Art Papers  

more feature articles from September/October 2012 issue:

Hosted in Athens:
A Social (re)Generation

by Stephanie Bailey

Ann Liv Young:
Fabulosity in Analysis

Text / Natalie Bell

Ann Liv Young is an artist. Ann Liv Young is a dancer. Ann Liv Young is a choreographer. Ann Liv Young is a mother. Is an auteur. Is a peddler. Is an agent provocateur. Is a femme fatale. Is Cinderella. Is Snow White. Is Sleeping Beauty. Is Martha, is George Washington. Is a mermaid. Is Freshy. Is Sherry. Is Sheriqua. Is your neighbor. Is your nemesis. Is not sorry.

In 2010, David Velasco, then editor of Artforum, noted wryly of Ann Liv Young's character Sherry, "If Sherry were any good, she wouldn't have to insult other people."1 Other critics were less sensitive to her blows but dismissive just the same. Alastair Macaulay, dance critic at the New York Times, panned her performance of "Cinderella" (also 2010) at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn as "inept" and "inefficient" (the latter on account of Cinderella's failure to shit on cue and the ten minutes of audience encouragement that ensued). "Nothing was interesting," he wrote. A few paragraphs later: "Its first 95 minutes demonstrated many layers of failure." And the kicker: "Principally, Ms. Young lacks technique." Among the "problems" he cited, Young had to "consult notes, repeat passages to get them right and tell her audio technicians to change things."2 What these critics fail to grasp, however, is that Ann Liv Young is not unaware of what she's doing, whether as Sherry or Cinderella or herself. It's not that she's unrehearsed, or unprepared, or least of all, that she's an amateur. With years of performance, dance, and choreography experience, Young most certainly knows what she's doing, even if her audience doesn't. What makes her work distinct is that her technique is an anti-technique, and the rigor of her performances is almost entirely psychological.

Ann Liv Young, pre-performance portraits of Cinderella at Melkweg, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2011 (photo: Michael A. Guerrero)

The year 2010 was something of a breakout year for Ann Liv Young and is most certainly an introduction to Sherry, her ever-prolific character. In late February, she secured near-celebrity status in a performance art event whose wreckage somehow managed to make waves in mainstream media outlets—the now infamous Brooklyn is Burning performance event at MoMA PS1. It seems that even people who don't know Ann Liv Young by name have registered her role in this incident and can readily retrieve their evaluation (typically negative), as if fishing to reveal a prize booger from a dirty tissue in their pocket of rumors. Dozens of blogs recounted the incident, and infinitely many comments were posted, each of which proposes narrative amendments and chimes in with emotionally charged interpretations.

A composite account goes something like this: Ann Liv Young entered as her character Sherry after a set by artist Georgia Sagri, who was then performing a character named Jane. "Jane" paced around repeating into a microphone and lip-syncing over her own repeated feedback that Georgia couldn't make it, but her name was Jane and she had an announcement to make. When Sherry arrived, her thick Southern drawl mingled with her vulgarese as she asked the audience what they thought of Sagri's piece, lamenting the exodus that had resulted, and drawing out shouts from those remaining. As the antagonism and confrontations escalated, Sherry responded by lifting her skirt and peeing in a cake pan. "Does anyone wanna buy this?" she asked. Sherry continued to insult the previous performance until someone in the audience yelled out, "Eat my pussy, bitch!" to which Sherry replied with a cool, "You are a smart ass." The exchange intensified until Sherry's taunts became threats. "Oh shit, look at you girl! You wanna fight?" she screeched. "Cause I'll rip your bloody ass right in half in front of everybody and then we'll have blood-splattered walls. Wouldn't that be some art! Wouldn't that!"

The room went quiet and Sherry started to cue up a song but was having difficulty. Then, hastily removing her clothes, she began masturbating and singing a cover of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You." Sherry returned to her feet and noted that she had finally driven out her spontaneous adversary. "I hurt her feelings," she noted. "She left?" Putting her fur coat back on, she seemed to backpedal. "Ok, so, that wasn't my intention. That was rude of me," she said. The audience laughed, clearly not compelled by Sherry's sincerity. Sagri returned, still infuriated and shouting. Young attempted to calm her. "OK, deep breath," she said sardonically. "This is an art museum. It's really about freedom of expression." And then directly to Sagri, "I pay $80 a week for therapy, maybe she should look into that."

Ann Liv Young, portrait of Sherry for 2012 calendar, 2011 (photo: Michael A. Guerrero)

As Sherry began to put her skirt back on, the power and lights were cut. The audience, a bit bewildered, couldn't be sure whether this was part of the performance. Slipping on her pumps, but never out of character, Sherry delivered one more homiletic but questionable nugget before her departure: "Art is sometimes about confronting women and other people who are not as strong as me and you." In the video documentation of the event, Sherry exits huffing and striding into PS1's old school hallway, complete with all the adrenaline of an unrepentant teen marching toward the principal's office.

It was clear to the audience when the next performer came on in darkness that the power outage was not temporary; it was indeed a response to Young's performance and not part of it. For the weeks following the incident, bloggers cried censorship and questioned PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach's decision to abruptly cut the power, debating whether he or Young was to blame. It's admittedly easy to look at a performance like this and not know what to make of it. Certainly, most people seemed to forget the primary note: that Young was performing a character. Mainstream media got a rise out of what they could interpret as censored masturbation-as-art, but most witnesses to the event would agree that it wasn't the masturbation that made the institution and its decision-making bodies uncomfortable so much as it was the mercurial-on-the-edge-of-maniacal Sherry, and the general hypertension that she distributes indiscriminately. Of course, those who knew Young's work could not have been shocked in the least by this performance—in previous performances she had rolled around naked in her dog's ashes, masturbated with turtles, poured urine over her head, and stuck leftover pork up her vagina (not all at once, though I don't doubt she's capable). Not to mention her penchant for provoking and explicitly insulting her audience. The only surprise in the situation seemed to be that she was invited to come perform her deconstruction of rules in a museum, and that among those likely to become uncomfortable was the museum's director. Ann Liv Young may not be predictable, but she is formulaic—and as Sherry, she's just downright opportunistic.

Sherry is, of course, just a character, but Sherry is also very real. Her actions are actual occurrences, and as we know from the PS1 show, Sherry's artillery and its aftermath are tangible and quantifiable. Her makeup, usually impressively caked and bright, lies somewhere on the face-paint spectrum between crazy auntie and clown, but it is not imaginary. Sherry is faux but familiar, and her interaction with the audience is as sincere as it is not. Sherry is a Southern woman who wears as many hats as she wears old dresses and bright, shoulder-padded suits. In her early shows, Sherry was a less fixed character, available to enter into any scene and brazenly engage the audience in what was likely to become a confrontational manner. Sherry tours, Sherry peddles her services, Sherry sells. Sherry gives you what you don't want and feigns otherwise.

Ann Liv Young, performance still from Sherry Truck, Truck Yeah Festival, 2012 (photo: Michael A. Guerrero)

In theory, Sherry exists to offer advice. As a personality on stage with a microphone, she's like a hybrid of Oprah and Jerry Springer born under the sign of Divine. There's the soapboxing of Southern preacher, the improvised persuasion of Home Shopping Network saleslady, the arrogant swagger of a motivational speaker, and the aggressive inquisition of an investigating detective. Yet Sherry is down-to-earth, hard-working, entrepreneurial, and quite proud of how un-elite she is (she has, in performance, claimed not to know what the word "psychodrama" means). In fact, if she weren't on such a taboo-breaking rampage, Sherry could almost pollinate the Tea Party with her befittingly fashioned "Kohl's woman" populism and dictator-as-diplomat act, and, without compunction, sling some serious mud and turds. Her merciless mix of sweetness and rage is wholly unsettling. Sherry is an empowered contradiction. Sherry is gunpowder in a box of chocolates.

And then there's the pop-heavy karaoke routine that runs throughout Young's work. Sherry, an identifiable character who appears to be a genteel but frank middle-aged lady, will suddenly remove one of her gloves to cue up her MacBook and play hip-hop star (often Kanye West), bouncing aggressively and shouting into her microphone. Or maybe she'll offer a ballad, or a serenade (Bill Withers is a favorite). The singing seems mostly to function as reminder that this is performance and not just a personality-driven take on communal talk therapy, but in Young's non-Sherry performances, it also juvenilizes the works in an intentional way. As one of her other characters (Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, for instance), Young gets to act like a teenager again—but the singing routine fits less with Sherry's character than it does with the fairy-tale princesses. Where it does work for Sherry is primarily in contributing to how she can draw out reactions from the crowd, whether by explicitly provoking through a special dedication or just by deliberately diverting and d isorienting—a kind of scramble that leaves the audience wondering what deviation will follow.

Ann Liv Young, Sherry with clients in front of the Sherry Truck (painting by James Gortner), Truck Yeah Festival, 2012 (photo: Michael A. Guerrero)

Sherry's opportunism is advanced by exactly this kind of improvisational subterfuge and psychological dexterity. Through the course of her performances, the hyper-expectant audience doesn't know what's coming, but they can be sure that the hypothetical boundaries between audience and performers will disappear. With house-of-cards sets that are often as kitschy as they are infirm and scrappy, Young brings her audience into a playhouse that becomes a funhouse—a funhouse, that is, if you're having fun. Her performative antics aren't for everyone, but I'm willing to assert that an understanding of what the work is can be arrived at only with courage and well-established bearings. Unlike a lot of performance art that seeks to situate itself at the edge of human tolerance, Young's work exists not merely to determine who can stomach the shock or schlock or to test the audience's patience. Young wants to take her audience to a point of total discomfort and fear, and then challenge them to withstand and overcome it. That's where her work really exists, but that's also where Young (and especially Sherry) gets behind the wheel and puts the audience in the backseat. Without an audience, Sherry is just a thumb at the side of the road.

Ann Liv Young, performance still from Sherry Revival Tent, 2012 (photo: Michael A. Guerrero)

Of the PS1 performance, Young said in an interview that the artists in the audience who were most engaged (and also most enraged) with Sherry during the performance had, without realizing it, become part of the show: They were "essentially making my show for me, and I was just the editor or the sculptor."3 Part of Young's goal, particularly with Sherry, is not to use the audience as a parasite or puppeteer would, but to use them as a medium or a vehicle. Young is clearly interested in unsanctioned negotiations of power. She wants her work to do more than just disturb or alarm, she wants it to demand something of everyone in attendance. Specifically, she wants them to be responsible for the people they are and the choices they make. She wants them to own up to their fears, their delusions, their false judgment, their shortcomings, and their buried secrets.

Sherry primarily wants to reveal trauma, but when she must, she'll settle for unveiling shame and anything previously undisclosed. Everything that comes before that in a Sherry show is just preamble, and in a sense, until a real and dreadful tension is achieved, nothing really happens. Which is also to say, if you leave before you've held the mic and sweated with fear and blushed with shame or anger, or all of the above, you may as well have stayed home.

Ann Liv Young, performance still from Cinderella at Brut, Vienna, Austria, 2010 (photo: Michael A. Guerrero)

Compared to many of Young's other previous performances, Sherry is further from mainstream or even more experimental dance, but it's also possible to see the deep psychological command of Sherry as a kind of choreography. (David Velasco also noted Sherry's control and ability to choreograph the psychodrama in the PS1 incident.) Much like a dancer practices a strict adherence to form, Sherry never loses control. She's also hard to resist. It's not that she's that wildly charming, though she has a sizable and international following. It's more that she won't let anyone back down, or bullshit his way out, or even escape. There's a kind of testing that goes on with Sherry. At the root of her aggression is an interest in inspiring a productive discomfort and fear in her audience. The goal, Young says, is that they overcome their fear, but this usually means that they must expose themselves, emotionally and usually publicly.

The first Sherry performance I attended was in December 2011, at the opening of her first solo gallery show, Sherry Is Present, at Louis B. James. In the gallery basement, Sherry had set up her kitsch-filled homestead and invited everyone, but especially couples, to come for a "Sherapy" session ($75 per hour) and also offered a Holiday Masturbation Workshop for Women ($25 for a group session). The opening performance was pretty tame compared to Sherry's usual shtick; there were few open insults, no defecation, no masturbation, and no nudity, except for Naked Guy Tommy D., a local nudist, poet, and Young groupie, whose startling presence is regularly sanctioned by Young and her hosts. Sherry worked the crowd, and the anticipation was high. Maybe she would pee, or maybe there would be foodstuffs rubbed and poured over naked bodies.

Ann Liv Young, character study for Cinderella, Ann Liv Young as Sherry/Cinderella (left) and Liz Englander, 2010 (photo: by Michael A. Guerrero)

Instead, Sherry was mostly friendly and kind, although of course she was only interested in hearing people's problems. A volunteer would offer up a problem, and if it was serious enough, real enough—no commuter complaints—Sherry would go deeper with that person, talking them through it, and helping them propose a plan of action, perhaps with feedback from others in the audience, or perhaps from her technical assistant and videographer Thomas (Young's real-life husband, Michael Guerrero). Toward the end of the performance, I raised my hand and bumbled my way through a not-very-serious problem until, before I knew what was happening or how it was happening, Sherry had me detailing my sex life and masturbation habits to a roomful of strangers, which felt exactly like dreams in which you suddenly realize that you (and you alone) are naked and have been for some time. Flushed and clammy, I realized that dodging Sherry's intimate audit would lead me to an even more merciless grilling, so I yielded accordingly, which is about as precarious a move as any. In the end, however, I came out unscathed. I declined Sherry's invitation to work as an assistant in her masturbation workshop (graciously but strategically—that is, on account of the job's meager compensation rather than my discomfort).

Sherry likes her subjects to be vulnerable, and as a therapist she encourages the same kind of self-exposure that she seeks in performance. But when I went in for "Sherapy," I noticed a big difference: While the performing Sherry gets angry when people offer up problems of only slight significance, the Sherapy-Sherry tugs at these slight issues, impressively eager to unravel something deeper. It's possible that this is just a variation of a car mechanic's opportunism—a way of securing serial sessions—and certainly a strategy I wouldn't put beyond Sherry. Or maybe Sherry just doesn't believe in a quick oil change. What was more curious to me was how Sherry seemed much less performed during my Sherapy session. She was not bursting into a Kanye song, or peeing, or tearing off her clothes to masturbate. She didn't scream at me, or at Thomas. Instead she was listening intensely, nodding sweetly, asking questions. She was performing, of course, but her conduct was all character and no theatrics. I left Sherapy feeling strangely buoyant, but also beguiled. Do I really need to be more emotional? Was my childhood trauma really as profound as Sherry made it out to be? Probably not, but I realized how Sherapy is both a whim and a coup for the ever-glib Sherry and Ann Liv Young. With a dramatic modification in performance, Sherry distorted expectations again, yielding both greater possibility and greater vulnerability. And, as always with Young's work, it leads to more speculation and suspicion. Is this art? Is this dance? Is this even good? Or the most challenging question: Is this feminist? (Answer: Yes, according to performance studies scholars, at least one of whom propose that indeed Sherry's "performance of ecstatic self-commodification" and "overidentification with a particularly saccharine image of capitalism might be construed as feminist."4)

Ann Liv Young, Nails, worn by Sherry in various performances, 20082010 (photo: by Christy Pessagno)

I have a feeling that Sherry's "self-commodification" is at least as much pragmatic as it is "ecstatic," and probably has more to do with making ends meet as a performance artist than tickling her fans in academia. Either way, she's still got a lot to offer, and isn't slowing down, even while expecting her second child. Young's latest production (made possible in part through a Kickstarter campaign) is her Sherry Truck, a "mobile sculpture and performance platform" in the style of a food truck, which began its tour in late July at NADA Hudson, offering Sherapy pink lattes, cake, and an array of Sherry merchandise—possibly including Sherry's used tampons, used fake fingernails, high heels, wig hair, and maybe even Sherry's urine and glitter-coated poop. This kind of performance mobility is perfect for Sherry—what she thrives on is surprise, intrusion, and her own usual incongruity.

Beneath the generous glitter and makeup, what Ann Liv Young has successfully established is a radical dislocation of both art history and criticism in the sense that she is continually leaving us struggling to interpret anything definitively. There is a magisterial structurelessness in her work that we somehow can't collapse, and her strategies of indeterminism seem to mimic the very incomprehensible sensations that they create. For now, it doesn't matter if we love it or hate it, or if we call it avant-garde or just radical self-absorption. It's radiant, blasphemous, and dangerously seductive. Or as Sherry would say, "This is fabulosity at its best."

Ann Liv Young, Cupcakes, from world premier of The Bagwell In Me at The Kitchen, NYC, cupcakes and acrylic box, 2008 (photo: by Christy Pessagno)

1. David Velasco, "Drama Queen," Artforum, September 2010.
2. Alastair Macaulay, "This Time the Trouble Isn't Wicked Stepsisters," New York Times, September 6, 2010, p. C1.
3. "This Better Be Decent: Interview with Ann Liv Young," Idiom, March 5, 2010.
4. Anna Watkins Fisher, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University, has studied and written extensively on feminist performance art and Ann Liv Young's work.

Natalie Bell is a curator and writer based in New York. She is currently part of the research team for the 55th Venice Biennale.

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