Leandro Erlich

By Andrew Maerkle

Staircase (2005). Photo Kioku Keizo, Courtesy the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. All images: ©Leandro Erlich Studio.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1973, Leandro Erlich makes works that combine elements of sculpture, architecture and theatre to create uncanny environments that invert our sense of the world’s physical principles. His Batiment (2004), for example, employs a giant mirror to enable viewers to take up gravity-defying positions along the facade of a building, while the use of a simple perspective trick makes it appear that viewers of the installation Swimming Pool (2004) are walking around under water.

Erlich is no stranger to Japan, where Swimming Pool is on permanent display at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, and his Tsumari’s House (2006) adapted the Batiment concept to a rural Japanese setting for the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale. Erlich was recently the subject of a mid-career survey at Kanazawa, entitled “The Ordinary?,” which presented 17 new and recent works, alongside the Swimming Pool, and ran from May 3 to August 31. In September, Erlich returned to Japan for a solo exhibition at Art Front Gallery in Tokyo, “Fragment of Illusion,” where he is showing The Cloud (2014), which first appears to be a collection of clouds captured in a glass cases, as well as a miniature version of his Staircase, a massive installation that turns a staircase on its side.

ART iT met with Erlich before the opening of his exhibition in Tokyo to discuss his work in greater detail.

Fragment of Illusion” continues at Art Front Gallery through October 5.


ART iT: While I was preparing for this interview I also happened to read Empire of the Sun, JG Ballard’s fictional account of the time he spent as an adolescent in a Japanese concentration camp in Shanghai during World War II. Ballard has talked about how the experience of war revealed to him the fact that our entire built world is nothing more than a stage set. Everything we take for granted one day could be emptied of all of significance the next. I thought this is an interesting place to start thinking about your practice. The context is certainly different, but you also work with this idea of turning reality inside out. Could you talk about what lead you to this approach?

LE: The connection with Ballard is interesting. I think it is part of human nature to arrive at some kind of ideal sense of reality. We see the elements around us, and then, using whatever references we have, we try to give them a fixed signification. In this process of understanding the world, we forget about how much of the world we ourselves have constructed. It’s actually hard to distinguish between what is a fact and what is fabricated. I also think about how children start to understand the world by questioning things, and then as we grow up we arrive at conclusions about what reality is. I’m interested in daily life and the ordinary spaces we think are a fixed part of the world, and in some works I try to emphasize the artifice of these ordinary places. I think it’s important to realize how much of our world is constructed.
But this is also an issue that has been approached by different people over centuries, actually, and in every period I think the conclusions have been different. I think now, for example, we are able to build so fast and so mechanically that you can find similar places in different cities, or sometimes even find the same place – the same shop, for example – in different continents. I think all of this transforms our perception of what we understand by the real.

ART iT: In that sense a war is like a rupturing of the real. Your works are generally considered to be interactive and friendly, something to which people can relate, but on some level are you also playing with this logic of the rupture?

EL: Absolutely. In my case, the rupture lasts only an instant, for the time of the experience. The rupture that an experience like war creates is obviously deeper, and if that rupture lasts long enough, it too becomes part of the real, part of the order of things. But I am interested in momentarily disrupting the logic of what we believe to be clear or understood.

ART iT: Your works play with themes of perception and illusion, and they often incorporate aspects of architecture, film and sculpture, crossing diverse areas of practice and theory. From where does your practice emerge?

EL: I would say my practice primarily emerges from concepts, and not from any idea that each work should explore a particular idea or situation based on its medium. My practice is of course very object-based – there is a sense of sculpture – but I think in many cases I can describe a piece in a very narrative way, almost like it is a story.
Architecture has been important for me from the beginning because I grew up in a family of architects and I realize, thinking about Ballard’s memories of war, that for me the understanding of construction came from seeing places that were being built and understanding the logic of these spaces in a narrative, or fictional, or even psychological way. If you ever watch a movie without sound and follow the images as they pass by, you might still get a grasp of the story, but most importantly you will realize how present the spaces are that surround the characters of the film. They are just the background, but without the background, the meaning and sense of the story would be completely different.

Top: Staircase (2014). Courtesy Art Front Gallery, Tokyo. Bottom: La Répétition (2014). Photo Kioku Keizo, courtesy the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.

ART iT: Architecture, film and sculpture all have different relations to the human body. In architecture, you are in a sense working with other people’s bodies. In film, the body is dealt with as a projection, through distance, light, shadow. Sculpture is defined by the body of the artist himself. How do you deal with these differing approaches to the body? Are you removed from the works, or do you feel that you are physically present in their production?

EL: In most cases when dealing with architecture, you’re dealing with a particular scale that relates to the size of a body – the size of a door or window, the location of an element in the space, everything. I wonder if there’s anything that is not like that. I wonder if there is anything that we build in the physical world that is not related to our physical structure. I would say even literature, writing, has a relationship with the body in the sense that, in order to start building an imaginary construct, you have to place things in a particular order. When we read we are always identifying ourselves with another place or person – you can read the story of someone else and in that moment you place yourself into the body of that person.
So I would say that I have always pursued ideas, while using my body. For example, in my practice I have learned how to work with fiberglass and carve wood. I learned how to do plumbing because I had to create a water circulation system that had never been made before, and even professionals could not help me. Part of what I really enjoy about art is to invent, to explore things we aren’t necessarily meant to explore. Art is free from function, so when you bring elements from the functional world into the non-functional world of art, then all these elements become re-signified. A staircase is no longer a staircase, because the only reason a staircase exists is to move your body up or down. So many things in our world are contingent upon function, and I’m interested in releasing them from functionality in order to provoke another kind of reflection.

ART iT: Turning a staircase on its side is something only art can do?

EL: In a way. And then you can ask yourself whether that’s a staircase. Is a staircase an object that cannot be used for its purpose? And, actually, it’s not a staircase. It’s something constructed so that it takes the exact shape and form of a staircase, but it is not a staircase. Many things I have done are inspired by functional elements, and then bring another layer of understanding to those elements.

ART iT: Your horizontal staircase actually gives me a stronger sense of vertigo than a real staircase, because you are already “falling” when you enter the work.

EL: What you say is interesting, because if you had never been inside a high-rise building with a staircase, you would never get a sense of vertigo from looking at the horizontal staircase. It’s important for me that each viewer brings their own baggage – their own memories and knowledge. I’m using elements that you already know from somewhere else, otherwise the work will not be activated. If you don’t recognize something familiar or cannot place yourself in that situation, then it will be difficult to understand the work.

ART iT: What’s your process of moving from work to work? With the piece that you made for Prospect.1 in New Orleans, Window and Ladder – Too Late for Help (2008), it seems you were responding to the context, but in general, where do your ideas come from?

EL: There are many works that were made in relation to a particular context, not just the New Orleans piece, but others as well. I’m usually interested in the context of where the work will be exhibited. Sometimes you might have an idea, but showing this idea in a particular context might not make sense. So the context – whether it’s the city, the culture, the logic of the event – is often part of the inspiration for the work. But otherwise there is no formula for moving from work to work. What I realized in making the catalogue for my exhibition at Kanazawa, and organizing the work in chronological order, was that the ideas were jumping from, say, 2003 to 2008, and in between there was something else, and then later another idea would return in a different way. You build things through your interests, through your experiences and reflections – something you saw, something that happened to you, your emotional state, whether you feel happy or nostalgic. In that sense, regardless of whether the body is present or not, I cannot remove myself, and my emotions, from what I produce.
I would say what drives me is that I’m always looking to try something new, and sometimes I fail. I still suffer sometimes because of that, but I realize that this is part of the nature of experimentation. There are also many things that affect the artist besides emotions – like where the artist comes from, and what kind of support structure the artist has for producing the work. In the past seven years or so, I’ve started to have access to better conditions for producing the works, although I am proud to say I have never limited myself because I felt an idea was too ambitious or expensive. In the past I managed to make works with no money, in the same way an independent filmmaker might make a film with only 1000 dollars. I think that’s how you learn to do things in a context like Argentina. The first time I made the swimming pool, I built everything myself: I bent and painted the wood, I welded the metal structure, I rented a truck to pick up the Plexiglas, I applied the silicone, I put in the water. And of course that version of the swimming pool is a far cry from the one in Kanazawa, because it was really handmade. In order to make the water move on top, I installed fans that would blow across the pool, but then after two or three hours the fans would blow all the dust onto the water and I would have to get a cloth and clean the Plexiglas.

The Swimming Pool (2004). Photo Atsushi Nakamichi / Nacása & Partners.

ART iT: And when you’re actually working on an idea, does it evolve through sketches, or written scenarios and stories, or do you have a clear idea that you immediately set about solving?

EL: Sometimes there are sketches; sometimes I build small models. But in general I would say that it’s a very mental process. I compare it to a composer who is thinking about a melody. I don’t think the composer necessarily needs an instrument in order to write the melody, because you can write music with notation, and you know how it will sound. I also see the work in this kind of mental way. Most of the time I know up front what I want to do, and a model is not even necessary. To be honest, I only started making models when I started working on institutional commissions, because you have to show the institution how your idea will work through a physical object, and not just with hand gestures.

ART iT: The New Orleans piece certainly has a poetic aura, and then, depending on your perspective, you could also say it has a political message. There’s also the piece you made for the Havana Biennial with Judi Werthein, Tourism (2000), for which you made a “snow-covered” backdrop against which visitors could pose with skis. How do you understand the message aspect of these works?

EL: It’s a good question. I think in society we expect that a football player plays football, and that a doctor practices a specialty – dentistry or pediatric care and so on. We want to label people and fit them into a specific place, and this applies to artists as well, who are often expected to develop in a consistent direction without shifting too much between different concerns and approaches. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think you have to be a political activist in order to make something that has a political edge. I don’t know how much politics interests you, but you are part of this world, and you read the newspaper, and you have an opinion about things, and at some point you want to explore these opinions.
In relation to Havana or New Orleans, for me the context was so strong that there was no sense in ignoring it, which was very inspiring. But the works still relate to my practice. They are my particular story about these situations. Going back to issues of functionality, I used to really question myself about the mission of art, and now more and more I believe art is about contexts. With a new work I’m always thinking about how it will be understood by the person who comes to see it, so I cannot escape being affected by the context.

ART iT: We could also say your work creates situations. It’s not like a painting where there is a clear relationship between work and maker. It’s contingent upon a range of factors including the environment and other people. But do you find there is also some expressive factor in the idea of creating a situation, or are you more interested in putting something out and then seeing what happens?

EL: The idea of putting something out and seeing what happens is not the way that I approach things, because actually I already know what’s going to happen. It’s a very premeditated experience, but I’m very interested in empowering viewers through that experience, primarily because the viewers own the time with the work and the decision about whether they will be interested in engaging the work or not. The viewer can stay and go around for 10 minutes, or pass by without a second glance, or stay for half-an-hour taking photographs. In film and theater, and even with books, the viewer does not own the time because you have to watch from the beginning to end until you can decide whether you like the work, and if you leave in the middle, then you haven’t really seen it. That’s why I’m interested in being able to create something that will be friendly, as you said in the beginning, or intriguing. Friendly, maybe – but also capable of arousing curiosity.

Top: Elevator Maze (2011). Work courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, and Art Front Gallery, Tokyo. Photo Kioku Keizo, courtesy of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. Bottom: The Cloud (2014). Courtesy Art Front Gallery, Tokyo.

ART iT: How was your experience working in Kanazawa, where the architecture of the space is so unique? I’m sure there were many inspirations, but also challenges as well.

EL: It’s a great museum. I think the good thing about the experience in Kanazawa was that the exhibition was conceived through a consideration of the space. Each work was decided upon and chosen for each space. When you create an exhibition with a curator, it could be imagined as a process of editing. You make some cuts here and there and arrange the works in order to create a narrative. The frame of the museum was certainly challenging, but also interesting. What I like about Kanzawa is that you enter a gallery space and then when you exit, it’s almost as though you’re standing outside the museum itself, because there is all this glass, and you’re looking into the courtyard. Then you go into another gallery space and come out again and it’s like another breath of fresh air. It allows you to enter into one story, come out, refresh, and then step into another, as opposed to other museums where the spaces are all continuous.

ART iT: It also reminds me of your work, and the way there’s always a meta-structure surrounding the installations. There’s always a clue that you’ve switched worlds when you enter and leave the works.

EL: I haven’t thought about it like that, but it’s true. The idea of the switch, or maybe timing – there is a sense of timing in most of the works. You perceive things in one way and then there’s a reversal or a switch whereby things are perceived differently. It’s similar to the cloud pieces here. At first you might think they are clouds contained in glass cases, but then you realize they are just painted panels. The work is actually never that complex – the mechanism is always visible. There’s always a break somewhere.

ART iT: To conclude, your work is structured in some way upon the idea of mimesis, but a twisted or re-circuited mimesis. I am thinking here of La Torre (The Tower) (2008), where viewers look in at the bottom of the structure and see the reflections of the people standing at the top. This is an interesting way to think about the other. Either you are alienated in seeing your reflection, or you look at your reflection and actually see someone else.

EL: Yes, it’s very nice. Borges also explored this concept of the other as yourself. I really like this idea of perceiving the other who is also yourself, and this appears in many of my works in different situations and different manners. You might enter a mirrored labyrinth structure where you expect to see your reflection and instead see someone else, or you look in the mirror and see yourself in a situation in which you can understand yourself as someone else. We are the other. That’s a conceptual subject that I like returning to.

Leandro Erlich: The World’s Largest Cinema

Copyrighted Image