Bodily wreckage, economic salvage and the middle passage: in Sondra Perry’s Typhoon coming On

Stanger, Arabella (2019) Bodily wreckage, economic salvage and the middle passage: in Sondra Perry’s Typhoon coming On. Performance Research, 24 (5). pp. 11-20. ISSN 1352-8165

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In Sondra Perry’s installation Typhoon Coming On (2018) a digitally manipulated seascape flows around three walls of London’s Serpentine gallery. The video projection reworks J.M.W. Turner’s Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On (1840), a painting that depicts the Zong massacre of 1781 where the captain of a British slave ship “drowned 130 slaves in order to claim compensation for these ‘goods’ under the salvage clause of the ship’s insurance policy” (Yoon, 2018). Turner’s painting, here rendered in kinetic extreme close-up by Perry, provides a starting point for thinking through the relationship between bodily wreckage and economic salvage under racial capitalism.

Responding to the question ‘what does the staging of wreckage do?’, this article reads Perry’s installation as a work where the refusal to stage the wreckage of the Middle Passage performs an articulation of (maritime) calamity not as an exceptional event punctuating the practice of seafaring but, following Christina Sharpe (2016), as the permanent condition of life during and in the wake of transatlantic slavery.

I focus on the absence of wreckage in Perry’s treatment of Turner’s painting by thinking about the co-choreography of bodies and seascape in both works. Where Turner illustrates a strategic aversion of economic wreckage through the disposal of human life and figures limbs as debris in a tormented sea, Perry’s work melts Turner’s scene into a tranquil surround of endless background where the absence of figural debris calls out to the invisiblized state of social violence with which colonial modernity secures its economic futures. I argue, ultimately, that when Perry clears human bodies out of Turner’s sea and wraps that sea instead around the bodies of the Serpentine’s visitors, she makes the Middle Passage not a figure but “an inescapable context” (McLaughlin, 2018) of history and in so doing both traces the disasters, and gestures to the collective recuperations, immanent in the Atlantic as a place formed through acts of dominion and rebellion.

Item Type: Article
Schools and Departments: School of English > English
Depositing User: Arabella Stanger
Date Deposited: 04 Mar 2019 11:40
Last Modified: 22 May 2021 01:00

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