Wet and Wavy – Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation
Using a water-resistant rowing machine filled with hair gel connected to three screen monitors, Sondra Perry’s 2016 Wet and Wavy – Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation engages the viewer’s body as a component of her piece. Sequential computer-generated images of a bright purple ocean open the piece. Using the Ocean Modifier software, Perry is able to simulate and distort ocean waves. Perry’s selection of purple as the ocean color corresponds to the color warning used in software indicating an error with the software.
Sondra’s innovative production was inspired when she encountered JMW Turner RA’s The Slave Ship. Painted in 1840 using oil on canvas, Turner’s piece depicts slave ship Captain Zong ordering 133 African slaves be thrown overboard in exchange for an insurance claim for “slaves lost at sea.” Inspired by a historic event in 1741, Perry blends digitally adapted images of Turner’s painting with her purple ocean. In taking portions of Turner’s sea, Perry distorts and animates the images to emulate a surface resembling skin or human flesh. The gruesome red and white imagery maintain the rolling wave motions in the purple ocean. The purple ocean is intercut with the image of Captain Zong’s massacre at fixed intervals.
Wet and Wavy – Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation blends a variety of media and technologies to stimulate thought about modern day race and identity. Despite its initial appearance as a secondary accompaniment to the video art, the hair gel-fueled rowing machine is the connection between Perry’s intended message with the viewer take away. 1619 marked the beginning of slavery in American when 20 African slaves were brought to the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. The systematic transportation of enslaved African people by sea to the Americas and indentured servitude remained a practice throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in the American colonies. The millions of people kidnapped and forced aboard the slave ships were stripped of all freedoms and faced callousness suffering. In what appears to be a never-ending purple ocean, Perry speaks to the hopeless journey millions of people suffered through in the transatlantic slave trade, while simultaneously highlighting the inhumane conditions aboard the ships.
Despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, United States society remains influenced by the legacy of slavery and deeply rooted racist sentiments. Upon trying to row on the altered machine, the chamber filled with hair gel is unusually heavy and limits all motion despite strength and resilience. In Perry’s words, “These works are about efficiency culture and productivity, I land there because I’m fat and I’m a black woman—there are all of these things pulling at my flesh” (Judah, Hettie, 12 March 2018 In Sondra Perry's New Show, Digital Tools Make Oppression Visible). The hair gel is representative of both the society’s resistance to change and the struggle to identify as an African American in modern US society productively. Regardless of significant advancements in the fight for equality, the black community face overwhelming barriers and their hard work often feels unrewarded. By rendering physical labor in her works, these sentiments are emulated in the overtly difficult task with little reward.
Accompanying Wet and Wavy – Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Perry uses the same machine and structural design in Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation. Rather than viewing ocean imagery, viewers meet Perry’s self-portrait avatar. While the avatar does not possess Perry’s same physical characteristics and has double eyelid features, the video production is a form of personal-analysis while discussing black identity, productivity, and socially acceptable behavior. Similar to Wet and Wavy – Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation, the piece addresses social immobility as an obstacle for the black community. Users face the same challenges on both of the hair gel filled rowing machines, furthering her presented discussion regarding systematic barriers in the black community. Perry’s avatar notably asserts “We’re told we should live up to our potential” but identifies the ongoing risk in “just being ourselves.” The two pieces work together in addressing the origins and influences of slavery in both historic and modern eras.
Tackling the subject of race in contemporary culture has been expressed through a variety of different medias. The diverse array this artistic content speaks to the multidimensional and ongoing issue of racism. Similarly addressing the topic of race and identity, Hank Willis Thomas uses conceptual photography and paint as his median. His 2013 piece I Am a Man was inspired by a photograph taken of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike, depicting a large group of black men holding protest signs bearing the same message. Thomas then created multiple variations of the original protest sign while adjusting the word orientation. His piece was included in the Installation View at the Baltimore Museum of Art and reads signs that include “Am I a Man, I Am Amen, I Am 3/5 Man, I Am Many,” and more. Both Perry and Thomas use their work to discuss racial identity in the United States while speaking to the socially constructed identity often projected onto them by society. Their mediums and shared messages are subtle yet effectively conveyed. The artists’ pieces differ in their gender-focused discussions but have the same historical context fueling their messages.
Perry’s work was created specifically for the London Serpentine Sackler Gallery and encouraged visitors to petal or row while viewing the Wet and Wavy – Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation production. Showcasing the piece in London, in her words “the colonizers’ land,” has significant meaning for Perry in her thoughts about the Middle Passage as foundational to a lot of the significant issues for which she has concerns.