New York

Rafael Ferrer

Whitney Museum of American Art

Rafael Ferrer’s installation at the Whitney did not strike me as very successful, though I must admit I’m not yet sure what a successful Ferrer would feel like. He was given the small gallery on the first floor of the museum and made use of the whole space for a single piece. To enter it, one had to crawl through a tiny opening which took the place of the gallery doorway. (This immediately called to mind Keith Sonnier’s piece at the Modern last spring which made use of a diminished doorway. Perhaps Ferrer saw that piece and was impressed by it because I hear that his recent show in Philadelphia had another element in common with the Sonnier, a lowered ceiling.) The little doorway opened onto a very narrow sort of corridor formed by the gallery wall and a series of sheets of corrugated metal, either steel or aluminum. The floor of this corridor was covered with a shallow layer of sand, the corridor itself receiving some flickering illumination from above—the pun I’m sure was Ferrer’s—from a neon sign on the wall reading “ART FOR HUM.” For that I read Artforum and “art for whom?”; a sort “political” barb at this journal for what must be cursed as its “elitism.”

At the corner of the gallery, the temporary corridor led into the rest of the space. The principal light source in the room consisted of a slide projector throwing a series of images into the upper corner adjacent to the one through which one entered. The metal panels were supported from behind by heavy wooden struts that projected outward into the center of the space. A parallel row of struts was attached to the opposite gallery wall lending some sense that that wall too needed reinforcement if it were not to cave in. The struts considerably narrowed the passage through the length of the gallery, and walking became difficult because the gallery floor was loosely covered with jagged white rocks about the size of billiard balls, which were large enough and sharp enough to make walking hazardous.

On the far wall were four dim spotlight beams projected from the floor. At the top of this wall were hung several drawings in black, resembling Dubuffets.

When I entered the piece there were only a couple of people in it silently watching the series of slides. I explored the space a bit and then joined them. But it happened to be between holidays and all the schools were out, so before long a troop of incredibly raucous girl scouts entered the gallery and what had been a pretty sequestered if peculiar area became charged with a strange sense of potential violence. The little girls discovered that the white stones on the floor gave off sparks if knocked around, and particularly if they were kicked. In an instant the piece became a container full of screaming female children kicking stones at each other. I tried to go on watching the slides, nursing the growing apprehension that I might at any moment get a kick in the shins, or worse, a stone in the back of the head. Somehow the girl scout troop was rounded up and led out, but the piece was not unchanged. The sparking stones had created a musty gunpowdery smell (flint?) which could actually be perceived rising from the floor. During the ensuing moments of relative quiet I began to feel that the piece was anything but contemplative in character and that I had just properly experienced it. At that point another girl scout troop filed in as if on signal and the experience was repeated.

The sequence of slides didn’t seem to me to hang together very well; it consisted mostly of wide-angle views of cities and towns (or only one) in, I presume, Puerto Rico. But nothing about the sequence really explained why any of it was there. The distorting effect of projecting into the upper corner of the room was strange though it didn’t particularly seem to fit with anything else about the piece. This lack of fit among the elements of the ensemble wasn’t as it had been in Ferrer’s piece in last year’s Whitney Annual, for instance. There the very strangeness of everything in relation to everything else pulled it all together, and a total atmosphere was generated. Here nothing really came together unless a lot of people were making noise and kicking rocks around. My take of the piece was as a background for certain kinds of experience which were intense and unfamiliar but not really meaningful, and not experiences I associate with art. The piece was too dependent on the girl scouts.

Kenneth Baker