slip the impression that he actually loves his work. About his controversial Dead Couple Fucking Twice he enthuses, "The colours are fantastic. You get greens, purples, yellows - it's in Day-Glo colours when it starts to fall apart." The sheer output from his Brixton studio - a crumbling warehouse playground of formaldehyde containers, gas bottles, and paint-spattered plastic sheets - undermines the lazy pose he tried earlier. Besides his animals, he has produced 70 spot paintings, a dozen medicine-cabinet pieces, and a range of installations from the sunny (a suspended beachball in And Still Pursuing Impossible Desires) to the ominous (an imprisoned desk and chair called The Acquired Inability to Escape). "There's no world like the art world," he says, "where you can have as much fun."

Recently Hirst bought a farmhouse near the north Devon coast - appropriately for the director of Blur's "Country House" video - so Maia can go surfing and he can avoid London. He has acquired a Range Rover. Mum has been to stay for a fortnight. "Life is just so rich it's ridiculous," says Hirst.

He thinks Connor is "better than anything I've ever made". So great, in fact, that the baby has inspired a new work, called Lamby Love Snoodle. It features some clothes from Mothercare, a pram, and a baby with a mobile phone, talking to a skull.

! Turner Prize Shortlist: Tate, SW1 (0171 887 8000); the prizewinner will be announced on 28 Nov.