Is This Art?

A fantastic article in The Sunday Sun on “brazen” Ben Ashton’s 2004 performance while at Newcastle University.

Best quotes include,

“The Church has always used the term self abuse for masturbation. I’d say it was self abuse, certainly in front of all these people.”

and

“I don’t really want to watch anybody masturbating, never mind somebody in a box.”

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A North art student raised eyebrows when he exposed his latest work, indulging in a sex act in front of an audience.

Brazen Ben Ashton gave the crowd an eyeful during the 10-minute display.

The 20-year-old aspiring artist also video-recorded the event to capture the reaction of the watching public on tape.

And he had to turn away Angel of the North sculpture Antony Gormley as there wasn’t enough room for him in the packed venue.

Ben said: “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

read the rest of the article below the cut

And he confessed that nerves got the better of him, making his performance at times less than convincing.

The second-year fine art student at Newcastle University built a three-sided wooden box and stood it against a wall, which acted as the fourth side.

He then sat on a chair in the middle of the box and began his performance, while looking at himself in a mirror.

Then 30 members of the audience took it in turns to peer at Ben through a viewing hole he had cut into the back.

They were able to look over the artist’s shoulder and see him performing in the mirror at the event two weeks ago.

Ben, of Jesmond, who conducted his performance piece at a secret location in Newcastle, said: “I took my clothes off and had to get myself aroused before I would let the audience in.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s not easy to perform, but I just had to try to think of erotic things.

“I sat down, facing away from the audience and then looked into the mirror and masturbated.

“People were behind the box, looking through the viewing window.”

He added: “It went on for 10 minutes. I didn’t want it to go on too long.

“I thought I was going to pass out. There was a halogen lamp lighting up the box and it was really hot.

“I had pins and needles and felt like I was hyperventilating ao I turned off the light and that was the end of the performance, I didn’t climax.”

The display featured two works of art, the “performance” masturbation piece and a video work showing his arm moving and people’s reactions in the mirror, titled Anti Climax.

Ben explained that he was exploring the concept of narcissism – abnormal self love – named after the character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection.

The art student said: “I thought to really make a comment about it, it would involve masturbating in front of a mirror. I’m interested in narcissism and people’s obsession with their bodies.

“You see it all around you, people are obsessed with their own image.”

Ben invited Antony Gormley – who was in the city to collect an honorary degree from Newcastle University – to watch the show but the queue was too large and Gormley missed out.

The student said: “I invited everybody myself. I wanted a range of people, friends and other artists. They all knew what was going to happen. “The audience first reacted with nervous laughter but then it turned into fascination. Most people just got used to it after they’d got over the fact it was me masturbating.

“Everyone said how powerful a piece it was. I wanted to see if it would create a stir.”

Ben – who also paints to a high standard – is interested in the human body and eroticism. His last work saw him being suspended naked from a frame, with each limb attached to a pulley system.

And he’s not particularly worried about upsetting his parents.

He said: “My dad’s an abstract artist and he’s pretty impressed. My mum’s an art teacher and she’s a bit concerned about me getting a reputation for the wrong reasons.

“But my tutors have all been great. They allow you the freedom to create.”

Performance’s mixed reviews

Ben’s performance art got a mixed reception from art experts in the region, but a leading Catholic figure described it as “self abuse”.

Father Terry Drainey, Rector of Ushaw College in Durham, said: “I certainly wouldn’t pay to go and watch.

“Is it artistically acceptable, never mind morally? Is that art? I would say that this guy needs an awful lot of help.

“The Church has always used the term self abuse for masturbation. I’d say it was self abuse, certainly in front of all these people.”

Watercolour artist Matthew Forster, who runs The Art Works gallery in Newcastle, said: “It sounds quite interesting. At least he’s pushing the boundaries and that’s what it’s all about.”

Carol Nunan, a printmaker from the Tynedale Artists Network, said: “It’s certainly different to printmaking. I’ve never been convinced by these performance artists, never seen the point.

“There’s a lot of ugliness in the world already. I don’t really want to watch anybody masturbating, never mind somebody in a box.”

But former sculptor Les Burn, of Washington, Tyne and Wear, reckoned it was done to shock.

He said: “It sounds to me like a student trying to find something outlandish. The sad thing is that it works, it’s a gimmick and people take notice. But it’s a bloody good laugh, I suppose.”

And Rebecca Pelly-Fry, of The Biscuit Factory, in Newcastle, revealed that artists have masturbated for their work before. The gallery supervisor told how Vitto Acconci lay beneath the floorboards of a gallery masturbating as folks wandered above in another eye-catching piece.

She said: “The idea is similar but all art comes from somewhere. Good on him for doing something a bit different up here. It’s certainly a good way to get yourself known.”

University to investigate

Newcastle University has confirmed it will be examining Ben’s public performance.

Mick Warwicker, Head of Communication at Newcastle University, said: “It’s not uncommon for students to display their art to an invited audience. The last one I went to was landscape watercolours.

“Artists have the right to freedom of expression but there are limits even for non-public displays.

“The university has a code of conduct which applies to all students and we will be investigating this matter to determine whether a breach has occurred.”

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