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If you’ve ever seen the work of Argentine artist Leandro Erlich, you might have done a double take. During last year’s edition of Miami Art Week, he created a colossal traffic jam of life-size cars and trucks made of sand—some of which seem to be sinking back into the earth—on Miami Beach. His installation Bâtiment, which debuted in 2004 for the annual Nuit Blanche festival in Paris, gave viewers the illusion that people were climbing, hanging from, or sitting on the façade of one of the city’s typical Hausmann-era buildings thanks to the clever placement of a giant mirror. His 1999 installation, Swimming Pool, at the 21st Century Museum of Art of Kanazawa in Japan, made it look like people were walking underwater. In reality, only a thin layer of water sat at the top of the pool, allowing some participants to walk under the water while others observed from above.
A prominent figure on the international art scene, Erlich has had solo exhibitions at MACRO Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome, MoMA P.S. 1 in New York, the Barbican Center in London, MALBA in Buenos Aires, and has participated in a number of biennials including the Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennale, the Havana Biennale, the Istanbul Biennale, and the Shanghai Biennale. He lives between Buenos Aires and Montevideo and travels all over the world. He is known for creating art that challenges your sense of perception like a magic trick.
“My works is like if you see the rabbit coming out of the hat, but I show you the cage where I hold the rabbit, and you go out and you want to come back and see the cage and the hat,” Erlich told me in an interview following the opening for his current exhibition at Galleria Continua inside the St. Regis Rome. “Usually that doesn’t happen in a magician’s trick. Once you see how it’s made you lose interest,” he said, taking a sip of espresso as we sat at a sidewalk café across the street from the hotel.
As we continued to talk, I got the sense that Erlich approaches art as a sort of philosopher-magician. He sees the world not just for what it is, but for what it could be. His work aims to give viewers a glimpse of an alternate reality—a reality that seems just beyond the margins of what’s possible.
“I have a hard time accepting reality in general because I have the intuition that reality is not only a given fact but also something that we build as a society—socially, politically, and collectively,” he told me. “When in my work something we see is not exactly what we thought it was, it allows you to imagine that the reality we are used to living in suddenly could be something else.”
Erlich’s current exhibition, Sopratutto, is a poetic meditation on our sense of perception expressed through images of clouds. Right before Italy’s lockdown, he wandered the streets of Rome photographing clouds shaped like dinosaurs, the wings of a bird, and other shapes. The images he captured hang on the gallery’s walls. Complementing the photographs are a series of light boxes appearing to contain actual clouds that in reality are made with layers of glass stamped with ceramic ink—another one of his magic tricks that plays with our perception. Can you really capture a cloud and enclose it in a glass box? Of course not, but looking at those pieces, you must just suspend your disbelief for a moment.
“I think the clouds are poetic because it’s an element of nature that we do not control,” Erlich mused. “We impose shapes on the natural order for a fragment of time until that shape disappears. And I think that this is kind of an exercise that could be metaphorically applied to our life in a way.”
If the clouds seem like a subtler approach to the theme of perception than some of Erlich’s earlier work, perhaps it reflects the moment we’re living in. Erlich describes these last few months as a time of reflection. “I feel like this is still a challenging time that, from my point of view, will bring new things,” he noted. “I don’t think that everything will be wonderful, but I think that definitely in this time there is another sense of awareness.”
Though the pandemic grounded him for several months, he’s working on a number of projects, including traveling exhibitions in China and Brazil, an exhibition in Miami, a project in Portugal, and another one for the Olympics in Tokyo. And because of the pandemic, he has taken up ceramics again, a medium he hasn’t worked with in years. Wherever Erlich goes, he’s an artist worth following.