“I am your anal virgin. You are my partner. Choose a banana.”
This was the moment I thought I had been waiting for, but I was terrified. My metrosexual front was crumbling; how far would I let myself go for art? I didn’t realize this was going to be quite so…interactive.
Clayton Pettet is naked apart from a pair of black undies; his body is daubed with graffiti saying things like NSFW and ANAL VIRGIN. Now he glares at me from 6 inches away; a fierce, fragile Syd Barrett waif. I can’t quite look him in the eye.
I fumble with the phallic fruit, wondering if I should choose one that won’t hurt him too much, and whether when, ahem, push comes to shove, I can do what I think I’m being asked. Ever the diplomat, I choose a medium sized banana from the massive pile, and return his gaze.
“Penetrate my mouth five times.”
Oh, ok. I can do this. I push it gently between his parted lips and feel his glare on my downturned face. I’ve never squirmed this much for art. I force myself to look up as I finish my final thrust, trying to make this one count.
He holds his hand out for the banana, taking it from me and breaking it in two. Then he throws it on the floor.
“Please leave now.”
Way to bruise a guy’s ego: Art School Stole My Virginity was clearly a lesson in audience chastisement. And so the event that prurient people across the world had prayed for and petitioned against played out like many first times; months of build-up and false starts, leading to a confusing and agonizing 5 minutes of action. And then came the disappointment and recriminations. My own deflowering was no less awkward, but at least I was drunk enough to pass out before I could cringe.
The setting was Theatre Delicatessen on Marylebone High Street, 5 minutes from Oxford Road’s rabid consumerism. The 120 strong queue was made up of 80% Chelsea art students, 15% press and 5% random stalkers. After having our phones and cameras confiscated at the door, we were corralled into a room and left for half an hour to fester in our own dirty minds. A looped video showed Clayton manhandling bananas to Serge Gainsborough’s oral sex anthem Les Sucettes (“I’m never going to be able to eat them again without hearing that song,” someone said after the tenth showing). In between, we listened to hysterical American news reports about the show.
Suddenly, Clayton enters with two boys and a girl, naked but for black briefs and white veils. He’s covered in the kind of frenzied press headlines that had appeared in the months leading up to the show: ’19 YEAR OLD ANAL VIRGIN’ and ‘TEENAGE SEX WHORE’. Clayton scrubs at the words with a heavy-duty brush, the room falling silent apart from the OCD scraping of bristles on bare flesh. The audience gasps as he scratches down into his underpants. Then the boy assistants hack at his hair while the girl applies black lippy: it’s a parody of TV makeover shows that reveals the self-destruction at their core. Clayton exits stage left, and an assistant barks at us boot-camp style: “If I give you a number, go and stand by the pillar.” 15 are picked out and lead off to an uncertain fate.
I wonder if it’s a slight not to be randomly chosen as the assistant’s veiled gaze passes over my head again and again. Finally, the imperious finger falls on me. “I hope we’re not all being slaughtered down there,” I joke to a guy in the queue with an infectious laugh. “Well, my friend came back up and wouldn’t say what happened, but she wanted to leave straight away. And she’s studying Porn and PR.” Does that course even exist? Whatever, the tension’s becoming unbearable.
We’re lead downstairs into a tiny room to wait with the almost-nude female assistant, sardines to the slaughter. Everyone ignores that fact that there’s a naked person in here with us; she’s just another element that adds to one enormous AWK. Another assistant barges in and beckons one person at a time. Then it’s my turn.
I’m lead to a chest-height ‘penetration booth’. “Enter”, the assistant orders, and inside sits Clayton with his pile of bananas…
Afterwards, I emerge blinking into a room full of paintings. “It feels like we’ve been ushered into the gift shop”, someone deadpans. His work is colourful and childlike; Fauvist figures with captions that manage to expose his inexperience while mocking our expectations. “When I was 13 I was desperate to be groomed,” it says in the corner of one self-portrait (with cock in hand). Faced with these unambiguous images, I’m no longer able to pretend I’m here for culture. As Clayton told Dazed afterwards: “They didn’t want an art piece, they wanted to see me have sex”.
And so the art turned out to be us, or at least our anticipation. “It seems a bit early in Clayton’s career to make critics’ reactions the focus of his work”, complained the Telegraph’s Theo Merz a day after the show, but that’s precisely the point. The one-to-many direction of social media means that every young artist has an instant audience whether they like it or not. On this media stage, it’s virtually impossible to make art that ignores its global audience but apparently distasteful to embrace it.
Through this meticulously stage-managed non-event, Clayton successfully played off our competing urges to see and be seen against each other, and it was us not him who stumbled out into the West End evening having lost something. While I’m glad he didn’t do what I thought I wanted him to, I have to wonder whether he really emerged unscathed. I overhear that the first group were instructed to face-fuck him 10 times instead of my 5. It seems even this token abuse is real enough to hurt.
Artist John Bingham, who claimed Clayton had stolen his idea, called off his own rival show Art School Stole My Sexuality the day before after sage advice from his tutors:
“I have been well supported and advised that it would benefit my career as an artist not to go through with such an outrageous, pornographic and self-abusive performance”.
In an even wiser career move, Clayton Pettet made his show all about how far we would go, not how far he would. Working so hard for our pleasure was a painful experience, and that’s precisely how art can matter in an age of instant gratification.