Clayton Pettet made headlines all over the world this week with the announcement of a new performance piece, Art School Stole My Virginity (or as tabloids and blogs put it: "Anal virgin loses it for his art").
The Central Saint Martin student probably won't end up in a labour camp for re-education, as Chinese artist Cheng Li did after performing unsimulated sex acts at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Beijing, but there's little doubt that he's exposing himself, pretty literally, for the sake of art.
For Pettet, however, Art School Stole My Virginity is part of a long-running obsession into the gendered social norms and conservatism that underlies the way humanity approaches losing your V-card. Dazed talks to him about the controversy around his piece and how his parents are actually totally fine with it.
People form a negative connotation of what it means to be a virgin at my age
Dazed Digital: Take me back to the genesis of this project.
Clayton Pettet: I’ve been working with sexuality for a while – I worked on this piece a few months ago about the female orgasm. I’d been thinking all summer about my virginity and virginity in general, and it went together quite smoothly. For the performance piece itself, I don’t want to give anything away. But it will involve another performer. That’s all I can say about it.
DD: I’m assuming you are an actual virgin.
Clayton Pettet: Of course.
DD: Are you quite nervous about the performance?
Clayton Pettet: I’m nervous, I’m excited, my emotions are going a bit crazy at the moment. But I would definitely say I’m nervous, but in the same way an artist would be nervous about an exhibition – but on top of that I’ve got this whole other thing to think about.
Dazed Digital: So how did the media get wind of this?
Clayton Pettet: I don’t know how the Huffington Post heard about it, I was just emailing people about performance spaces, and I think that’s how they caught wind. I never spoke directly to any of the tabloids. The quotes of me saying I expect a “raving audience” – that’s been glamourised to make me look like a pretentious artist.
DD: What is it about virginity that interests you so much?
Clayton Pettet: It fascinates me how the value of a virgin has changed. People form a negative connotation of what it means to be a virgin at my age: “Oh, you’re 19 why haven’t you lost your virginity?” Back then you were valued more if you were a virgin, especially if you were a girl. That’s what fascinates me about it, the value of the word ‘virginity’ and how it can dictate what people think of you.
DD: That’s kind of what’s happening now, though.
Clayton Pettet: Exactly! To see this all happening, it kind of proves my point about virginity and sex. Especially because people are differentiating behind a gay virgin and heterosexual – for me, sex is sex and it’s more of a mental state. People are separating gay sex, making it kind of seedy – some of the pieces covering me have titles like "Gay Live Sex Show" – it’s completely separating sex from the norm and insinuating that it might not be normal.
DD: Could anyone come and watch?
Clayton Pettet: You have to be over 18 and the tickets are free. You register online if you want to come and see it. I’m going to research who’s coming to see it though, I don’t want it to be a collection of perverts. That’s exactly what I’m not going for.
DD: Will it be recorded?
Clayton Pettet: By another artist and photographer. But nobody else in the audience will be allowed to make videos or have videocameras.
DD: What's the reception been like from other Saint Martins students and your tutors?
Clayton Pettet: It’s been mixed, but it’s been mixed everywhere. I kind of expected that. CSM is a great uni to go to because we get free reign as to what we make our practice about. But obviously people aren’t going to like it, even at art school.
DD: Did you expect this much media attention?
Clayton Pettet: No, but it’s amazing. I like it because people are talking about contemporary art again. Art, for me in London, has become a bit dry. You have the same artists, you get huge artists getting paid the same massive cheque to present in London again and again. I’m glad people are talking again.
DD: A common reaction to your performance seems to be “oh, art’s just run out of ideas”.
Clayton Pettet: I believe there’s so much more to do, I don’t think we’ve nearly run out of ideas. I’m doing this piece for me, I’m not doing it as a gimmick, I’m not doing it for press. The reason I’m doing interviews is so I can make myself clear that I don’t want celebrity status or money. I just want to do this art piece, I don’t mind how or where I do it, I just want it to be done.
DD: Have you told your parents?
Clayton Pettet: My parents know everything about the performance. They’re fine with it.
DD: So, are you going to regret this in ten years' time?
Clayton Pettet: No, I don’t regret much anyway. I thought about it for a lot of time before I even made it as a project. I thought about all of the things that could go wrong. But for me, as an art piece, it’s going to be well done.
You can register for tickets to view Art School Stole My Virginity here: artschoolstolemyvirginity.tumblr.com
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing