American artist Sondra Perry’s new show evokes black people’s experiences in contemporary media and culture
“The future is invented with fragments of the past,” art historian Erwin Panofsky once wrote, and few young contemporary artists are subverting the past in more imaginative, engaging, and unexpected ways than New Jersey-born Sondra Perry. Using mainly digital tools and platforms – from blue screens to Chroma key to 3D avatars to footage found online – Perry makes work that revolves specifically around black American history, and the ways in which technology shapes identity. Her powerful visual investigations demonstrate that digital technology is an attribute of power; giving shape to, and encompassing representation.
For Typhoon Coming On, the first presentation of her work in Europe, held at London’s Serpentine, Perry created an immersive, gallery-wide video and sound installation exploring the imagining – or imaging – of the black subject in contemporary media and culture, often taking history as a point of departure. “The title of the show was inspired by a J.M.W. Turner painting titled ‘The Slave Ship’ and depicting the Zong massacre, during which a British slave vessel threw enslaved people into the ocean as a typhoon was coming on in order to recuperate insurance on those people who were considered goods,” the artist explains. “What you’re seeing all around is a digital manipulation of that painting, but without the bodies and fish.”
“I’m interested in how blackness is a technology, changing and adapting through the constant surveillance and oppression of black folks across the diaspora since the 1600s” – Sondra Perry
Through a series of arresting, overpowering video projections, Perry incites us to deconstruct the impact that technology and the inescapability of surveillance on our collective perception. “I’m interested in how blackness is a technology, changing and adapting through the constant surveillance and oppression of black folks across the diaspora since the 1600s,” she explains. “Unmediated seeing isn’t a thing.” As such, Perry wants the viewers to become active participants in the body of work they’re looking at instead of remaining uncritical observers.
Most importantly, the 32-year-old multimedia artist’s ultimate ambition is to create a visceral experience that brings people together and enables them to set themselves free from toxic cult of individuality. “This is the main reason why I do installation,” she asserts. “I think installation gives you the ability to usher people through a space, and hopefully through that ushering, people bump into each other, trip over each other, and, as a result, some type of collective winds up being formed. I want to disrupt the idea of the individual as a key unit of society.”
Despite being aesthetically abstract, Perry’s work carries intense political and symbolic clarity. In her practice, abstraction serves simultaneously as a subject matter and a means: it manifests itself in the manipulation of hyper-visibility and invisibility. “Abstraction gives me a type of freedom of expression – an expanding of the visual language,” she says. “But the issue I have with abstraction is that in art, it’s perceived as a neutral act; abstraction isn’t neutral.”
Fusing visual inventiveness, technical experimentation and conceptual gravitas, Perry’s work is a thought-provoking, incisive social commentary prompting us to question technologically constructed narratives, reclaim our perception, and reconnect with each other in times of alienating individualism.
Sondra Perry’s Typhoon Coming On runs at London’s Serpentine Gallery until 20 May 2018