In Leandro Erlich’s sculptures and complex labyrinths, everything is familiar, yet nothing is exactly as you think it should be. Precise, large-scale simulations of scenarios encountered in everyday life—an elevator, a classroom, a hair salon, a laundromat, changing rooms, and, most widely seen and beloved, a swimming pool—are some of the 16 site-specific works brought together in “Liminal,” his first North American survey (on view through September 4, 2023), which spans over two decades.
Peering into what appears to be a mirror, window, or elevator does not deliver the certainty of reflection, a view, or transportation. Instead, one might encounter a void, another museum visitor, an infinitely repeating image of oneself, a rainstorm, or a structure turned inside out. In The View (1997), a projection of neighbors going about their daily lives, seen through half-open window blinds, casts viewers as voyeurs and questions who is watching and who is being watched. Rooms surrender boundaries and endlessly connect in Changing Rooms (2008). In the interactive Classroom (2018), ethereal projections of visitors’ bodies into an adjoining room—achieved through the use of a two-way mirror—merge the roles of subject and object, existence and memory. A series of vitrines displaying stacked glass sheets (The Cloud—América del Sur, 2018) creates the illusion of the impossible: capturing floating clouds. And Swimming Pool (1999), installed on the outer deck of the museum and defying the basic laws of physics, offers the dual experience of being in a pool (magically dry below the water line) and looking up through the “water” at distorted images of people curiously looking down; and the alternate vantage point from the deck, gazing down on the pool’s occupants as they mysteriously meander below the water.
Erlich’s sculptures are symbols of transience, and audience participation is key to the dis- and re-orienting experience in which perspectives and perceptions of the self and others intersect. “Liminal” isn’t quite a fun house, it’s more reminiscent of a film set, with dreamy façades and psychologically charged environments, just off-kilter enough to make you take notice and challenge assumptions. In order to focus attention on viewers’ perceptions of, and role in, built environments, as well as the emotion/memory/nostalgia generated by a given place, Erlich expertly uses the tools of illusion and deception.
Theatrical illusion is the connecting thread found in all of Erlich’s poetic and exquisitely executed installations, which center on something recognizable, removed from habitual function, and infused with a psychological twist requiring a re-seeing of the ordinary. “In the hands of Leandro Erlich, art and magic are often one and the same,” PAMM Director Franklin Sirmans explains. “Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art of antiquity often illustrated magical spells and incantations for supernatural power. In the 20th century, with the advent of artists as shamans, the power of art has often been connected to the presence of magic.”
Erlich’s work is rooted in the conceptualism and Minimalism of the 1970s and ’80s, with influences from his upbringing in Argentina—the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges and Latin American literature; an early love of cinema developed while screening the 1,000 VHS films that his father bought when cable came in and video stores went out of business; his culture’s obsession with psychoanalysis; and the imaginative and chaotic architecture of Buenos Aires. That Erlich grew up in a family of architects—brother, father, aunt—comes as no surprise. Fortunately for the art world, he wasn’t interested in construction and function; instead, he was drawn to the “psychological aspect of space; the way we feel, the way we act, and how our social interactions relate to the space.”1
I first encountered Erlich’s work through his acclaimed Window and Ladder–Too Late for Help (2008), installed in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans as part of Prospect.1, curated by Dan Cameron (who also curated this survey, initially presented at MALBA in Buenos Aires). The mysteriously freestanding, 16-foot-tall ladder and window, leading to the beyond, symbolically spoke to the escape that was so needed by residents who suffered when the levy broke during Hurricane Katrina. That same interest in surrealism, symbolism, and optimism is present throughout the appropriately titled “Liminal,” which means to occupy a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. Erlich challenges the idea of fate, championing our ability to change and re-imagine critical issues related to the environment, society, and global humanism. Perception is the inherent tool for understanding his work; for him, “This tennis game between the mind and senses leads us to knowledge.” Art historian Fumio Nanjo counters this sentiment, proffering that Erlich’s work “makes us realize how easily our eyes can be deceived and how easily we can confuse something else with the truth.”2
1 Leandro Erlich quotations are from a public program conversation between the artist and Dan Cameron, Pérez Art Museum Miami, November 29, 2022.
2 Fumio Nanjo on The Ballet Studio (2002), in Leandro Erlich: Liminal (RM/Toluca Éditions, 2023), p. 124.