Sondra Perry Illuminates Times Square With Her Own Flesh

Through the end of February, more than 70 of the intersection’s electronic billboards will display magnified, fluid-like footage of the acclaimed moving image artist’s skin.

Flesh Wall (2016–20) by Sondra Perry. Photography by Tatyana Tenenbaum

If you’ve traversed Times Square after dark lately, perhaps you’ve noticed that, right at 11:57 PM, the world-famous intersection’s electronic billboards suddenly synchronize. Rather than a visual cacophony of flashy advertisements for giant retailers or Spotify’s latest featured artists, intriguing footage of what appears to be a rippling brownish fluid casts an otherworldly glow over the plazas below. The display only lasts for three minutes—as the clock strikes midnight, the footage stops, and normalcy returns.

While the display doesn’t quite depict rippling fluid, that descriptor isn’t too far off. It’s actually Flesh Wall (2016–20), an animation of a super-modulated, highly processed image of Sondra Perry’s skin commissioned by Times Square Arts for the Midnight Moment series. The award-winning moving image artist, who lives and works across the Hudson in Newark, New Jersey, magnified footage of her skin to such a degree that it takes on a nearly unrecognizable form. Through this process, she explains, “the flesh loses all kind of realistic render, but you gain some kind of understanding of what creature-ness is, or what identity means outside the label of human.”

Flesh Wall (2016–20) by Sondra Perry. Photography by Megan Stahl

Identity—specifically Blackness, Black femininity, how Black people have been represented throughout history, and how technology and identity are entangled—forms the cornerstone of Perry’s work. An early photo series portrays her grandparents in their backyard, obscured by smoke bombs, reflecting on the physical destruction during the 1919 race riots in Chicago and Washington, DC. At the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, she unveiled a digitally manipulated image of J.M.W. Turner’s seminal 1840 painting Slave Ship, which depicts the drowning of 133 slaves by a British captain. Flesh Wall opts for a slightly different approach, offering a poignant statement about the Black diaspora by centering her own skin within an oceanic expanse. “In the context of the transatlantic slave trade,” she explains, “the ocean is a literal modifier to culture, bodies, and movement.”

To create Flesh Wall, Perry relied on Blender Software’s Ocean modifier tool—an open-source graphics program normally used to create 3-D renderings of oceans. She often employs computer-based media in her practice, including tools like blue screens, avatars, open-source software, and found footage from YouTube. She credits her family for her resourcefulness: “I use to say that [my folks] worked with very little, but what they worked with was a lot—it was culture, it was family history, it was their imaginations,” she told Rolls-Royce after being shortlisted for the British automaker’s 2020 Dream Commission. “I like thinking about that too, like ‘how can I flip this?’ Maybe I don’t have access to this tool or piece of equipment, but can I stretch what I already have to be able to serve my imagination?” If Flesh Wall is in any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. 

Flesh Wall will display in Times Square from 11:57 PM – 12:00 AM every night through February 28.

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