I watched an art student lose his ‘virginity’ in front of 150 people

By Rob Price on April 2nd, 2014

I’d had it all planned out. All I’d wanted to do was spend my Wednesday evening watching a gay teenage art student lose his anal virginity in front of 150 people, but instead I found myself crouched in a box with the guy, sticking an unpeeled banana in his mouth.

Clayton Pettet can certainly build hype. The 19-year-old student at London art college Central Saint Martin’s made international headlines with the announcement he was going to lose his virginity in front of a select audience of 150 attendees, all in the name of art.

The show, “Art School Stole My Virginity”, has received coverage everywhere from the Daily Mail to Dazed & Confused, eventually prompting Central Saint Martin’s to issue a statement that they were discussing the “legal and emotional” implications of the piece with Pettet.

Alternately billed as the pivotal moment in art history or the ultimate downfall of Western morality, I went along to check out what all the fuss was about.

They say to start as you mean to go on, and sure enough, from the long queue outside onwards, one thing characterised the show: waiting.

Once every attendee’s phone had been laboriously checked in—there were no recording devices permitted at the event, hosted in experimental London venue Theatre Delicatessan—the ambient French music subsided and the show was ready to begin.

Clayton marched in front of the seated audience, resplendent in black boxer shorts and the words “TEEN WHORE 19 ANUS” painted thickly across his body. After scrubbing them off roughly with the end of an old broom and a bucket of red fluid, his assistants—all nearly naked, and draped in veils—painted him some more, and took him downstairs.

Clayton Pettet performing 'Art School Stole My Virginity'. Photography by Josh Redman

Clayton Pettet performing ‘Art School Stole My Virginity’. Photography by Josh Redman

We were then treated to a video of Clayton eating bananas in the most sexual fashion possible.

Whilst we watched the licking, fingering, squeezing, thrusting and deep-throating, one of the veiled men strode authoritatively round the room, selecting random audience-members in groups of fifteen, to be ordered downstairs to a second exhibition area. I was lucky enough to be in the second batch—others sat upstairs for up to 2 hours, watching Clayton fetishise fruit on repeat and listening to self-indulgent media recordings discussing the project’s artistic merits.

Still expecting a risqué public sex act was right around the corner, we were deposited in a glorified holding room, one wall covered with a hastily scribbled mural. The words “dick”, “virgin” and “fuck” all featured a lot. After awkwardly waiting some more, we were taken, one-by-one, to the box.

There, in a three-foot high enclosure, sat Clayton in his underwear, face smeared in paint, body stained red, and surrounded by literally hundreds upon hundreds of bananas. I stooped inside and sat cross-legged from him.

“Hello”, I said. “Penetrate my mouth six times with this banana”, he said. So I did. “Now leave.”

The act completed, I was ushered into a final exhibition room, to view his paintings. And wait. “Was that it?”, seemed to be the question on everyone’s lips. One man, who’d flown from Norway especially for the show, refused to believe that that was the entirety of the performance, insisting that the sex show would begin in earnest once the entire audience had taken their turn poking Clayton with fruit. Others remarked it felt like we’d been dumped unceremoniously in the “gift shop”.

Sadly, there was nothing more forthcoming. Even the promised Q&A didn’t materialise. After waiting for more than an hour, Clayton Pettet emerged in a corner and had his pants cut off by his veiled assistants, prompting a renewed flurry of excitement from the audience. Alas, he was then immediately draped in a white shroud and hurried out the exit.

It was time to go home.

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A photograph from the series Whoregasm. Image via Clayton Pettet / tumblr

Clayton Pettet set out what he achieved to do. He garnered international attention for his work, and possibly made himself a pretty penny too: some of his paintings have been valued at up to £25,000, one of his friends told me. He’s subverted people’s expectations—he pointed out even before the events that it was always the media that obsessed over him as an “anal virgin”.

He even achieved that sure-fire signifier of success—cheap imitators. London artist John Bingham claims the idea to lose his virginity in public was actually his, he’d been planning it for years, and even that he’d had sex with Clayton weeks before the show.

But making bold claims and effectively courting the press means nothing by itself: the British magician Derren Brown made national headlines by (purportedly) playing Russian Roulette. That hardly makes him an artist.

So is it art? Art—as the media recordings played to waiting attendees were desperate to make clear—is subjective. The question that should be asked is: is it good art? I couldn’t help but concur with one journalist I spoke to, who called Pettet’s work somewhat “immature”. It’s certainly one way to describe mirrors covered with semen, crudely-painted paintings of blowjobs or the biting political satire that was “David Cumron”.

As for the performance itself: it’s just a shame it was performed better forty years ago. The Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic debuted Rhythm 0 in 1974, sitting totally passively for six hours whilst the audience did to her whatever they desired, with a selection of objects ranging from roses to knives. Abramovic’s clothes were ripped off, her hair was cut, she had rose thorns stuck in her stomach and even a loaded gun pointed at her head, prompting other audience members to defend her. Pettet sucked some bananas.

Even ignoring the fact that Clayton Pettet is decades late to the party, similar performances have been put on recently. Notorious plagiarist and smelly actor Shia LeBeouf sat inert in a Los Angeles art gallery early this year, bag over his head, as members of the public were admitted one-by-one to “view” him and interact with a range of objects.

Yes, Clayton Pettet got strangers talking about male virginity and art. But the notion that virginity is socially-constructed and a fundamentally heteronormative concept is hardly groundbreaking.

At the beginning, there was a real air of mystery and oppressive authority, as faceless assistants ordered around bewildered attendees. One girl said she felt “dominated” by the atmosphere. But with indeterminable waiting, the whole edifice eventually slid into farce.

It’s certainly art. But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.