by Siwin Lo
Seeing and Believing
MORI ART MUSEUM, TOKYO | NOVEMBER 18, 2017–APRIL 1, 2018.
Leandro Erlich’s retrospective at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo navigates the impersonal aesthetics of globalization and consumerism, driven by the human compulsion to see and be seen. Using objects and tropes drawn from contemporary consumer infrastructure as the basis for his large-scale installations, the works posit that our innate drives towards voyeurism and exhibitionism transcend locality and nationality.
Seeing and Believing is the largest exhibition of the Argentinian artist’s work to date. The Mori Art Museum—located near the top of a multi-purpose skyscraper with offices, a shopping center, and cinema—is an apt setting for an exhibition that, at its best moments, locates kernels of strangeness within a generic, constructed environment. Erlich’s works take familiar object- or building-types that have proliferated internationally, and alter them so that our habitual means of navigating the built environment are subverted, generating an effect of surprise in the viewer upon the realization of her initial misrecognition.
For instance, Changing Rooms (2008) is an immersive installation of what appears to be a generic row of department store changing rooms. Each stall is furnished with a full-length mirror, stool, and curtain, and is separated from the next by a wall upon which it appears another full-length mirror is hung. Upon walking in front of these mirrors, one is not always confronted with her reflection; some of the “mirrors” are actually openings into adjacent cells. The function of the installation relies on viewers’ understanding of a specific space, which Erlich then enchants by allowing viewers to pass through its boundaries, from room to room, seeing others where we are accustomed to seeing ourselves.
A familiar outdoor scene is disrupted in another large-scale installation, Port of Reflections (2014), which consists of a number of brightly colored rowboats tilting drowsily in a darkened room. At first glance, reflections seem to appear beneath the boats, as though they are floating on water. Upon further examination, the “reflections” do not mirror the movements of the upright boats, but are in fact extensions of the “boats” themselves, two parts of the same moving sculpture, with no drop of water or reflective surface in sight. Upon realizing that the appearance of a reflection was in error, the sculptures of boat-and-reflection suddenly seem suspended above an abyss, as though the very floor of the gallery itself had vanished before our eyes.
Port of Reflections is exemplary of the exhibition, in that each work is revealed in a moment when an initial understanding of the scene becomes undone. Unlike a magician’s stage act, the moment of revelation in the viewer’s experience is not catalyzed by the addition or subtraction of new stimuli; no curtain is drawn back, no rabbit pulled out of a hat. Rather, the turn happens as the viewer becomes aware of visual clues that were always visible, though perhaps not immediately obvious. The works in Seeing and Believing hinge on the progression of discrete moments within the viewer’s own perception of an unchanged work. In other words, the revelation is internal to the viewer, not enacted by the artist or the artwork.
Not all of Erlich’s works are immersive. In the case of Global Express (2011), a large monitor is located behind a simple metal frame in the shape of a subway window. A looped video shows scenes of Paris, Tokyo, and New York, filmed from their respective metros, though in no particular sequence—sunny Shinjuku whizzes by above ground, and entering a tunnel brings us before a crowded 1 train in New York. One senses the sameness of commuting through these major cities. Yet it is hard not to also feel a sense of recognition or even homesickness when Erlich’s Global Express passes a recognizable place, which underscores a paradox in the scenes that Erlich presents: these settings are familiar because they are generic, yet our ability to navigate them calls upon our private histories. Hence, a viewer may feel indifferent to scenes of unfamiliar cities on the video monitor, but a glimpse of one’s hometown metro has the potential affectively to transport the viewer to that locale, no matter how far away that actual city might be.
The exhibition’s final work, Building (2004), consists of a full-sized photograph of façade laid horizontally on the gallery floor, with a similarly sized mirror angled above. Spectators are invited to crawl, lie, or pose so that their reflections appear to be climbing or hovering on the façade of a chic row house. The joy of such a piece is in seeing one’s own reflection perform feats one cannot in the actual world. The vast mirror that generates the illusion of weightlessness in the recumbent spectators is not hidden at all. In fact, spectators seem to acknowledge its existence by mimicking or one-upping poses, performing images for each other’s pleasure.
Erlich creates spaces in which a kind of belief is enacted, a visual space that follows its own rules for as long as one inhabits them. In Changing Rooms, the ability to move through mirrors delights, in part, because we seem to be suddenly able to step into an alternate universe, the previously inaccessible yet seemingly identical world beyond our own reflections. Building allows us to see ourselves escape gravity. Erlich’s installations rely on our belief in what we see, helped along by viewing habits developed for navigating the world. In so doing, these illusions allow viewers to transcend barriers commonplace outside the world of the exhibition, to suspend some of the rules that govern our movements in environments designed to facilitate the global circulation of persons, goods, and services—presenting a Faustian bargain by permitting limited freedom in action, on the condition that we temporarily choose the fanciful over the real.
SIWIN LO is a writer and a PhD candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.