4 Apr 2015

On the Crucifixion of Sebastian Horsley

Naturally, at Easter, one's thoughts turn to the Cross and the crucifixion of Sebastian Horsley, the Soho Kristos ...

In 2000, Horsley flew to the Philippines, accompanied by fellow-artist Sarah Lucas and the photographer Dennis Morris. Having decided that he wished to paint scenes of the Crucifixion, but only ever really able to paint what he himself had experienced directly, Horsley was heading for the small village of San Pedro Cutud, outside of San Fernando, in the province of Pampagna.    

Here, during Holy Week, locals hold an annual orgy of self-flagellation and mortification of the flesh, culminating in several devotees being willingly lashed to crosses with nails driven through their hands and feet in imitation of Christ. Officially, the Church does not approve, but the local tourist industry has no qualms about promoting the event (retailers selling religious nick-knacks alongside cans of Coke).   

This re-enactment of the Passion, has been going on for many years. Pseudo-martyrs tend to be young Filipino men hoping to experience the divine and produce some sort miraculous effect. Foreign participants were banned after a Japanese man marketed footage of himself being crucified as a sadomasochistic porn video. However, after months of negotiation (and payment of a significant fee) it was agreed that Horsley would be able to stage his own private ceremony.    

The hope was to heighten his artistic sensibilities via extreme suffering. In the event, however, he passed out from the intense and overwhelming degree of pain. Worse, the small platform supporting his feet broke, as did the straps around his wrists and arms supporting some of his weight, and Horsley, dramatically - if also somewhat embarrassingly - fell from the cross! (The malicious act of a God in whom he didn't believe but was happy nevertheless to mock, as Horsley reasoned afterwards.)

Some of the villagers ran away screaming; Sarah Lucas fainted; and Dennis Morris continued to snap pictures as anxious officials attempted to resurrect the artist, lying pale and unconscious, but strangely serene, as if a figure in a painting by Caravaggio. Afterwards, Horsley by his own admission felt humiliated and full of a sense of failure. Soon, however, this was replaced with a sense of quiet pride.

An exhibition of new works based on the event opened in the summer of 2002 and film footage shot by Sarah Lucas, entitled Crucifixion, was screened at the ICA in June of that year. The British press, unsurprisingly, were less than impressed:  'Art Freak Crucifies Himself', screamed the front page of the News of the World. Perhaps more surprisingly - and certainly more disappointingly - the art world was also distinctly cool (and sometimes sneering) in its reception.

Horsley, as ever, puts a brave face on this in his disarming and often highly amusing memoir, Dandy in the Underworld (2007):  "Jesus was crucified to save humanity. I had been crucified to save my career. Neither of us had much success."

Note: For those interested, Crucifixion can be viewed (in two parts) on YouTube by clicking here and here

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