A six-legged calf and a Christ made of cigarettes. Damien's back - and this time he's brought his friends

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In a huge tank of water, sides of beef and a cow's head are suspended from hooks, brains fry in a pan, a skull sits on a butcher's block and strings of sausages are draped everywhere. Swimming serenely around these gory visions of death are dozens of brightly coloured tropical fish.

Elsewhere, a huge black gorilla is staring at its own severed arm, the bottom half of a torso sits on a stainless steel lavatory and a family of pigs, covered in tiny beads, go out for a stroll, clearly elated that their baby has sprouted wings. Above all this floats a zeppelin made from Coca-Cola tins, and a Christ-figure constructed from Marlboro Lights cigarettes hangs from the wall.

Such provocative images, many of which are stunningly beautiful and yet deeply unsettling, greet the visitor to the unique joint show by the artists Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst, which opens to the public at Tate Britain today.

The show is the first time that three major British contemporary artists - all friends who met at Goldsmiths College in the mid-1980s - have worked together to produce mainly new works. It is also the first time that a museum has held such a show of original pieces, which are usually first revealed through private galleries.

Their title is In A Gadda Da Vida, taken from the 1968 recording by the psychedelic rock band Iron Butterfly in which the lead singer slurred the words, "In the Garden of Eden" to the point where they were unrecognisable.

Hirst and his fellow artists have used this to give themselves free rein in ideas of sex, death, love and destruction, as well as more contemporary themes such as the war in Iraq and the role of women.

Hirst uses the concept of Adam and Eve in two characteristic installations. In Adam and Eve Exposed, two figures lie covered in sheets on operating tables in adjacent glass boxes; both have only their genitals exposed by cut-outs in the shape of an apple. Both, closer inspection reveals, are breathing gently. In the second, Adam and Eve Towards the End, perhaps the artist's description of what is involved says it all: "Glass and steel vitrine, children's toys, jigsaw puzzle pieces, half a bureau, tweed jacket, cardigan, prosthetic limb, pornographic magazines, cigarettes and other gentleman's paraphernalia, half a dressing table, dressing gown, underwear, ornaments, medicines, magazines, tampons and other ladies' paraphernalia.''

Other familiar Hirst devices are on display - a calf in formaldehyde and a huge black disc of dead flies in resin, as well as the aforementioned fish tank - but there are also several truly stunning and intricate mosaics consisting of thousands of butterfly wings which create a multi-coloured effect akin to stained glass.

There are also live tropical butterflies, incongruously placed inside what appears to be an English garden greenhouse. Butterflies also form the pattern for the wallpaper each artist has designed for part of the exhibition space.

Lucas also exhibits some well-known traits: collages exploring the exploitation of women - such as papering the inside of a real lorry cab with Page Three-style pictures - bottom halves of female torsos and images made from flyers for takeaway pizza. Again, her own description of something called Spam Zeppelin is sufficient: "Resin, acrylic paint, fibreglass, wanking mechanism." She gleefully plunders pop songs for her titles: All We are Saying is Give Pizza Chance and Fuck the Egg Man, her comment on the conflict in Iraq.

Hirst and Lucas came to fame during the Young British Artists explosion of the 1990s. Fairhurst, although a contemporary, is much less well-known and this show will give him the attention he deserves, particularly for his gorillas and huge collages, including one display which takes up almost an entire wall, consisting of the blurred front pages of a series of six newspapers, The Independent included, one a week for the whole of last year.

Clarrie Wallis, a curator of the Tate Britain exhibition, said that this was a far-from-ordinary show to stage. "We had to build a special reinforced floor just in case something happened to Damien's fish tank; we have the Tate's library below us. The animals do cause problems; the fish and butterflies have to be fed every day and we have to control the amount of light for the butterflies. We needed a diver to put the final pieces of the installation in place." She shudders slightly. "And when those flies arrived, the smell of the resin just would not go away."

Ms Wallis said Tate Britain was aware that some people might be concerned about the origins of the butterflies. "We are very concerned about this and we worked with Damien to ensure they are properly bred and do not come from endangered species. But I still think about the fact that someone had to pull all those wings off. I think the images they produce are wonderful, then you remember what they are made of. That's the thing about Damien, the fine line he walks between beauty and repulsion."

Above the entrance to the show, there is a neon sign by Fairhurst which warns, "Stand Still and Rot". The exhibition seems to confirm that these Young British Artists, as they approach middle age, are doing anything but standing still. Perhaps they are using the formaldehyde to keep the rot at bay.

DAMIEN HIRST

Reputation as enfant terrible of British art dates from 1988 Freeze exhibition, where his work was first seen by Charles Saatchi

SARAH LUCAS

Famous for series of self-portraits and prosaically named works such as Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab

ANGUS FAIRHURST

Works explore elements of order, chaos and consumer culture. Uses a variety of media, including gorilla outfits

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