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Sondra Perry on blackness, gender and internet culture

Published 6 March 2018

The American artist is making waves on both sides of the Atlantic, including a show at London’s Serpentine Galleries this spring. Here, she talks JMW Turner, memes and burying flags.

  • I meet Sondra Perry in London’s Hyde Park, in a café overlooking the Serpentine. As ducks and swans jostle on the chilly river, the New Jersey artist tells me about her plans to fill the adjacent Serpentine Sackler Gallery with another kind of water. Scrolling through her phone, she shows me the space transformed by purple-pink light, the walls rippling with digitally generated waves. “It looks pink in the photos but I’m hoping it’s more of a deep kind of purple,” Perry explains. “Purple is invasive.”

    This purple ocean is part of Typhoon coming on, Perry’s first solo show in Europe. A few years ago, she came across JMW Turner RA’s The Slave Ship (1840): a painting inspired by a massacre in 1781 in which the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered 133 African slaves to be thrown overboard so that he could claim insurance. In response, Perry created Wet and Wavy Looks – Typhoon coming on for a Three Monitor Workstation (2016): a rowing machine filled with hair gel, attached to screens showing purple waves intercut with the Turner, which has been digitally distorted so that its surface resembles skin, or flesh.

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    Sondra Perry, 'Wet and Wavy Looks—Typhon coming on for a Three Monitor Workstation'

    Sondra Perry’s 2016 video digitally alters J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 painting, ‘The Slave Ship’.

  • “When I use that painting in my work, I edit out the bodies, because you don’t need them when you’re the body in the ocean,” Perry explains. When visitors step inside the Serpentine Sackler this spring, they too will be engulfed. “I initially wanted to put this skin around the space, so it’s like you’re contained in my body. And then the curator suggested the ocean; I can’t believe I didn’t think of that!”

    While she studied ceramics for her undergraduate degree, Perry soon discovered video. “It felt so freeing. And there was nothing to lose, at that point.” When she won funding to study for a Masters at New York’s prestigious Columbia University, the stakes got higher. She recalls talking to a fellow student from “a similar socio-economic background” at the time. “We’d say to each other: ‘We are not people who get these things. How dare we?‘”

    Since graduating in 2015, Perry has shown work in a string of exhibitions in the US and Europe. The Serpentine show includes recent and new work and it’s the second time she has collaborated with the gallery. In a 2016 event, she presented Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation (2015). This moving-image piece features her family performing everyday rituals – peeling sweet potatoes and, more unusually, “un-burying” an American flag in the backyard.

    Perry’s family often appear in her work – partly for practical reasons, as her studio is in her mother’s attic. Their role is sometimes collaborative, as with Lineage; the flag un-burial was initially Perry’s grandmother’s idea. “My grandma knows what good storytelling is because it’s a fundamental part of black folks’ lives: turning stories into reality. When she started saying she buried flags, I said, ‘Grandma, seriously? Shall we dig them up?’ I was like, ‘I can’t believe grandma does this.’ And my mom said, ‘She doesn’t.‘”

  • At the heart of Perry’s work is a celebration of the ways in which black people adapt stories – and also technologies. She is particularly interested in gender and blackness in contemporary online culture. “In 2015 videos of black people being killed by the police started appearing online,” Perry recalls. “Suddenly I realised that Facebook was profiting from this; the more people watching them, the more money they made from advertising. I still have no words for it.” At the same time, social media offers a fast, subversive way to communicate. “Blackness is about constant movement in order to survive. That’s what a meme does. It moves, accrues meaning, loses it.”

    In Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation (2016), Perry uses a 3-D avatar of herself to question the “wellness” culture prevalent today. “There’s a theory that if you’re a good person, good things will happen to you. But if you’re African American you’re more likely to have heart problems and high cholesterol; if you’re a marginalised person and you believe that this world in which you are not allowed to be a full citizen is a great place, of course you’re going to have stress.”

    Using a combination of digital software and analogue machinery, Perry’s compelling work explores internet culture, while reminding us that we’re still, essentially, physical bodies. “It’s funny,” she muses. “My mom, when she found out I was going to study art, said, ‘You should be going into something computer-based.’ Well, I’ve kind of ended up working with computers. I tell her now, ‘You can’t say that I don’t listen!‘”

    • See more exhibitions this March

      Sondra Perry’s exhibition Typhoon coming on is one of our top ten picks to see this March. Take a look at the other shows we’re recommending across the UK.

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