Horsley's cross is a painful one to bare

Story by Jack Foley

EVERYONE has heard of people who suffer for their art; but few will have gone to the extremes of method painter Sebastian Horsley.

The artist, who is currently exhibiting in London, stood in a cage surrounded by great white sharks in 1997 before painting them and then, in 2000, pulled off his most famous - and perhaps controversial - coup by being crucified for 20 minutes.

Horsley was nailed to a cross in the Filipino village of San Pedro Cutud in order to gain an insight into crucifixion for a series of paintings on the subject. In doing so, he passed out with pain and then fell from the cross, taking the nails with him when the straps holding his arms broke.

The Filipinos, for whom the crucifixion ceremony is an annual event, claimed afterwards that God had wanted to spare his painter’s hands, although the artist maintains it was a combination of his weight and bad carpentry.

Whatever, the results are now on display for all to see in the appropriately-named Crucifix Lane, SE1, at an exhibition entitled Crucifixion. The event is comprised of seven paintings, along with images by photographer Dennis Morris and a film shot by artist Sarah Lucas (which was previously shown at the ICA), who both documented the event.

The Crucifixion will be shown at 1-5 Crucifix Lane, London SE1, from June 14 to July 18. For details, contact 020 8980 1033.

More about Horsley...

Horsley's work has been described as 'method' painting' - but there are those who feel he takes things to extremes - he first achieved notoriety as a student when he was thrown out of St Martin's School of Art for forging a document to gain a grant.

He went on to achieve even greater notoriety following his encounter with the sharks.

In his own defence, the artist himself has stated: "As an artist, I don't want to paint things as they are, but the way I feel and sense they are. I can only feel and sense how they are by undergoing the experience."

Therefore, he saw the pain of experiencing the crucifixion as a necessary stage on the way to something more valuable.

"An artist has to go to every extreme, to stretch his sensibility through excess and suffering, in order to feel and communicate more," he says. "I wanted to break the limits of life, to test the boundaries of reality. I wanted to hack off the ball and chain of personality. To see with real eyes - painting not to imitate reality but to make it real. No pain in the artist, no pain in the viewer. No tears in the artist, no tears in the viewer."

Horsley was crucified on the week of his 38th birthday and confesses that the pain of having nails hammered into his palms was 'far worse' than he could possibly have imagined. He passed out pretty soon afterwards, before the cross was erected, and was barely conscious when the foot support, weakened by rain, broke and he fell off.

He was caught by Ricardo, a local man employed to conduct the ceremony, and the catch probably saved his life. But far from being euphoric or enlightened by the experience, he was dejected and wrote in his diary that God had punished him and had thrown him off the cross 'for impersonating his son'. He felt he had made a complete fool of himself and would end up a laughing stock.

His arrival back in England was greeted with the type of scepticism he had come to expect; people challenged him to prove that he had been crucified and to show them his wounds. He has framed the nails, however, and his paintings are now on show for all to see, together with the pictures taken by Dennis Morris on the day itself (Morris is best known for his work with The Sex Pistols and Bob Marley).

Horsely's film, 'Crucifixion', which was shot by Sarah Lucas and cut and scored by Gavin Rossdale, from the band Bush, will also be screened continually during the opening hours of the exhibition (11am - 6pm weekdays, 11am - 2pm Saturday).

Crucifixion is Sebastian Horsley's third solo show. It follows his hugely successful Great White Series, which showed in May 1997 and The Flowers of Evil in April 1999 - both at the prestigious Grosvenor Gallery.

GUIDE TO PICTURES: Main picture features Sebastian Horsley's Crucifixion No.7 (oil and gloss on canvas), while the second image was taken by Dennis Morris as the crucifixion took place.

RELATED LINKS: For a greater insight into Sebastian Horsley, visit the Guardian Unlimited website (The agony and the ecstasy, Observer, May 26, 2002) article by clicking here...
Click here for the Crucifixlaneproject website...