- 10 Dec 03
Has he gone too far this time? The man who had himself crucified for his art has now alienated some of his closest friends and admirers by mailing them a photograph of himself having sex with an amputee.
Controversial British artist Sebastian Horsley’s most recent stunt has shocked and disgusted even his most loyal friends – and many are apparently no longer talking to him. Novelist Will Self, singer Nick Cave, various UK art critics and this hotpress writer were amongst the 40 or so postal recipients of a rather explicit card from the 41-year-old writer and artist, already notorious for being the first westerner to take part in the Easter crucifixion ceremony in the Philippines.
When the envelope landed on my hallway mat, I initially thought it was an early Christmas card. However, its contents proved more X-rated than Xmas related. The front features a graphic photograph of a naked Horsley visibly pushing his penis into the vagina of a black-haired amputee, who looks to be in her mid-thirties. Tanned and pretty, she has just stumps for arms and legs. Printed on the back are the words, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’.
Also enclosed was a photocopy of the monthly Sewer Life column he contributes to the Erotic Review. Both renowned and reviled for its explicit sexual content, November’s column details Horsley’s recent visit to a freakish Amsterdam brothel which specialises in human deformities – dwarfs, amputees, bearded ladies, etc. It was there that he claims the photograph – a distorted version of which illustrates the article – was taken.
This isn’t the first time Horsley has abused the Royal Mail’s services. Three years ago he sent Metro art critic Fisun Guner a Tiffany’s box full of his own excrement in response to a negative review. There was a police investigation, but no charges were ever brought. For many though, his latest mailshot has proved a step too far. He hasn’t heard from Cave, Self and several other friends since he sent the card.
“Both Will and Nick have been ominously silent,” he admits. “And silence is the most effective form of criticism, isn’t it? Other people have been saying that I’m sick and disgusting and a pervert – but fortunately those are words that I quite like.”
Although not particularly surprised by this, the artist is unrepentant and argues that he views the picture as beautiful. “Why is there a problem? Who says? Who says you can’t find virtue in that? And who’s to say also that it’s not a beautiful image? Why does it have to be a bunch of fucking daffodils to make a nice image?
“Virtue can be found in everything. I think it’s funny. If that makes me sick then I guess I have to just say that I’m sick. To me, it’s basically turning pain into humour and anger into wit. If you embrace life as a great big metaphysical joke then the only logical response to that joke is laughter.
“I suppose somebody could argue that it’s sick to laugh at something like that, but you’re not actually laughing at the person. You’re laughing at the appalling-ness of it and you’re laughing at the fact that life is just… sick. Life doesn’t cease to be funny when somebody dies any more than it ceases to be serious when someone laughs. There is humour in everything. The argument about it being sick is, ‘Well, what about her feelings?’ and she’s a victim and all that sort of stuff. But it’s very shabby and middle-class to turn someone into a victim. People have free will.”
A self-confessed, and highly enthusiastic, nymphomaniac, Soho-based Horsley is a regular frequenter of brothels (though normally of the more orthodox kind). “The whorefuck is absolutely pure,” he declares. “It’s free of any ulterior motives. There is no squalid power game. The man is not taking, the woman is not giving. The woman is taking, the man is taking. No-one is attempting to control a husband or humiliate a wife. No-one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The whorefuck is the purest of them all – and the brothel is the home of spirituality.”
He says the girl in the photograph was Dutch, and he paid E100 for her services (“Quite cheap really”). Unable to speak the language, he doesn’t know her name or what had happened to her.
“We didn’t exactly talk much anyway, which is hardly surprising given the circumstances. But I don’t see her as a victim – any more so than I see myself as a victim. My father’s a cripple you see. My father’s in a wheelchair. And I grew up with spastics. My aunt is also a spastic. So every time I see a cripple, every time I see someone who’s physically deformed it actually breaks my heart. It lights a powder trail back to father. I suppose you’d have to ask Freud about all that stuff, but I know there’s something of that in it.”
What possessed you to send the picture to all of your friends?
“I saw it as a kind of filter to weed my social garden,” he laughs. “And I thought it was quite an interesting experiment to see if in this modern world you still have the power to shock people. I know it’s kind of childish. The desire to annoy the neighbours is as ridiculous as the desire to placate them, and in between is your identity. And I do realise that. At the same time it was quite interesting to see what people were shocked.”
The picture was apparently taken by a brothel employee. Horsley says that he realised that if he was going to engage in coitus with a total amputee, photographic proof would definitely be required.
“The interesting thing about my stuff [his Sewer Life columns] is that no-one believes it anyway. No-one actually believes that I do the things that I do or I’ve done the things that I’ve done. So I took the view that when I was going to do something really extreme, I would need the proof. So in a way, perhaps it’s validated all the past stuff.”
But is the image genuine or is a cleverly Photo-Shopped fake? Every designer and photographer hotpress showed the image to agreed that it could very easily have been doctored, but none was totally sure that it was.
Rowan Pelling, editor of the Erotic Review, also believes that the photograph is genuine. “Although Sebastian’s life is a kind of artful construct, he’s a real phoney in that he does things that no-one else does. You can’t imagine anyone else doing it.”
She has no regrets about running the column, but did decide to distort the photograph before publication.
“Of course, it’s morally a questionable area. Obviously there was a great debate here. People not in my actual office but on the more corporate side of things felt that we shouldn’t run it and that we would get into huge trouble for running it. But I feel that the Erotic Review doesn’t really have any boundaries. Sebastian’s art and life are quite seamless. It’s really a question of people’s personal taste. And we didn’t get a single letter of complaint – which is interesting.”
Respected London art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston also received the card in the mail. A former girlfriend of Horsley’s, she has absolutely no doubt that the image is genuine.
“I couldn’t speak to him for about five days when he sent it,” she says. “But yes, I do believe it’s real. He’s done masses of drugs, he swam with sharks, he crucified himself – Sebastian has always looked for extreme experiences and I’m prepared to put it on trust. He’s looking for something really serious. He’s actually quite a pure soul really. I know people say he’s disgusting, but he is genuinely looking for something. But I personally hated the picture because I felt he was looking at the expense of somebody who needed to be looked after and not used.”
Nick Hackworth, contemporary art critic for The Standard, also received the card but professes not to have been particularly shocked by it. “Is it art? I think the definition of art in these days has become so loose that I really don’t think it matters whether it’s called art or not. I’m quite happy for it to be regarded as art.”
Hackworth speaks admiringly of Horsley’s recent Crucifixion exhibition (which successfully ran under the title The Butterfly Pinned in Dublin’s Lead White Gallery last January), but says that the serious London art world is rather less impressed by the dandy artist’s antics.
“People say the curators of the Tate wouldn’t take his work seriously at all. They would ignore it. They live in a very bizarre kind of world which is dictated by fashions peculiar to the contemporary art world.
“All the associations which Sebastian’s work and persona brings up is anathema to a lot of the curators. They want to be associated more with wallpaper than Rimbaud. His whole aesthetic sensibility and his world views are completely alien to them. They just think he’s a strange throwback.
Horsley himself – who counts Nicole Kidman and Bryan Ferry amongst his admirers – claims to be totally unbothered by all of this. As to the fallout from his latest sexploit, he says that he fully understands why many of his former friends are angry with him.
“I’ve got opinions of my own on things that I’ve done and want to do – and they’re strong opinions and I don’t always agree with them myself. I don’t always agree with what I’ve done. So part of me thinks it’s absolutely disgusting too – if that’s any consolation. But it’s only by going too far sometimes that you stand to gain anything at all.”
But Sebastian, are you not doing all of this just to get publicity?
“That is absolutely and totally… correct!” he guffaws. “I mean, I’m desperate for attention and adoration. I’m like a child molester hanging around the lavatory.”
Did you fake the photograph?
“Well, I had to make my penis a little smaller. Otherwise the girls would’ve gone really crazy. But – no.”
And what’s next in your, em, pipeline?
“I don’t know,” he muses. “I suppose… prison.”
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jul 23