Anna Ferrer: The Emotional City and
Daniela Rossell: Ricas y Famosas
Triangle Project Space and Art Pace Hudson (Show) Room
In the late summer run-up to Fotoseptiembre, San Antonio hosted the work of two photographers with Iberian roots—Daniela Rossell from Mexico City, and Barcelona’s Anna Ferrer. Both women are in their late twenties, and both created solitary portraits of women in unusual environments. Beyond this common ground, the images part ways in every element—from palette, mood, and lighting, to the intimacy of the photographic environment. In short, each exhibit was poised to call out the other’s distinctive sensibility.
Anna Ferrer, who was trained in Düsseldorf and Berlin, has the cooler, more architectonic vision. The Emotional City—the inaugural exhibition of the Triangle Project Space—comprises twenty images, most taken in Barcelona, with a handful from Berlin, Rome and the photographer’s hometown of Terrassa in Catalonia, Spain. Curatorial commentary describes The Emotional City as a study in urbanity’s isolating schemata. Though many of the photographs center on a solitary figure moored to the edge of a metropolitan expanse, it is the environing architecture that gives titles to the individual works: Savings Bank, Nissan, or simply Headquarters.
Anna Ferrer, Control Carcelona, 2000
It is interesting to note that The Emotional City opened in Montreal one month before its unveiling in San Antonio, the two exhibitions running concurrently. In the 1990s Montreal became a magnet for U.S. television production companies, drawn by the city’s relatively inexpensive facilities as well as the architectural elegance of Montreal itself—towering, vitrine modernity veined by post-colonial French boulevards. While embedded in a European (or a Euro-American) perspective, Ferrer’s ironic title held just fine, but upon arriving to San Antonio the meaning began to unravel. Dropped into the middle of a typical American megalopolis—smothered in concrete, signage, and shopping malls—the images drifted, no longer bearing the tone of desolation they delivered so consistently in a European context. The human figures, “counterpoints between the fragility of being and the authority of architecture,” seemed (from their beautiful perches) less alienated than simply immersed in solitude. Apparently unnerved by this shift, Ferrer tried to reestablish her organizing thesis. To the surprise of her hosts, Luz Maria Sanchez and Peter Glassford, the photographer insisted on constructing a black cloth cave in which to view the projected photos—then wedged it awkwardly into the Triangle’s asymmetrical exhibition space (fortunately, the enclosure was removed during the exhibition’s final weeks).
Yet, to create an aura of seclusion within the public spaces depicted in The Emotional City is no small achievement. Many of the shots are taken on or near glass skyscrapers. Ferrer’s women are visible, yet oddly inconspicuous—not through the near-invisibility of camouflage, but as if body and space had struck a new equilibrium. Large-scale, translucid architecture is said to have eliminated the wall’s barrier, blurring the line between inside and out in order to suggest the ideal openness of a postindustrial Utopia. However, in the case of reflective structures, vitreous walls merely confuse one outside with another. There is no passage, no clarity, just relentless movement on a glazed surface. When this movement is trapped in a still shot, the result is neither image nor emptiness. Rather, the light granulates, as if covering everything with a fine atomic dust. Against this passive sheen, Ferrer’s figures have a matte density, denoting interiority, volume, and containment. Despite the adamant visibility of the buildings, the gaze of each woman seems to resorb into that which is nearly invisible—the self.
Daniela Rossell, Untitled (Ricas y Famosas), 1999
Bridesmaids eating Wafers
30 x 40 inches
Edition of 5
Ferrer’s women may be introspective, but if Daniela Rossell’s subjects were to peer into their souls, they might be confronted with piles of castoff packaging and used shopping bags. After several years of global touring and a tumultuous career in Mexico, Rossell’s signature exhibition, Ricas y Famosas, has landed in ArtPace’s Hudson (Show) Room. These are strangely phlegmatic portraits of Mexico’s arrivistes, almost none of them actually famous and most made rich after NAFTA. Where Ferrer’s subjects have no financial relationship to the vast commercial spaces in which they are photographed, Rossell’s Ricas prefer to be seen in their mansions, surrounded by the hechitos with which they ward off consciousness of their preposterous situations.
The sense of humor that guides Rossell’s hand is always evident. From time to time insinuation gives way to pure effrontery, as in the shot of the tennis racket-wielding blonde posed in front of a French Empire buffet with the motto “Peep Show” emblazoned across her chest. Peep show, indeed. She stands with her legs spread over the nose of a taxidermy lion. To complete the motif, portraits of her leonine, female relatives line the buffet, and a luxurious mahogany table rests on legs finished with lion’s paws.
In the introduction to her book published in 2002, the author/photographer declares, “The images depict actual settings. The photographic subjects are representing themselves. Any resemblance [to] real world events is not coincidental.” Critics have said that Rossell’s work violates the taboo of criticizing the Mexican upper classes. But, historically, Mexico has suffered no shortage of social criticism, the most repercussive being the Mexican Revolution itself. However, during the Reagan era and through the fiduciary engorgement of the 1990s, the newly rich simply could not hear those criticisms, so enchanted were they by the apparent license to excess granted by their northern neighbors.
Rossell came of age in this milieu. Turning twenty-one in 1994, she took the first images of Ricas y Famosas in the lavish settings of her childhood home. Perhaps disarmed by the photographer’s youth, the narcissism of her subjects choked off any scruples about posing, for example, seductively draped across the lap of a twelve-foot golden Buddha—in a country where seventy-three percent of the population lives on less than two dollars per day.
The first glimmerings of consciousness came as embarrassment, quickly masked by outrage. Since last year’s publication of her photographic compendium, Rossell has received threats against her person as well as legal action. Yet it is hard to overestimate the importance of her scrutiny. Make no mistake—swaddled in their luxurious isolation, the moribund gazes of the Ricas reveal a form of suffering. Having circulated through other, less enchanted minds, these images return to their sources transformed, whispering stories of entrapment and apathy, and giving the Ricas a chance to break through their anesthesia. If what Daniela Rossell has set into motion pans out, this young photographer should be awarded the national Medal for Cultural Merit—with which she must always be photographed.