Dandy journeys to the underworld

Sebastian Horsley. ()
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Yesterday the provocative artist and author Sebastian Horsley was found dead in his apartment, reportedly after a heroin overdoes. He was only 47. It was both a predictable death, given his history of drug abuse, and an ironic one when considering Horsley’s sober and comparatively tame final days. But it still seems, somehow, small.

Wandering the streets of London’s Soho in garish and gaudy top hat and rich velvet suits, cycling through bouts of addiction, prostitution, and other outrages, Sebastian Horsley was a throwback to the kind of debauchery-as-lived-art that seems to have little place in this decidedly unromantic and ungritty moment.

This was a man who gained international fame in 2000 when he underwent a voluntary crucifixion in the Philippines, for art and attention, though among those who took him seriously, separating those motives was always just a bore."As an artist I don’t want to paint things as they are but the way I feel and sense they are," Horsley once said about the crucifixion episode. "I can only feel and sense how they are by undergoing the experience."

The sense-driven impulse of a junkie is here, and like Oscar Wilde, the catching, grotesque, and blatantly falsified accounts of modern life contained in the glib, often grim one-liners that followed in the press were just as important as the experiences themselves. After all, his viewers aren't crucified; he is.

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So it's unsurprising that Horsley's widest acclaim came after the release of his 2008 memoir, Dandy in the Underworld. And because of the press that followed: Horsley was denied entry to the U.S. to promote his book, on the grounds of "moral turpitude."

Two days before his death, a theatrical adaptation of the memoir opened in London. But as much as Horsley's work was about performance, the stage seems like a poor backdrop for Horsley, whose reaction to the show suggests he agreed.

“I’d rather be crucified again than sit through that,” groaned Horsley after seeing the play. “I knew I was obnoxious but I never knew how much.”

It was often only at his most insane that hints of his drive and commitment broke through the artifice. When mounting that cross, the lifelong addict refused painkillers; when he fell from the cross, his painter's hands were nearly ripped to shreds.

"Really death seems the least awful thing that can happen to someone,” he said in Dandy.

Perhaps that will be of some comfort to his admirers.