Sunday, May 4, 2014

Art Student Looses His Backdoor Virginity in an Art Project

No art, no love. Clayton Pettet, a 19-year-old art student at Central St Martins, publicly looses his virginity — the backdoor kind — in a project called Art School Stole My Virginity. On January 25, 2014, the sophomore and a male friend will engage in safe sex onstage in London's East End.

On his Tumblr, he explains it in more art-speak terms: "Although virginity itself is an abstract idea, the moment the hymen is broken is completely physical, and thus the exact moment of deflowering can be pin-pointed. For women that is. The loss of male virginity is still more abstract — an undetectable moment in time, does male virginity really exist? If so, can a male ever lose his virginity?"

Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Fest Fest is happy to host an open discussion of Clayton Pettet’s muchanticipated performance Art School Stole My Virginity, during which the artist will lose his virginity
before a live audience in a West London gallery space. Pettet situates his performance as an
investigation into the cultural significance of virginity and sexuality. The artist is also critiquing what
he perceives as the stagnation of the London contemporary art scene and art education system.
This piece has received widespread media attention in national and international publications –
unusual for a work by any artist, let alone a nineteen-year-old art student. Despite seemingly
comprehensive coverage, media outlets continue to focus on the superficial sensationalism of the
piece, describing Art School Stole My Virginity as a “live gay sex show,” a “controversial ‘exhibit’,”
and “taking sexual exhibitionism to new heights.”

Pettet says his “piece isn’t a statement as much as it is a question.” In “A Performance of the
People:” Discussing Art School Stole My Virginity, art historians Dorothy Fisher and Vincent
Marquis will collaborate with Pettet to answer that question by discussing both Art School Stole My
Virginity and the attention around it. Fisher, Marquis and Pettet are interested in examining the
relationship between Pettet’s work and the themes of gender, sexuality, art education, and the
reception of contemporary art. The collaborators hope to create a space for a nuanced discussion
of these themes by combining the art historical backgrounds of Fisher and Marquis with the fine
arts training of Pettet. The discussion format of “A Performance of the People:” Discussing Art
School Stole My Virginity allows the contributors and the audience to participate in an exchange of
ideas toward a new understanding of Pettet’s work and its implications.

Clayton Pettet was a child and is now an Artist.

Vincent Marquis is an MA candidate in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. He
received a BA in Art History and Philosophy from McGill University in 2013. His main field of
research is contemporary visual culture, and in particular: participatory art; engagements with time
and temporality in video and installation arts; queer visual culture; and theories of urban planning
and architecture. Vincent’s writings have appeared in Canadian publications such as Invitation,
Canvas, and Hirundo. He has held several editorial positions in Canada and the UK (notably within
Critical Contemporary Culture, Postliminium, and Canvas) and has been involved in curatorial
projects at both McGill University and the Courtauld Institute.

Dorothy Fisher is an MA candidate in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. She
received a BA in Art History from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2013. Her research broadly
deals with the legacy of Victorian art and culture in the twenty-first century, ranging from
visualisations of queer sexuality to links between traditionally feminine crafts and socialist activism.
Dorothy is currently interested in the role museums can and should play in rectifying institutional
injustice, and has worked in a variety of museum education positions at St. Mary’s College.

Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Fest is an audio-visual arts adventure rooted in London’s gay creative
community and welcoming everyone. Its program includes powerful new and old films, art
exhibitions, performances and parties collaborating with the best of London’s alternative art scene
and reaching deep into local communities.

This event is part of Fringe! Spring Fling


So yeah, in case that wasn't obvious: Art School Stole My Virginity didn't actually have any sex in it. On a scale of art hoaxes, I'd rank this somewhat below David Bowie and William Boyd's infamous "Nat Tate" swindle where they created a fictional artist from scratch. But according to Pettet, the fakery was the whole point to start with. I spoke to Clayton after the performance, which he described as "incredibly intimate and mentally exhausting".

Dazed Digital: You were never going to actually have sex, were you?

Clayton Pettet: No. I’ve always said I didn’t believe in virginity, so it kind of defeats the point if I’d actually lost my virginity for my art show! It was always about me stealing the word ‘virginity’, rather than having it stolen from me. That’s why I pushed the date back about 75 times. Because of the press the piece got, galleries assumed I was going to trick them and do what everyone thought I was going to do. But I’m not going to give what everyone wants, it’s not the point. 

DD: Don’t you think people expect this to be, well, you losing your virginity?

Clayton Pettet: It’s not wrongly expected, but I’ve always said in interviews there’s this partner I’ve never identified. I think if people were expecting something else, it shows what they really wanted. They didn’t want an art piece, they wanted to see me have sex. If they came for the art, they wouldn’t be as disappointed – they’d know there were things to read between the lines for.

DD: Would the piece have even existed in its current state if there hadn't been such a media storm around it?

Clayton Pettet: It exists 90 per cent because of the reaction the word ‘virgin’ got. The idea developed even more so because of the reaction: it was crazier than I could understand. It just goes to show our obsession with virginity and gay sex.

DD: I found the entire thing pretty awkward and nerve-wracking, TBH.
Clayton Pettet: The nerves and feeling forced to penetrate my mouth with a banana foreshadows what society made me feel about my own virginity. It was interesting doing this to the audience to see how they’d react. It was incredibly intimate and mentally exhausting. Some guy fumbled for his belt. I don’t know who he is. He just assumed… There was another guy who pulled my hair back and was (mimes thrusting banana down his throat). There were those points that made me feel a bit shaky.

DD: What’s the response been like so far?

Clayton Pettet: I’ve had mixed responses. Some guy was really sad, he said I looked like a 13-year-old boy and that it was sad and traumatic – but fantastic, because of the way I’d made everyone think they came to a performance to watch a 19-year-old lose his virginity.

DD: There was that thing with John Bingham, another artist who accused you of maybe stealing his idea…

Clayton Pettet: I don’t even know what to say about that boy. He’s the oddest person I’ve ever encountered. Marina Abramović says an artist never steals another artist’s work.

DD: So, are you still a virgin?

Clayton Pettet: Yeah. And also – this is my answer – I will never have sex. My art is my sexuality.


"This is your virginity that you have projected onto me and here it is – have it. Take it. And if you don’t want to look, fucking go out of the room" Clayton Pettet tells me during an interview in December. At the time, hearing this confirmed me in believing I had more or less figured out his intentions. However, what I expected to see in the performance is nowhere near what really happened.

At around 7.30pm, his bare skin painted with labels like NSFW , Pettet steps in front of his audience which falls silent at once. The Central Saint Martins student spends about two minutes frantically brushing off as many societal stamps as possible only to have his mouth painted black by one of his likewise seminude, performing assistants shortly after. The idea of oppression and imposition culminates in some of the artist’s hair being cut off – a gesture tame by Abramović’s Rhythm 0 standards yet successful in suggesting the concept of loss. Little time is lost after this initial act as Pettet is led down a nearby staircase and a video starts playing. Occasionally interrupted by readings of press he had received after announcing his project, the clip shows the art student sitting at a table covered in bananas. One by one, he picks, peels and eats the fruits – the symbolism behind this lacking the subtlety conceptually-informed work traditionally aspires to – whilst Serge Gainsbourg's "Les Sucettes" is repeatedly played in the background. Similarly to the bananas, visitors are chosen at random to group up and descend the staircase into a separate room.

This second stage of the Clayton Pettet show, filled with about 15 people at a time, features some of the artist’s paintings as well as a wall of headlines, hashtags, names, dates, quotations and accusations. It feels discomforting and simultaneously authentic: From the aggressive handwriting to a painting that incorporates ripped canvas along with a letter sent to Pettet’s parents, asking them to prevent the performance; the confined space is where the audience is exposed to the rawness and immediacy of the artist’s thoughts and emotions. It is here where amazement turns into captivation. Perhaps this explains why not one person speaks a single word within the 15 minutes I spend in the room before being asked to leave the others behind and join Clayton in yet another space.
No longer sure what to expect, I perceive the eerie music coming from above. The artist must still be eating bananas on tape. When entering the third room, I am asked to crouch down and crawl into a small, shed-like construction. Inside, Pettet greets me with his brown eyes and grants me a moment of silence in which I notice the abundance of said fruit surrounding us. ‘You’re going to penetrate me’ the art student says on his knees in a low but determined voice: ‘Orally. With a banana. Six times’. I am not willing to expose that I am partly bewildered and quickly grab a phallic fruit I instinctively deem especially suitable. What follows is my part in stealing Clayton’s virginity. Six times, I slide the banana into his mouth and pull it back out. Ignoring the artist’s teeth somewhat complicating the matter, the penetration is curiously satisfying and we hold eye contact throughout the entire act. Both our faces void of expression, Pettet takes the banana out of my hand, breaks it into two before casting it aside and – without further hesitation – asks me to leave the shed.

In a last segment, visitors are led to a large space containing a variety of paintings. One of them depicts Pettet being forced to eat a banana and stars the audience’s names; another one shows the student clutching his penis in bed along with a written statement about his desire to be well-groomed at age 13. More importantly, the conversations unfolding between exhibition goers over the course of the next 90 minutes (until the last visitor had penetrated Pettet), were speculative as to the nature of the piece and unique in regards to the fact we had all come without knowing what to expect and in fact, how the idea of virginity could be construed by the artist. An ultimately inconsequential, final gesture on Pettet’s part sees him enter the gallery of his own work to face a corner while his underwear is pulled down and one of his co-performers kneels in front of him. What exactly it is we are made to witness eludes me due to the masses of people. The 19 year old art student is eventually veiled and exists the room, naked underneath the sheer, white fabric.

In tonight’s performance, Clayton Pettet turned the tables to some extent. Whereas the general anticipation among members of the audience was to be presented a show to cater to intrinsic motivations as diverse as scopophilia, the seeking of thrills and the reassurance of one’s own definition of virginity, the artist played at his own rules. The bizarre (and for many exhibition goers: embarrassing) element of being subjected to strict regulations and an impersonal tone from Pettet and his small team of assisting performers evoked the sense of having lost something just as important as one’s virginity. From the beginning on, it can be argued, there was more at stake on the side of the audience. Although the execution of the performance lacked refinement in some places and accessibility in others – still at a young age, Clayton occurred not emotionally-distanced enough to his own work to bring it down to its essence – Pettet managed to appeal to something primitive in the mind of all his penetrators. In doing so, he manipulated the social web that united his visitors by excluding him. A sentiment of uneasiness was shared by everyone who found themselves led into the last room, post-penetration. There it was: a mirror of what I found strangely exciting only moments ago, alone with the artist and supposedly given permission to access his body – even if this entailed using a banana. And unlike the labels on Pettet’s skin, this mirror, written over the faces of other attendees, was not as easily brushed off. The artist did not lose his virginity but he lost a virginity. And he was not the only one

Dr. Peter Purton (Left Front Art) attended Clayton Pettet’s one off performance on 1 April - here he writes up his view on it

I was fortunate to get into Clayton Pettet’s much-hyped performance on April 1 and it certainly fooled anyone expecting a live sex show. Instead, it was the skilfully executed culmination of months of high profile publicity. I guess that was the intention? The only penetration was made with a (lot of!) bananas being sucked. Clayton says his performance was a rejection of established ideas about virginity and sexuality and an assertion of his right to his own definitions. It worked well to justify that and made many of his critics look very silly. But what about his paintings and other artworks? They reminded me of the comic art tradition used by anarchists and radicals in the good old days of the late sixties and seventies, perhaps unknown to today’s teenagers but based on the same in-your-face, crude and explicit imagery as runs through Clayton’s totally sex-act-obsessed art. He’s achieved the level of recognition he hoped for and has the technical skill. My question is, how will his art develop? There is a limit to the number of sexy self-portraits an artist can promote. He wants to challenge what he sees as an oppressive, second-rate and exclusionary modern art world: he will need to do more than this to achieve that. But good luck to him!
Peter Purton 

But all that publicity obviously paid off, because Clayton's virginity proved to be one of the most in-demand virginities ever. He had to sift through around 10,000 applications to whittle the audience down to the right 150 people he wanted to attend.