You may have seen him at the Bernie Sanders rally in Washington Square Park, or at yesterday’s midtown protest against Donald Trump— or in Union Square on any given day. Maybe you’ve had a go at him with a foam noodle, just to try to wipe the smirk off that orange-hued, wispy-haired face. We’re talking, of course, about New York-based performance artist/anarchist/nihilist Kalan Sherrard and his outrageous new project: Beat Up Trump.
The premise is simple: Sherrard dresses up as the Donald himself, complete with disconcerting rubber mask and a pillow-stuffed belly, and acts completely obnoxious, flicking off babies and offering strangers the opportunity to inflict varying degrees of physical harm on him.
For $3, you can hit him with a foam noodle, or, for $5, you can punch him. For $800, you can give him a Cleveland Steamer, and for the unbeatable price of $2,500, you can give him a Kentucky Klondike Bar. (Look them up on Urban Dictionary, if you dare– Sherrard would only say that they’re “really nasty.”)
Beat Up Trump just “seemed like a painfully obvious idea” to Sherrard– “almost Medieval in its execution,” given Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and over-the-top performances. “He’s so universally reviled, I just thought it would be a cash cow.”
As you can see from our video above, Beat Up Trump has indeed been a huge hit with young and old alike. “I’ve been making most of my money being beaten up as Donald Trump lately,” Sherrard said, although he did admit that “the most popular thing to do is to take a photo and walk away and not pay me” (photos are $1). But the 28-year-old Oberlin graduate doesn’t think this is the most sophisticated endeavor he’s ever undertaken. “I am catatonically bored with this project,” he confessed.
Walking into Sherrard’s Bushwick studio feels a little bit like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. The small, box-like room could even be likened to a rabbit’s den, with treasure and curiosities stashed and displayed in every single bit of free space. The walls are covered in small, painstakingly intricate pen drawings (“These little things come out of me like pee,” Sherrard explained when he caught me lingering) and Frankenstein-esque figurines composed of a mish-mash of doll parts, stuffed animals, and old styrofoam.
When I first entered, Sherrard cheerfully popped opened one of many boxes and tins holding an array of random objects. This particular Altoids tin was filled with the tell-tale half-moons of human fingernail clippings, out of which he fashioned alien blobs with the assistance of discarded bubble gum. While he fixed me a cup of a tea, he lamented that used gum was now so hard to find on the street. “People don’t chew as much gum as they used to,” he observed.
It’s rather hard to describe what Sherrard does, and the fact that he eschews the designation “performance artist” or “activist” makes it even harder. “Those terms feel so irritating to me, like epithets,” he explained. “I want to be in as many boxes as I can.” Perhaps the least inaccurate way to describe his work is as nihilist, anarchist experimentation with a dash of French deconstruction theory that aims to disorient and “celebrate difference.” Sitting in his tiny studio, surrounded by a Tim Burton-esque cabinet of curiosities, I was certainly feeling more than a bit disoriented.
Frequent users of the subway may have come across Sherrard and his projects in the past, particularly his “non-narrative, anarchist puppet shows,” in which he uses a baffling variety of found objects, including animal bones and skulls, discarded toys, and rubbish of various kinds to create bizarre, uncanny, and sometimes downright creepy performances. “I like to make things that are hard to describe,” he explained, adding that he enjoyed the “flippant exchange between this sort of dark, beautiful, horrible thing and this funny, absurd thing.” I would find out exactly what he meant by that when he performed a puppet show for me later on.
Sherrard grew up right outside of Seattle, and attended a school his grandmother had founded, which had a strong emphasis on art and “conflict resolution,” he told me. Even then, he was drawn toward the more radical forms of artistic and political expression. “I grew up throwing rocks at the machines [of the factories] in the area,” he said with a laugh. But his focus had always been art, particularly of the avant-garde variety. “I would put up installations in my neighborhood,” he recalled. “I got kicked out of the mall countless times.”
In 2005, Sherrard went to Zaragoza, in Spain, on an exchange program, and studied art at the Goya Institute. “I didn’t formally call myself an anarchist until then,” he said. Afterward, he hitchhiked across the Americas, all the way down to Patagonia in Argentina, staying in squats and performing along the way. Since then, he’s followed the same model in Europe.
These days, Sherrard specializes in otherworldly subway performances known as “not-happenings,” with the term being a gentle dig at performance-art-related “happenings,” coined by Allan Kaprow in the ’50s. Sherrard and a partner will usually dress in bizarre outfits and use a variety of seemingly random props to… I don’t really know how to describe what they do. Sherrard describes them as “sort of Dada-ist, inane, absurd performances.” Just click here and see for yourself.
After a pleasant chat, Sherrard decided to treat me to a puppet show, which he spontaneously titled “Comparative Literature PhD #3,” since we had both studied comparative literature in our undergraduate career. He donned a pink balaclava, brought out a battered suitcase, and began playing an eerie tune on a harmonica. Meanwhile, he pulled out an assortment of sometimes creepy, sometimes whimsical objects out of the suitcase, including the skull and bones of a baby bear attached to puppet strings. He began to create a set out of paper and dirty yellow foam. A stuffed lion, turned inside out, appeared from the suitcase and proceeded to vomit a papier-mâché ball out of a slit in its stomach. A detached doll’s head, stuck on Sherrard’s fingers, crawled, spider-like, over the suitcase and waved at me. At one point I wondered whether I was accidentally on drugs.
Afterward, Sherrard explained that these non-narrative performances served the purpose of challenging viewers into reconsidering their relationships with objects. “I think puppets mess up the binaries we have about animate and inanimate things,“ he explained, before helpfully elaborating: “It fucks up your idea of what is allowed to move.” That it certainly did.
While Sherrard doesn’t share the same enthusiasm about Beat Up Trump, it does offer a supplemental income. He’s slightly uncomfortable with the idea of a mostly single-sourced income. “I disagree with a monolithic economy. I prefer my income to be more diasporic,” he said. But the project does give him a rare opportunity to turn the tables on his audience. During his ten years of doing things in public, he has put up with his fair share of harassment from pedestrians, and has even gotten assaulted sometimes. “It’s nice to finally have this project where I can exploit this relationship a little,” he said, adding: “Donald is so aggressive, so it becomes a caricature. I try to be as disrespectful as I can to things I would usually respect the most,” he said, before adding, with a laugh, “like babies.”
“Trump is channelling this level of adrenaline and ferocity that the right embodies,” Sherrard opined. Despite Sherrad’s attempts to recreate that, people are generally quite restrained in their choice of violence toward the Republican frontrunner.
“Only a few people have actually punched me,” Sherrad said with visible disappointment.
Video by Deganit Perez and Kasper van Laarhoven.