Ann Liv Young as Sherry Vignon from Joe Pan on Vimeo.
This video was shot in December, 2011 at the Louis B. James gallery in the LES of New York City, during what was deemed a retrospective slash holiday special by performance artist Ann Liv Young’s infamously in-your-face character, Sherry.
(Why write about this performance a year later? Because I’m a pretty busy person, & because I needed to let this piece, however light it may read, stew a bit. I’m not setting out to make a grand statement about the work of Ann Liv Young; these are a few observations on a performance that stuck with me, which I think speaks to its resilience as a work of art. Also, it interests me in the way real world events might carry themselves into fiction, as Sherry is a true character.)
The event was entitled “Sherry is Present,” a slanted homage it seems to Marina Abramović. But where Abramović sat quiet & still across from her participators, Sherry gets up in your grill, belligerent & unavoidable. The audience reaction, though, strangely mirrored how audience-participants react to the work of Abramović. Some people leave feeling like they’ve just experienced something profound & authentic. Some are moved to tears. Some find the whole thing ridiculous. But everyone, you can be sure, will have an opinion.
In the video above you will see Sherry do several things of note, for which I’d like to provide some context. 1) Sherry will sing the song “Dead and Gone” (T.I., featuring Justin Timberlake). 2) While face-humping a fan, Sherry will bring down a ledge above him. Resting on that ledge was, along with various other Sherry artifacts, a large stoppered jar full of her urine. 3) Sherry will, at one point, refill the jar with urine in front of her audience. 4) Sherry will call onlookers passing by the large gallery window “a bunch of cheap-ass niggers” for not paying to watch the show. Audience members will cringe & laugh. The video will end.
Sherry was singing “Dead and Gone” for a man whose father had recently died. The entire holiday performance was centered around the idea that brutally honest discussion can set you free. Sherry is a character that will say or do anything to provoke a viewer into action. Most wilt under her scrutiny. At first, she reaches out to her participants with a delicate urging, mic in hand, a few feet from your face, in front of everyone. At times, she’s a real sweet talker with genuine southern charm, exuding warmth & strength. But what keeps the average viewer/participant at bay, & nervous at first about sharing with this woman anything of value (to be used against them perhaps), is Sherry’s overwrought style & appearance, her heavy makeup & what feels like a latent, explosive violence waiting in the wings—evidenced by manic bursts of karaoke, manic speeches, & a seemingly crazed, impetuous need to involve her captives in the discussion of capital H honesty.
It’s no wonder then that Sherry has a history of angering people with her antics. On this particular night, near the beginning of the performance, Sherry engaged a pissed off woman who believed Sherry had singled her out for slow torture. Sherry continued to ask the woman why she was being so defensive, pointing out that her body was curled in a defensive position, that her tone was defensive (as I remember it), wondering aloud why such a person would continue to attend the show, or show up in the first place? Sherry urged the woman to speak her mind, refusing to drop the subject. The woman eventually rose & left, taking her friend with her, but not before giving Sherry what she demanded, which was her honest take on the experience. It was not a flattering take, but it was honest. & so Sherry was satisfied.
A Sherry there is that does not love a wall.
Conversely, as the night went on, attendees (what were we, exactly? witnesses? viewers? participants? actors? enablers? We sat in a gallery that became a stage with us on it) grew more comfortable with Sherry & began sharing their own experiences, real life stories of pain & pleasure that reduced other listeners to giggles & yes, genuine tears, executing what I believe was Sherry’s ultimate goal: a holiday catharsis. This was, after all, Sherapy. Something about us needed fixin’, & right quick. Sherry wasn’t interested in song & dance, she wanted purging. Thus the gentleman who told Sherry about his father’s passing & was rewarded with a soulful karaoke attempt at an empathetic eulogy. The strange pairing of words in a phrase like “soulful karaoke” is indicative of my theory of the performer’s intent, which was to create (& moderate, & modify) dualities. To set up an obstacle to reckon with, & reckon with it. Be it real, imagined, or the politician’s straw man, It was being dealt with. & because Sherry’s dual roles as profligate performer & homespun psychologist amused & terrified us by turns, our moods becoming more dependent on her shifting. Oscillating between repulsion & attraction, we took sides when we needed to. Nobody wanted to be an I, not in this space. We needed to be part of the Us, or risk embarrassment by Sherry, who we knew would not banish us but make an example of us, turn us into a Them, & needle us until we gave in or gave up.
When one walks into a gallery, does crossing the threshold automatically sign you up for whatever will transpire in that space? Artists sometimes speak of this as if it were a natural law or universal known, & not a formula for arranging one’s preclusive sensitivities: “Know what you’re getting into.” If the stage suddenly becomes the floor you’re standing on, too bad, participate or beat it. But then what is to be done with nonparticipants who refuse to leave? The rebels? The ones that shy away? Some of these folks, in moments of dread, create a performance within the performance, lashing out at the provocateur in hopes to be left alone, confirming their feelings with the audience, or joking their way into ultimate withdrawal. Sherry does not seem to allow for this. (Perhaps once, out of distraction.) The question remains, though: what are we to these performers if not simple resources? Does our sharing mean we were having a more authentic experience, or were we just feeding Sherry’s own desire to watch us squirm?
The man who’d lost his father, it should be noted, seemed genuinely pleased & thankful for, albeit a little embarrassed by, Sherry’s tribute. His smile never faltered throughout the rest of the performance.
Despite the abnormality of the situation, people were displaying sincere emotions & purporting to be genuinely touched. I certainly was. Despite being shadowed by a creepy Santa & various male minions in old-lady drag, Sherry had a way of focusing all attention on her, until she wanted that attention focused elsewhere.
When Sherry asks you for your honest opinion, it actually means “you honest opinion with a microphone shoved in your face, before a crowd of raw & sensitive individuals (being kept this way by an energized prison guard) who are poised to either relent or become confrontational. But, really, say what you sincerely feel.” Sherry is easiest on those who acquiesce. The confrontational are asked to explain themselves, undergoing a barrage of questions until they give her something she feels is authentic & real. Even if it’s nasty, or attacks her, Sherry respects “the real.” Not the actual. Not necessarily the truth, but the “real” of the moment—which is more or less a confessional sort of response that lies somewhere between “the unfiltered genuinely expressed” & “the case.” The first words we hear from Sherry comes from the song she’s singing: “Lemme kick it to you right quick, man. Not on some gangsta shit, man, on some real shit.” A question Sherry is always posing is: “Where is the real shit?” It’s a good question. A second unavoidable question during the performance is: “Who here has the power?” And one’s response is always: “You do, Sherry.” & in most cases, this is true. If Ann Liv didn’t excel in fully embodying her character, Sherry would not be able to hold you. The single most powerful act any viewer is ever capable of is walking out on a performance. (I would urge you not to; the show sustains itself.) The unseen performance artist is a word stripped of its speaker. The audience brings the real.
& so we shared. & perhaps because telling a story about yourself helps you share in the feeling of having power, or because Sherry’s eyes & those of your peers tell you that you have done right, you are relieved. The mic is taken from your face & you feel better. Happy holidays.
During our sharing, people wandered in off the street. They were actually being coaxed in by a woman standing near the door. The gallery space had crept out onto the sidewalk, & into the lives of people on their way to dinner & drinks. At one point, several men wandered in (I believe one admitted to being on Ativan or Adderall & drunk on beer—we’ll call him Adderall Guy) & began interrupting Sherry mid-performance for laughs. After Adderall Guy made a rude comment directed toward a participating audience member, who immediately broke down crying, Sherry interrogated the abuser until he began revealing details of his own life. He spoke of his own insecurities & failures, which led to an apology.
But that wasn’t enough for Sherry. She asked the man to take off his pants.
One question that remained with me following the show was whether Sherry is a hardass with a keen sense of persuasion, systematically breaking down the boundaries of her audience, or whether she’s an outright bully, demanding our full participation in this ritual of art (one couldn’t imagine Sherry in any sort of non-engaging meditative space). When we opened up to her, she made us believe we were part of the discourse, that what each of us said carried equal weight, & that what we were engaging in was a traumatic, public version of group therapy. Of course, this was never the case. Sherry controlled the space. The audience was participating on an unfair playing field. But so what? We took for granted that Sherapy was designed to help us, because it rhymes with therapy, & therapy is supposed to help us. Sherry never promised us anything. We began trusting her, & each other, with our feelings, which was perhaps a mistake. Or maybe that’s just what being a socializing human entails—sharing, with no promises. Sometimes you get a positive experience, sometimes a negative.
When the Adderall guy refused to take his pants off, though we could sense he was close, Sherry attempted a new line of persuasion by showing the man that nudity was accepted in the space. She asked two of her collaborators, Michael Guerrero & another man, dressed in holiday drag, to take their pants down, which they immediately did. The collaborators were part of the show, & thus quite familiar with what Sherry expected of them. But though Adderall Guy was aware of the momentary ridicule he’d experience undressing before the crowd, he might not have been aware, given his state of mind, of its lasting effects. For instance, there were many cameras present. Most of Sherry’s collaborators had cameras in their hands & were digitally recording the event, & one must assume that at some point the videos will pop up online or be sold to a viewing public. The Adderall Guy, as any witness would attest, would have disrobed of his own free will, in a gallery space, which as a venue could have had him arrested, & that choosing to participate in this way was not the responsibility of the gallery or that of Sherry but only of himself, & that his naked error (or drunken, drugged antics) could be broadcast at any time without his given permission. But it is also important to realize that Sherry wanted this to be the case, was trying to talk him into this possibility, thereby extending the duration of his shame. This particular moment seemed an act of humiliation. This man had hurt one of the people Sherry had worked so hard all evening to manipulate into a place of true vulnerability, & he was going to pay for it. & that’s what we wanted, too, as the audience. We wanted to see the drugged asshole drop his drawers. If the bully wasn’t bullying us, what did we care who she was bullying? Was it so bad that she was bullying a bully?
Footage of the Adderall Guy naked will never see the light of day, because it didn’t happen.
The dramatic apology following the public shaming, sans nudity, was still an impressive win. Sherry was a lawyer, a caretaker, a lounge singer, a deviant, a therapist, a friend, a hound dog, a psychopath, & an ex-wife all rolled into one. A chimeric being with love in her heart, & perhaps more than a little sexual animosity. A person with a deeply fucked-up sense of convention, with an instinct to punish always simmering just below the surface of her desire to lend a hand. & whether they were enjoying themselves or laughing through the weirdness, everyone was enjoying the spectacle.
The gallery had an upstairs & a downstairs. Each floor showcased a variety of objects—shoes, fingernails, paintings, purses, dresses—artifacts of a cultural icon; the apotheosis of Sherry into a star of trash & camp: the Queen Tramp. The objects appeared framed in glass, kept in bottles, displayed behind velvet ropes. There was living room furniture, as if we were in a house within a gallery. Videos showed past performances. All of it was highly self-referential. Downstairs stood pink Christmas trees & a table set up for Sherry merch. I can’t recall what was for sale, but some part of me believes everything was for sale.
The urine that fell on the fan (I call him “fan” because I heard him expressing his love for Ann Liv’s work; he might even have been a friend) was several weeks old. It was, as Sherry hinted, putrid, an assault on the senses. Which made it all the more funny. It was only one of only two times during the performance that Sherry was caught a bit off-guard, & where Ann Liv Young possibly broke character. Sherry made up for the shift in power by refilling the container with her piss, as you can see, much to the moaning delight & laughter of the audience. In the video, the woman sitting next to the fan drenched by the urine is my wife. Wendy received a little bit of Sherry herself, some droplets on the sleeve of her coat, free of charge. Barring that not so wonderful moment, Wendy thoroughly enjoyed the performance, & saw Sherapy as a means of honest discourse.
Urinating in public is an act which Ann Liv Young’s become known for, best recalled by Art Fag City (in regards to Ann Liv’s now infamous PS1 show) & by Ann Liv herself in this interview with Idiom. She peed to retake control of the situation, & to ask us to follow her back into the magic space of our shared performance, which we did. During the crazier moments of performances like this one, people sometimes leave, & I’ve never understood why; I’m always excited by the prospect of what might come next: will the artist try to outdo herself, or reel the strangeness in a bit & give us all a breather?
Sherry, filled with power & the excitement of the night, thrown off balance by the unforeseen collapse of the ledge, managed one more massive shift of perspective by calling gawkers at the gallery window “a bunch of cheap-ass niggers.” In the video, watch the young black man do that thing with his glasses, the thing one does when somebody you enjoy suddenly says something way out of line. Beside him, a woman who I believe is a professor at Columbia University creates a mask of her smiling face & retreats inward. It’s a tough one to swallow, this person you’ve trusted to unite everyone in embarrassment & march them through a desert of honesty & deliver them to…not salvation, exactly, but perhaps to a place where one feels like one belongs to a community of survivors…has suddenly betrayed that trust & sent everyone off to their personal corners.
For some, I’d imagine, the off-hand statement killed the fictional dream we were experiencing as a group: it broke the spell. Racism is a line toed by few performers regularly save perhaps comics & even they can lose careers over it, when the line between performer & performance breaks down into actual hate speech. (Michael Richards comes to mind.) But more people make their careers in its cringeworthy parody (Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Daniel Tosh), upsetting the conceptual space between perceived & actual, which leads to a slew of obvious questions: Can Sherry get away with this? Does her parody of a crass, off-balance, trailer-park raised Southern healer hold up? It certainly wouldn’t be beyond the realm of her character to say such a thing. & yet later, after the performance, the young black man asked Sherry why she felt comfortable using such language (Bear in mind, it has been a year since this happened, so I’m not sure if the young man asked Sherry about the word outright, or if Sherry asked people what they liked/disliked about the show, & he responded). Sherry’s response was that she shouted the common but still jostling go-around word “nigga,” a word ushering from the general vernacular of the songs she’d been singing (again, this is paraphrasing), at which point both the gallery owner & Michael Guerrero (Ann Liv’s co-producer/husband/bullshit detector) pointed out that no, Sherry had pronounced it distinctly as nigger, not nigga. At which point Sherry apologized. Or Ann Liv did. Certainly one of them was present. Her argument amounted to being in a headspace where people wouldn’t bat an eyelash at the use of the word “nigga,” & that any slip of the tongue was just that. Which I believe was the case; she seemed uniquely vulnerable at that moment, & Sherry was so open to everything & everyone that any attack of racism would seem to me unfounded. One could argue that Sherry is a secret racist, or that she has a subconscious or latent racism, but then who are we talking about now, Sherry or Ann Liv? Can there be a subconscious racism within a character that doesn’t exist for the artist? (If you’re a behavioral analytic studies PhD candidate looking for a thesis project, you’re welcome.) & why would Sherry apologize for this & not for pulling up her skirt & rubbing her vaginal juices all over the gallery window, much to the disgust of gawkers & winter-night passersby? Was it a mistake in the heat of the moment? Was Sherry just a fucking nightmare of a human being? Was she a delusional woman regressing at times to a violent childhood? Was she yanking our chain? Could any part of the experience be described as genuine, the real deal?
After sitting through a performance, its natural to wonder just how far removed Ann Liv is from her testy, inviolable character. Quite a lot, I’d imagine, as I don’t suspect Sherry’s personality would keep her on the streets for long before she was institutionalized. Ann Liv has talked a bit about the real her peeking through her characters, though, & if you’re up for a fascinating meta-interview, I’d suggest watching the video of Ann Liv interviewing Sherry.
It also bears mentioning that the very person one might expect to defend Sherry’s actions or come to her aid, Michael Guerrero, patently refused to, because that’s not what the show is about. It’s not what Sherry is about. Sherry is about peeling apart the reality of a situation. Sherry is about honesty. After confronting her, the young black man in the glasses laughed it off, saying he knew she wasn’t racist, but that it had jarred him, if only briefly. Earlier on, it should be said, Sherry had grown visibly excited & proclaimed her happiness to see people of color in her audience. (She also gave a shout out to any lesbians in attendance & sang a song for them.) This does not absolve her of anything, though it does speak to her wishing to make everyone aware that her desire to help is all-encompassing. People will come to their own conclusions, but by the end of the show, those waiting to speak to Sherry seemed unfazed by the incident.
So many boundaries, so little time.
As the magical truth-telling time faded, folks spent the final minutes praising the performance for what it was—a truly unique, nerve-wracking experience with implications for larger social change. I’m not saying one should seek out enlightenment in group therapy sessions led by a sociopath, but it is remarkable how some of our more basic core values are now being expressed by characters residing at the fringe. Think Dexter from the self-titled TV series, or Tony Soprano, or Rorschach from The Watchmen, or Jack Bauer from 24. We see who we are through their view of us, because they are us, exploded. We say we want brutal honesty, until it hurts, but when we get it, the way that Sherry gives it, we may not want it ever again. When we find wrong in others, the same wrong that may exist in ourselves, we shame them anyhow. Because who doesn’t deserve it. These creepy little dualities that exist within us, how they itch so.
So there’s some context. I asked both the gallery owner & Mr. Guerrero if I could use my iPhone footage for a blog post & they said it was fine. I hope one day to see the entire performance again online. It might just show that how I remember it is not how it happened at all, & I’ll accept that. Things change after a year. We further privatize experience until it becomes a trigger for nostalgia or something useful, & this experience falls into the latter category for me. Maybe I’ll use my idea of Sherry as a character in a short story or something. Only time will tell.
If you’d like to see Sherry live, she’s been traveling around in her Sherry Truck, billed as “a mobile Sherapy office, a sculptural coffee shop, and a boutique filled with memorabilia from Sherry’s world” by MoMA: PS1.
Or would you Skype with Sherry? Or experience Sherapy in your living room? Check out Ann Liv’s website here for more details.
If you, dear reader, actually book a Sherry therapy session, please drop me a note & let me know what it’s like. I’d very much be interested to hear about it.
End matter: Disclosure: I’ve met Ann Liv at various times in my life. Before New York, I knew her as a modern dancer attending the North Carolina School of the Arts; I lived across the street from NCSA with a former girlfriend & they took a lot of the same dance classes. Ann Liv & I were often at the same parties & spoke on occasion, but I never really got to know her well. I’ve seen her perform here in New York several times, once with live bunnies. When her & the two other women on stage began singing, the rabbits began shitting. Ann Liv dropped a finger under her skirt, played with herself a second, & took a whiff. Even as the audience in the warehouse roared, she appeared unshaken, nonplussed, & as I watched her watching the audience, I was struck by the idea that this performance wasn’t being done for us. We were performing for her.
If I remember correctly, the day of the NCSA graduation, Ann Liv, wearing a tutu or a skirt, I can’t recall, walked across the stage to receive her diploma. Just before she reached her spot, she leapt up in the air & mooned the entire audience. There were a good many people laughing, but there were just as many people around me saying “Jesus Christ why.” All I remember wondering was whether or not she got away with it, or if she was reprimanded.