Ann Liv Young

Ann Liv Young talks about Sherry

From left: Lydia, Lovey Guerrero as Santa, and Ann Liv Young as Sherry. (Photo: Michael A. Guerrero)

Since graduating from Hollins University’s dance program in 2003, Ann Liv Young has riled and thrilled audiences with her performances. Integrating music, movement, and direct engagement, in recent years Young has begun to make work that leans more toward improvisation than choreography. Here the artist discusses her alter ego Sherry, the subject of a “mid-career retrospective” (in Young’s first solo gallery exhibition). “Sherry Is Present” opens at Louis B. James in New York on December 7.

“SHERRY” IS A TOOL that I made when I was pregnant. I thought, “How am I going to make art and support a child?” I decided that if I made something indestructible then I could do it. And it really is working, which is amazing. Sherry is indestructible. Her show cannot be ruined. There’s this idea in theater that we have to impress the journalists and that people have to like the performance. And Sherry’s just like, “Fuck all of you. This is my show.”

Sherry is clear and direct. She acts like a mirror to whoever she’s looking at and she wakes people up. If I were to go out onstage as myself and try to do what Sherry does, I don’t think it would work. I’ve learned how to communicate by pretending to be this other person. She’s a sculpture. And she’s so kinesthetic. She reels people in with her costume and movements. I studied dance for a long time, so I’m hyperaware of where I am in space—where my head is, where my pelvis is. I’m very particular about Sherry’s mannerisms. It’s not so much that I can’t say what I need to say as myself; it’s that I need Sherry to make people listen to what I have to say.

During my show at the “Politics in Free Theater” festival in Dresden in October, there was a woman who looked angry and totally put off. I asked her, “What’s wrong with you?” and her response to me was: “I feel sorry for you.”

“Oh, do you really?” I said. “I feel sorry for you. Why don’t you leave if you hate this show so much?”

“I have to be here for my job,” she said. “You need me.”

It turned out she was hinting that she was a juror for a contest I didn’t even know about, that awarded fifteen thousand euros to three of the sixteen artists in the festival. Had I known about the contest I definitely would have said I didn’t want to be part of it.

She became the crux of the show and I was really hard on her. The other jurors told me later that they were considering me for the prize until I pissed her off so much. But it was so important for Sherry to be able to speak directly to this woman and say, “What is wrong with this picture that you think that I need you? You need me, because I am helping you so much more than you’ll ever help me.” The art world is full of people that think that they have the authority to say, “This is good, this is bad. This is art, this is not. This is worth fifty thousand dollars, this is worth nothing.” Sherry goes deep into those problems and tries to tear them apart.

I used to make work that was so rehearsed I wasn’t living my life. My performances were so much about perfection and everything was choreographed, down to the blinking of the eyes. I would have dreams that the blinks would be off and I would flip out on the dancers. I realized that was not OK. So I started going in a different direction. I wanted to make a show that I didn’t have to rehearse, with no preparation other than me living in the world. And I’ve lived in the world long enough to know what I want to say. So all of the Sherry shows are pretty much improvised.

Sherry is a good person with good intentions. A big part of her work is helping people, and at Louis B. James she’ll be doing one-on-one and couples therapy. She’s throwing a tree-trimming party for old people, where Sherry will teach them how to trim their bush. And she’s doing a Christmas lecture and a post-Christmas performance dealing with holiday stress. If you didn’t get what you wanted you can bring in those gifts and exchange them for things that Sherry has, or for other people’s things. She’s also having a bake sale in front of the gallery where she’ll sell her homemade lattés and cakes.

Mostly she’ll be selling her sculptures, which consist of her used items—wigs, heels, nails, and tampons—in Plexiglas boxes. Sherry believes these objects are good for people. She gives people specific, personal instructions, like, “Take the top off of the box at 6 PM every night and smell the object. This will enlighten you to become a better person.” In some ways she’s like a traveling salesman, because she is a bit of a swindler. But she also really believes that her sculptures are tools to help people become better. They’re mementos of their experience with her and they’re her way of saying, “This experience is never going to leave you. I’m so important to you, whether you know it right now or not.” Because that’s the thing: Even when people hate the work, it still changes their lives. It’s direct and potent and like something they’ve never experienced, no matter how much they try to get away from it.