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Lee Scratch Perry: Ark-eology

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The Swiss Insitute, NY, recently showed the first-ever institutional exhibition dedicated to the artwork of music producer and dub reggae pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry (Jamaican, B. 1936).

Music journalist and biographer David Katz describes Lee “Scratch” Perry as a “a mass of contradictions. A devout Rastafarian who believes in extraterrestrials, he advocates black supremacy while living with a white woman in Switzerland. He is also one of the few to truly deserve the title of living legend, his contribution to popular music is immeasurable.” The invitation to present his work in a contemporary art institution for the first time comes in fact from Switzerland—more specifically, from the Swiss Institute in New York, in the shape of a solo exhibition curated with Lorenzo Bernet.
Rituals, and a ritualistic approach to life both on and off-stage, can be the key to understanding Perry’s long and peculiar career. On a bootleg cover of his seminal album Kung Fu Meets the Dragon, signed under his alias The Mighty Upsetter, we found a quote from a Chinese wise man supposedly from the 3rd century BC: “The meaning of ritual is lofty indeed. He who tries to enter with the violent and arrogant ways of those who despise common customs and consider themselves to be above other men will meet his downfall there.” Beliefs, creeds, symbols and myths emerge as forms of cerebral content or conceptual blueprints throughout his artistic production. “I’m a robot, I’m a computer,” he was constantly repeating when we met him the last time a couple of years ago, while filming himself through his laptop’s webcam.
So, the question is: how would you frame Lee Perry’s rituals—ongoing by definition—within an institutional museum context? How can you block a mirror and its reflections?

We’ve visited both of his studios: the Black Ark—his first studio in Downtown Kingston, which Perry himself set fire to in the Summer of 1983—and the Blue Ark—his present one in Einsiedeln, in the Swiss mountains, which coincidentally also burned around four years ago. These two hemispheres, respectively Jamaica and Switzerland, can only coexist in the Martian bodies of those who have always interpreted these anechoic places as space-time capsules. In these places, you don’t fuck with energies, which can be perceived by crossing the threshold.
The Black Ark still remains as the flames left it, but the house next door, Perry’s old house, is still packed with frills, amulets, boots, VHS, ribbons, stickers and graffiti. It’s all there, nailed in an unexplainable impasse. You would like to immerse the rooms in a resin bath and remove them, but to place them where? In a museum? After all, the Black Ark is the most impressive museum we’ve ever visited. Covered with a blanket of dust, the objects are deteriorating. Once there, we couldn’t help but think about how many possible songs could be trapped in those tapes and CDs scattered around the house, how many versions that never saw the light, and how many possible configurations of objects from different sources can still be combined and dubbed by £$P’s genius. Digging into Perry’s art is like digging into a timeless ark-eological site.

Photo credit: Moira Ricci.
Image courtesy of Swiss Institute. Photo credit: Daniel Perez.

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