In Sondra Perry's New Show, Digital Tools Make Oppression Visible
Her video installations at the Serpentine Gallery explore representations of the black American experience by enmeshing us with technology.
An avatar of the artist schools the viewer the pitfalls of self-actualization in a still from Sondra Perry's pedal-powered video installation Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation, 2016. Courtesy of the artist © Mike Dinn
Sondra Perry’s first solo exhibition in Europe puts your body in the picture. And it’s really not a picture that you want to be in. Perry repurposes J.M.W. Turner’s painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), first shown in 1840; it depicts a grotesque scene in which the captain of a slave ship, seeing bad weather approach, pre-emptively throws his living human cargo overboard to claim insurance money available for slaves “lost at sea.” (The painting was inspired by a real event that Turner, himself an abolitionist, read about in Thomas Clarkson’s book The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade).
For Typhoon coming on, Perry has taken portions of Turner’s sea—sickly, fleshy, red overlaid with marbled white, like putrefying meat—and animated them so they roll like living waves. She’s coated the interior walls of London’s Serpentine Gallery in their destabilizing roil, casting viewers deep into the horrors of the Middle Passage: the shipping triangle between Europe, West Africa, and the New World that defined the slavers’ shipping routes.
The significance of working with the Turner painting in England—or, as she calls it, “the colonizers’ land”—does not escape her. “To be honest, I’m always thinking about the Middle Passage—it’s foundational to a lot of the things I’m concerned about,” Perry told GARAGE. “This Turner painting was first shown at the Royal Academy, which is just down the block.”
For an artist who nominally works in digital media, Perry engages her audience’s physical body to an unprecedented degree. Two works in the show have their video screens attached to exercise machines, their chambers filled with hair gel. You can pedal or row while you watch, but it’s heavy going and gets you nowhere. “These works are about efficiency culture and productivity,” she explained. “I land there because I’m fat and I’m a black woman—there are all of these things pulling at my flesh.”
Perry connects productivity culture to Just World theory: the Judeo-Christian rooted idea that if you’re a good person, good things will happen to you—and vice versa. “In the American frame, that is the ‘pull your self up by your bootstraps’ ideology,” Perry said. “Scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University had this test case and found that the African American subjects who believed in Just World theory wound up having higher levels of stress and problems with the heart. So my conclusion is that if you believe in the ideology of that country, you are likely to die faster.”
Perry's works render physical labor both overwhelmingly tough and unrewarding. As you struggle to pedal on Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation (2016), you are faced with the artist’s avatar, furnished with double eyelids, as if possessed or alien, talking about productivity and acceptable behavior. “We’re told we should live up to our potential,” chimes the avatar, before noting the risk involved in “just being ourselves.”
Attempting to row on Wet and Wavy—Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation (2016) you head, sickeningly, for another animation of Slave Ship. Perry’s work problematizes what it means to strive to be a productive citizen, suggesting that compliance renders you just another cog in the machine.
There are links here, too, between Just World theory and the no less judgmental secular cults of wellness and self-improvement. “Wellness culture has decided that we are supposed to be highly positive people who work on ourselves from the inside out,” observed the artist. “For us to survive it requires us to do the exact opposite of what everyone expects. It requires us to rethink success, rethink productivity, and in doing that we have the tools to really shift what all those structures are.”
The politics of conforming, behaving, and getting by recur, forcefully, in the audio-visual collage TK (Suspicious Glorious Absence). Following the police killing of Freddie Gray, Perry tracked down disparate scraps of footage showing activist Kwame Rose speaking to Geraldo Rivera’s cameraman in Baltimore. Rose is told by Rivera that he’s making a fool of himself, accused of yelling, and that the crowd of protestors surrounding them are “vandals” who “want trouble.”
For Perry, the scene raises questions about who is afforded a platform. Why are individuals expressing hurt or anger rejected as candidates for our attention in favor of more compliant figures, those who conform to the template of professionalized media discourse and are less likely to project messy emotion and cause upset?
“This idea of a voice, of how to make your suffering palatable, is something I’ve been thinking about in relationship to abstraction,” said Perry, who shows the work against a projection of her own skin, in extreme close-up. Thus displayed, it creates an explicit parallel between abstraction in art and the abstraction of people, defined, perhaps, by the very organ Perry confronts us with so powerfully and unavoidably: skin. “How does political abstraction wind up happening?” asked the artist. “Who loses? Usually marginalized people.”
Sondra Perry: Typhoon Coming On is on view at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, through May 20.