LONDON — In 2007, a replica 18th-century ship called the “Zong” sailed up the river Thames to mark the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. The floating museum took its name from the infamous slave ship Zong, and the 1781 massacre in which the captain threw 133 slaves overboard, in order to collect insurance. The atrocity was immortalized in J.M.W Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” (1840), originally titled “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon coming on.”
Sondra Perry, an African American artist who uses open source digital software to create video installations, takes the title of her first solo European show from Turner’s painting. Walking into Typhoon Coming On, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until May 20, you are immediately surrounded by rippling purple waves, which were generated by computer imaging software and are projected onto the gallery’s interior walls. The video intermittently switches between those waves and oil paint brushstrokes, in cloudy white and burnt orange.
In other words, Perry engulfs you in the elements of Turner’s The Slave Ship. Using video and post-production effects to connect digital technology with marginalized identities, Perry examines the role that technology plays in the brutalisation of black people. In this show the artist revisits work from Resident Evil, one of her previous shows, but invokes the Zong Massacre so that visitors cannot ignore the UK’s complicity in the slaughter.
Discomfort is one of Perry’s tools. One video installation, “TK (Suspicious Glorious Absence),” previously appeared in Resident Evil, but it has been modified in key ways: it no longer includes a sofa, and is not designed to make you feel at home. One visitor slid to floor to watch the 17-minute video collage of found footage, blue screens, home video and new clips. Another filmed for a few minutes before leaving. At one point, a distorted clip from Fox News appears; activist Kwame Rose confronts Geraldo Rivera about biased reporting in Baltimore following the 2015 death, in police custody, of Freddie Gray. Unlike last time, all the faces are obscured by glitching. Can you remember the faces? Can you picture Ramsey Orta, who filmed Eric Garner’s death, from his voice? The footage cuts abruptly, as though someone changed the channel.
Abstraction and absence makes the exhibition participatory: you are forced to fill in gaps, to put in the work, sometimes even physically. One installation features an exercise bike and three screens, which crowd around the face of the rider. A 3D avatar of Perry materializes, as though she wants to explain the exhibition — but suddenly the background switches from memory-error-blue to an extreme close-up of Perry’s skin churning, looking both molten and waterlogged. “What’s still familiar is our incredible exhaustion. Moving, running, daily with you niggas all up in our fucking faces,” the avatar says, before stuttering and crashing like an overburdened computer. At one point, the Perry avatar asks: “How does your body feel inside of us?”
“Wet and Wavy Looks (2016),” which takes the form of a rowing machine with its tank filled with blue hair gel instead of water, is similarly direct. Purple waves fill the three attached monitors, accompanied by ambient music. The longer you stare at the waves, the less they resemble water and just rippling lines. But the oil painting abstraction returns, and the music becomes a low growl and then an unearthly wail and you find yourself again in the waters that swallowed 133 slaves.
In a short documentary made about the commemorative voyage of the Zong, in 2007, the narrator remarks that the choir on board would safely disembark at Tower Bridge and walk away free — unlike all those lost in the inhumanity of the Middle Passage, not to mention the millions who made it, in chains, to solid land. In the exhibition, there is no reprieve from the reminder of the Zong, but the visitor exits into Hyde Park. Bird song replaces echoing groans. There are no ominous purple waves; museums and royal palaces surround the Serpentine. But it is there that the typhoon awaits, a reckoning amongst the immense wealth of West London that comes from the realization that, as Perry suggests, we benefit from colonial theft and the legacy of atrocities, of which the Zong massacre was just one.
Sondra Perry: Typhoon Coming On continues at Serpentine Sackler Gallery (Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, London) until May 20.