The sea throbs and pulsates; a thick, heaving mass of mud, tar, lava and foam surrounds you. But these mucusy waves that US artist Sondra Perry dunks you in are not made of water. They are digitally manipulated versions – wrapping around the walls of the gallery from projectors – of the JMW Turner seascape ‘Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On’. In that painting, the sea has just swallowed 133 dead black slaves. It’s a vicious, overwhelming and staggering work of art, and Perry drags you down into it, letting you kick and scream, gasping for air against the pounding waves of colonial history.
In one of the central spaces, a rowing machine is hooked up to screens showing the same waves – you’re metaphorically put on that ship, you become part of the machinery of oppression. Another work here is a bicycle workstation (like a standing desk, but with a static bike attached) facing three screens with a digital avatar ranting against white cultural imperialism. It’s an aggressive, affecting work of art, though there’s a faint whiff of hypocrisy in someone railing against a system that – by showing in a major art institution and doing little to subvert it – they are very much a part of.
But the statement, in the end, is simple: centuries of our culture have been built on black deaths. The truth is bigger than that, of course. Colonialism took in swathes of Asia and America too, but Perry’s aim is laser-beam focused. She forces you to recognise a history of pain and oppression by putting you in it. When you pull away in disgust, it’s a double-take of recognition that’s coursing through you. The waves of Turner’s painting are still thrashing, and the seas show no signs of calming.