“I am free all the time”: 13 questions for David Sherry by Clemens Wilhelm
It is remarkable, how easy it is to combine the image of a man pouring sauce over his head to the image of a man talking on the phone. I have never seen this combination before but it seems almost natural when you see it in your video „RED SAUCE BROWN SAUCE MANIA“. Do you know when you first made this combination?
I started to use sauce in performances a few years ago making works called „Red Sauce Spiral Jetty“ and „Brown Sauce Spiral Jetty“, spraying spiral jetties on the gallery floor. It was a lot of fun to make. It’s a great medium to use and looks effective. Red sauce is a lazy, greedy, plastic sugary sludge. I’m an addict. I always ask for it in expensive restaurants. Pouring it over my face seemed to fit some of the dilemmas I am in all the time regarding trying to meet and not meet people.
In the digital age, there is a quite ridiculous drive towards constant communication. Many people seem to be seriously addicted to their phones and social media. It becomes harder and harder to meet somebody without using a phone. Plans are made and changed constantly, and nobody seems to want to make decisions until the last moment. In your video you shout: „I am free all the time!“ Do you feel at home in this age of social media?
I’m trying to stop being on-line as much in a frittering mode and reading a bit more at the moment. I like visiting my parents who live in the countryside and have no Internet. It’s a great rest-bite when I am there, I try to keep that going when I come back to my own home in Glasgow but it quickly falls apart. In a way, I feel that I have been avidly trying to share my work with strangers for 16 years, and its ok now to cool off a bit on that. I try to resist putting things on-line immediately so that I can think them over myself. Social media encourages self-promotion and this is fine until it boils over into the main aim. It’s a balance. Being able to look at any artists work on-line is amazing though. At its best, social media is about connecting with people and finding out about what’s happening.
You once made a text drawing called „Artist Statement“ which reads: „I don‘t want to talk about it. I don‘t want to talk about it. I don‘t want to talk about it …“ But as an artist nowadays, you are often asked to explain yourself. How do you explain what you do to other people?
I should say that: I make things where I pour red sauce on my face while I lie on the floor shouting out excuses for not meeting up with other people. About 12 years ago, I cultivated a paragraph that kind of explained what I was doing, and then I had enough of that paragraph and went off-piste. My drawings and performances are statements about my work in themselves. Red Sauce Brown Sauce Mania doesn’t need explaining, it’s an example of an occurrence that takes place over and over each week for me. I like the haphazard approach, I can pull a good serious face when needed and it looks like I actually know what I am doing.
You have a very wide approach to art. I don‘t dare to attempt to sum up what you are doing – but to give some idea – over the last 15 years, you have performed pieces that involved you running for the bus, you avoiding eye-contact for a week, you dancing on coke, you singing the flashing LED-letters of kebab shop signs, you stuck inside of suitcases and paintings, you literally seeing the world through Tom Cruise‘s eyes, you having the „history of wrinkles in art“ painted on your face, you attempting to pay for meals you never had in restaurants, you turning into a lamp, you channeling the ghost of Jim Morrison, you auctioning off your ten fingers as artworks, or you having your teeth cleaned by a paid hygienist on a daily basis. These are performances for art audiences, for video cameras, or in public space. Some of them you present just as written statements or drawings, others you record on video or as photos. However different these works might come across in form, there certainly is a very unique style that connects all of them, which is very recognizable and certainly your own. Is it possible for you to describe the thread that runs through all of your works?
I have let ‘what my work is about’, wander off unleashed for years now, but that’s the fun of it. I like to ‘do and review, do and review’. I have made a lot of objective work and then I started to let my emotions into my work and it got messy.
I have been making decisions about art for a decent chunk of time now so that different things take on a similar tone. There’s an unconscious thing that you develop about what you want to achieve. I think my drawings are more focused on themes that I enjoy like the humour in a situation that are both important and meaningless at the same time. You step back from a common experience and take the context away, put the context back and it becomes funny.
I met a man in the village I grew up in and I said ‘Hello Pete, how are you?… I’m David Sherry’ and he looked at me and said ‘I wouldn’t have recognized you, David, not one bit, I would have walked past you!’ – I responded with ‘oh yeah, I have been living in Scotland for the past 16 years.’ – I suppose I have changed a lot in those years. SHIT!
Are you happy with video as a medium to record your performances? How important is the video as a final result in comparison to the live performance? What is the main difference for you between performing for the camera and performing for an audience?
A video document of a live performance is usually a bit of a let down. You spend weeks or even a few months on something and you perform it in a space and it looks like shit and you are nowhere. I think that’s where ‘setting up’ and ‘staging’ performance ideas to make video pieces is so useful. Many of my video works are a mix between a staged work and a live performance. If it’s a good recording, I call it an artwork. If it’s bad, I call it a document.
Things that seem simple are usually the hardest. Your works are quite simple in form, but they really grow on you when you experience them, and many layers of meaning unfold. How is your work process? Could you describe how for example „RED SAUCE BROWN SAUCE MANIA“ was developed? Is it the result of a long rehearsal period, or did you film just one take? As a viewer, I find it really hard to judge, if this is very well rehearsed or very well improvised? How rehearsed are your performances in general?
It’s a mix of scripting the work, going over it in my head, practicing it in my studio over and over and in the case of „Red Sauce“ I then performed it live twice in two different gallery spaces for events. At this point I knew the work really well. I like to have an idea of the script and actions learned – then I can try to improvise on top of this. Last year for a show at QPRC Glasgow I decided to make a video piece of the Red Sauce performance, so I asked a friend to video it. We took one take and went for a coffee.
Your work seems very inspired by everyday life. What are your main influences outside of art? Could you give an example of an artwork that has influenced you or made you want to make art?
Reading helps me a lot to switch off from art and then ideas come into my head, conversations with friends, the pub is also great, just the sense of hanging out and having a laugh. I love a good documentary on art, sport, social insight of some kind, and America is always a great backdrop. The ‘Storyville’ docs are great – the Lance Armstrong films were brilliant, those guys were a bunch of kids who were prepared to do anything. I have been playing table tennis on a team in Glasgow for the past 3 years and that has been a crazy experience. Jimmie Durham, throwing rocks at fridges and glass cases, is super. I have a few artists’ books I keep looking at like Chris Burden, Julius Koller, Louise Bourgeois, and Francis Alys. I like to flick through art magazines sometimes. I have recently been getting a lot from Matt Mulligan’s work, just from the computer screen. I have a great Martin Kippenberger film that I like to watch.
Have you ever made a work that did not have you at the center of it? Why do you think it happens that you always end up in the middle of it?
Today I tried to cancel my mobile phone because the contract is up and my phone is broken. It takes one month‘s notice to do this apparently. So they are charging me my standard fee for this month. That seemed odd. Being charged for something that is broken and out of contract so that you can stop being charged each month. A charge to stop being charged, fantastic. In my work I try to tell stories that highlight these normal experiences. I do mostly pull myself in to my work and then try to hop out of it again. I suppose I like to make work about my life and my thoughts. So it’s me doing something, mostly. I like performing as an artist over all but not in a Dali or Warhol way. I like to be an artist when I am making work, and that’s all. I’m part-time.
It is common knowledge that you should never explain a joke, because the joke will die in the process. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using humor in your work? What is the tool humor useful for?
I think humor draws people in and keeps them interested. I have always liked sketch shows and comedies. Creating something funny is really difficult. Comedy is a form of philosophy, for instance, that is looking at failure or a pointless endeavour, and how it can be worked and exaggerated. There’s a lot of material in contradictions of behavior, media and consumerism. Many of the works I make don’t have punch lines, they are just funny things that exist. I have tried a stand up comedy type of performance and it worked well in the context of art. I got some good laughs and strange looks but I wouldn’t try to be a comedian. I like being an artist who makes something funny once in a while.
When did you choose to become an artist? Did you have a different career plan before you chose to become an artist? Would you recommend it to younger people?
I really wanted to be an artist since I started to get good at drawing flowers and that was when I was 15. My great uncles were artists, and I would visit them in their sheds, and they would smoke and chat about their work. As an artist, I love traveling somewhere and meeting artists, and finding out about their work. It’s a bummer trying to earn money, but there’s a little hippy bubbling up inside me that says that artists are really important to the cultural outlook. Art isn’t about hoodwinking your neighbour out of a decent life, RIGHT ON.
Kids often remind grown-ups how ridiculous many of the rules are that govern everyday life. Kids are still good at shifting a normal activity into absurdity. They get a lot of joy out of exaggerations and out of the sheer distortion of reality. Why do you think most people lose this ability when they get older? Do you get inspired by kids?
Yes, I do, kids are always inspiring my work. Kids will sing a word and perform an action stretching the thing back and forward long note, short note, over and over, and I like to look at it and call it art. Kids TV is great also. I watch a lot of that with my kids and it’s been a great source of inspiration, presenters in star outfits and wearable letters dancing. I love all that kind of playful art. Yes, making art is best when you can feel the kid laughing inside. I really believe in that. As you grow up, you get this fixed idea of yourself but its good to mess with that a little.
At first glance some things certain individuals do appear to be mad. But often it turns out that what they do is actually much more sane than what all the others are doing. I think many people have asked themselves: „Who is mad? Is everybody else insane, or am I insane?“ What interests you in the proximity of art and madness?
WOW, don’t ask me about the madness. Maybe art is all about that. I had a fright once and I learned a few lessons, being boring is great, I like boring. There’s nothing romantic about a mad episode. Keep it light and chat about the weather. It rained a little today but tomorrow it’s supposed to be nice and sunny. Jackson Pollock died in a car crash and he took another girl with him, he lived and worked in turmoil ploughing his emotions into his work. I’m part-time and once I fell off my bike carrying a painting in the wind. Recently, I was in the graveyard, and looking at all the graves, I noticed the plots, little squares with fences and grass or stones, organized and boxed up. It looked a bit silly but you have to make sense of it somehow.
Many cultures worship anarchic figures such as mad seers, or fools who speak the truth. Would you agree that some artists are fools who reveal a certain kind of truth? Would you see yourself as one of them?
I’ve never done well in subjects like Math, English or Accounts. My highest marks have always been in fooling around, so I worked at it and converted this talent for foolery into an art form. I have been working on a complex, sophisticated foolish paper for years now. I am the Einstein of fools. The paper reads thus far: Red Sauce, Brown Sauce over Face to the power of Screaming, Yes/No, I’m Free, Meeting, under Mania, Vacant to the power of everyday – Identity, Value, Responsibility + coffee, beer, bland XXX = I’ll call you, your having a laugh, X half.
David Sherry (*1974, Northern Ireland. Lives and works in Glasgow)
Sherry graduated with an MFA from Glasgow School of Art in 2000. He has had solo exhibitions in Mother’s tankstation, Dublin; Catalyst Arts, Belfast; Villa Concordia, Germany; Glasgow Museum of Modern Art and Tramway’s project space, Glasgow. Selected group exhibitions including ‘Generation’ at the Kelvingrove Glasgow, ‘RIFF’ Baltic 39 Newcastle, Film and video at BBC Scotland, ‘Grin and Bear It’ at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork and ‘One fine morning in May’ at GAK Bremen. In 2003, Sherry was selected to represent Scotland at the 50th Venice Biennale and his work is held in many collections including the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art.