Leandro Erlich – Walking on the Other Side of the Real World

Buenos Aires, April 2006.

Young, talented, highly intelligent and “Argentinean”. He is disputed all around the world, and a common sight in all international publications on contemporary art. At the moment he lives part of his time in Buenos Aires and the other part in Paris. Leandro Erlich is making a quiet international career. He doesn’t think he’s a star and still appreciates it when he is interviewed. Here is the profile of a great artist who truly causes an impact, and who thinks that the real triumph is to continue producing good artworks. The rest is just noise.

Today, Leandro Erlich (1973) is one of the young Argentine artists with the greatest international projection. Among the many exhibitions in which he participated abroad, we can highlight his participation in the 7th Biennial of Havana, Cuba in 2000, the Whitney Biennale in New York in the same year, the Venice Biennale (2001), Busan Biennale, South Korea (2002), Sao Paulo Biennial (2004) and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. At the recent Art Basel Miami Beach Fair his work Ecléctica (Eclectic, the simulation of a stained glass window) was sold for more than 100,000 dollars and attracted a huge number of spectators who waited anxiously to enter the installation.

Erlich studied at the Prilidiano Pueyrredón School. In 1994 he received a scholarship from the Fundación Antorchas to train in the discipline of installation and object art at the Taller de Barracas. There he was mentored by Luis F. Benedit and Pablo Suárez. He was already being recognized as an interesting artist when he projected the construction of an Obelisk in La Boca. Through the Panamerican Cultural Exchange Foundation, he participated in the Core Program at the Glassell School of Arts, Museum Fine Arts Houston, Texas, between 1997-1998. He later settled in New York and today splits his time between Paris and Buenos Aires.

Erlich’s installations question the ontological nature of what we usually call “reality”. Using an illusionistic game, he creates paradoxical situations between the real and the virtual, always on the edge of the imprecise limits of perception.

The 1995 piece Ascensor (Elevator), which he presented in an edition of the Braque Prize, consists of an elevator door where the button panel and other elements that usually go inside the cabin are outside. Through the bars, the interior of the cabin can be observed. A set of mirrors give the feeling of depth when the viewer looks down. The inversion of the elements (interior-exterior) is a recurrent theme that will be present in all his works. As in Vecinos (Neighbors) of 1997, a door with the electric doorman placed on the outside already generates a certain strangeness in the visitor who is tempted to look through the peephole. With an illusionistic simulation through the construction of an interior model, the invited visitor can see the corridor of a building.

Erlich’s works generate bewilderment and humor. They highlight the voyeuristic character of art lovers, who are invited to spy on the artwork in order to decipher its meaning. In this piece we can perceive the seduction that looking and being looked at has on us. And it makes us reflect on the role of observation in art, the sensation of reality under surveillance by means of control systems and a whole network of connotations that are part of today’s globalized world. One of the most notorious aspects of Erlich’s work is how he captures the sensation of loss of private life and the impossibility of living in anonymity when, through a web search engine, almost all the people who move through art exhibitions are in some way or another registered and classified. This notion of privacy becoming public is also present in La Vista (The View) from 1997. Through the shutter of a window, one can watch scenes of the daily life of the neighbors that have been filmed on seven 5-inch televisions. The temptation of living in a tall building, to lower the light and watch the neighbors through the window is part of an innate human tradition, to watch others, to spy on them, to control them, to apprehend them with the gaze. As in the story of Susanna and the Elders, there are always voyeurs watching a scene. Erlich makes us feel guilty of committing the disturbing crime of meddling in the lives of others without permission. As in Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, there is a small hole to look into the scene and discover the enigma. An enigma that places the spectator on the limit of uncertainty in front of what he perceives, questioning, therefore, the whole world around him and the way of understanding reality.

The idea of the double is shown in the installation The Living Room, 1998. The artist builds two living room sets with various daily use objects, placed in an inverted way and separated by an open wall that falsely recreates the view of a mirror. The visitor enters, receives the impression that everything is correct, and suddenly recognizes that things are not so normal, not so correct, because he can’t see his image reflected in the mirror. And this is simply because of the absence of a mirror and because there is no reflection but instead an asymmetrical reconstruction of the same situation.

Erlich’s installations are linked to situationism because they put situations that are generated at the moment in which the viewer moves his body into action. It is action and performance art, but the performer is the spectator and not the artist. He is given all the interpretative freedom of the work to decipher where and what reality is. If the sound in the piece Lluvia (Rain, 2000) is real or comes from an audio system, if the water that he sees moving through the window is part of a fearsome storm that invades the whole environment with the roar of lightning.

There is somewhat of a game in this artist, a playful scheme of a theme park that makes us reflect without a dramatic burden, but with the intensity that causes surprise in each of his works. A surprise that sometimes turns into astonishment, as in children’s games. The thin boundary between laughter and tears, as when the roller coaster is about to drop in an amusement park. Erlich’s works provoke a certain childhood fear, surprise and fascination.

We can jump into his Pileta (Pool, 1999) without getting wet, and artificially observe from under the water what the world is like on the surface. In order to do so, the artist built a typical swimming pool with stairs, drainage and curved walls. On one of the side walls there is an access that allows the public to enter the empty pool. On the surface, a sheet of water is suspended on acrylic, giving the appearance of a full pool. The illusion of being in front of a full pool is broken when the public is seen walking around inside it.

In Las Puertas (The Doors, 2004) at the São Paulo Biennial, we also entered a place that seemed to be very bright from the outside but that darkened the moment we opened the door. Everytime we seem to understand reality, Erlich misleads us and we have to retrace the whole path of unlearning what we have learned in order to allow access to a different interpretation of reality. And to rebuild ways of perceiving the world that give us back the capacity for play, surprise and enjoyment that we forgot when we left Paradise.