Argentine illusionist’s deceptions delight
A step inside the solo exhibition of young Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich is reminiscent of a childhood visit to a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. Horizontal staircases lead to nowhere, and endless mirrors baffle. One peek into the “Changing Rooms,” for instance, will make you feel trapped in a maze of reflections. The beginning and end disappear in the walk-through installation.
As is the usual style of the artist, Erlich’s exhibit takes everyday objects - from mirrors and glasses to ladders and doors - and twists them into objects from an alternate dimension.
One of his most famous is “The Swimming Pool,” which encapsulates the essence of Erlich’s art philosophy: that life is simply a concocted reality in which we have all implicitly agreed to live.
When the two-story pool is approached from the first floor, visitors encounter a surreal scene in which fully-clothed people are apparently walking beneath the water. The people visible are actually those who have entered the exhibit from the basement floor, who in turn are treated to a weird sight - the distorted figures of strangers looking down at them from above. In order to pull off this mass hallucination, Erlich created a life-size pool, complete with deck and ladder. But instead of filling the pool, he covered it with an acrylic panel that contains a thin layer of water. It is through this blurry panel that visitors on each floor can see each other.
Though not on display here, the trademark piece can be seen at two museums abroad: the MoMA PS1 in New York and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa in Japan.
Some of Erlich’s other works were displayed in Korea at the 2002 Busan Biennale and the 2006 Seoul Media City event, but the Buenos Aires-based artist has never held a full-scale showing here before. So, SongEun ArtSpace invited the artist as part of its program to attract young foreign artists who have achieved global recognition but are yet to visit Korea.
Launched earlier this month, it is Erlich’s first solo exhibition in the country, though he hasn’t had much trouble attracting attention. The artist is especially popular among young art lovers for his zany installations, which have been the subject of much discussion on Web portals.
The Korea JoongAng Daily recently caught up with Erlich, who visited Korea late last month, and asked about his first Seoul exhibition and what makes him so attached to optical illusions.
A. It was hard to decide what to show, but I wanted to create an exhibition that would create a story. I also wanted to bring four different works that would represent what I have been doing for the last 20 years. Three of them were already made, but one, “The Chairman’s Room,” is being shown for the first time. It was especially made for this exhibition.
Tell us more about the “The Chairman’s Room.”
It’s similar to a work I created in the past called the “Psychiatrist’s Office.” It was very interesting to have an opportunity to create this installation here because I’ve realized that the memory of those who have passed away is very important in Korean culture and that this memory is usually represented via a memorial that people place in their houses. For the office of chairman, I used his real furniture, books, picture frames and everything. That installation for me creates a story about how you remember someone who’s gone, but at the same time, think about the situation as a reflection on yourself. Such thoughts give you a sense of your own mortality as well.
[All the furniture, books and frames that are used in “The Chairman’s Room” belong to the late Song Eun Yoo Seong-yeon, who was an honorary chairman of Samtan Company, which runs the SongEun ArtSpace in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul.]
I searched your name on major Korean Web portals, and many Koreans wrote that they were impressed by “The Swimming Pool.” Since it is one of your most famous works, have you ever thought about bringing it to Korea?
“Swimming Pool” is quite well known because it’s very photogenic. It becomes very popular when people can take pictures. But I don’t think it’s a better work than ones we are showing here. The works that I’m showing here, they were chosen because, in a way, I was able to create a story with these four installations.
What motivated you to work on optical illusions in the first place?
For me, optical illusions are obviously a very important element of my work, but they’re not really what it is about. I like to play with perceptions in order to create stories, and illusions trigger viewers to participate and eventually question our sense of reality. Viewers are able to interpret the work on other levels, in other layers of interpretation. There are symbolic elements in the work. For instance, when you see your reflection in “The Chairman’s Room” as a ghost on the glass, there is an optical element. But to me, more important is the symbolic message of seeing yourself as a ghost or spirit inside a room that is a memorial to someone who passed away.
Many who see your works are amazed by your fresh ideas and perspectives. Where do you find inspiration?
For me inspiration is in daily life in the way that I think our reality is perceived and how much we believe that reality is a solid construction. In fact, reality is what we believe. I think reality is the way it is, but it actually could be completely different.
I think I’m an ordinary person. [Laughs.] But I think all ordinary people see things in different ways.
There are many different types of art. Some are serious and hard-to-understand for ordinary people, but some are fun and entertaining, like yours. What’s your definition of art?
As an artist, you’re always trying to find your own language to create a work that’s personal. Your work also represents who you are, and it represents what your concerns are. Many artists think the same way. They look for very personal and peculiar ways of expressing themselves. I think I do create art that is accessible to the general public, but at the same time, can have profound stories behind it. I think you don’t need to be serious in terms of art by making a work that no one will understand. Sometimes contemporary art is very much for people who are into art. I think art can reach museum directors who are interested in the work as much as members of the general public who don’t go museums or art galleries that often.
Many people find your installations entertaining, and your language is simple and easy to understand. Do you think this is one reason why you rose to stardom?
That’s one of the answers. I think one of the biggest challenges for artists is to be able to talk about something that is part of their own generations. I think my work creates a dialogue or proposes something that really talks to my generation. I think that’s the best thing that can happen to artists: sharing thoughts with their own generations. For me, it’s like being in sync with my own generation and with my own time.
You have many Korean fans even though you never had a chance to introduce your works to the general public here. How do you feel about that?
I was very surprised. It’s very moving and touching when you’re coming from the other end of the world. You cannot go farther than Argentina. [Laughs.] Of course, I don’t speak Korean and most Koreans don’t speak Spanish. It is different culture and different language, but it’s interesting how art can make us communicate with each other.
You’ve been living as an artist for most of your life. What does art mean to you?
It’s hard to have one definition of art because art deals with expression. The way that people express themselves is quite varied. But I do believe that people can enjoy and experience art. The biggest difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment doesn’t make you think, but art improves your awareness. Entertainment doesn’t inspire people, but good books, good films and good theater are inspiring, and they don’t have to be boring to be profound and serious and to have important messages. You can say interesting things in a fun way.
Do you often encounter people who underestimate your work just because many find them to be accessible and enjoyable?
I have to say that I’ve been lucky enough. There is some kind of contradiction between being accessible to the general public and being liked by art scholars and critics. But I believe both find something meaningful in my works. It may have to do with the different layers of interpretation. I’m sure some people will be surprised and see only the optical illusion. Then there will be other people who will move on and continue thinking about the work on another level.
You’re still living in Buenos Aires. Do you think your country has affected the way you create your own art?
I lived in Buenos Aires all my life until the age of 24. At the age of 24, I received a grant to participate in a fellowship for artists in the United States and lived there for five years and then I moved to Paris and stayed there six years.
Five years ago, I went back to Buenos Aires. I think Argentina is a peculiar country because it’s a very young country. Culture in Argentina is mixed - mostly European immigrants. This multicultural population is the origin of the country. I think globalization is something that happened 100 years ago in Argentina. Different European cultures create something quite particular.
You’ve said that artists are always trying to deliver messages with their works. So what do you want to tell us through your own works?
Find your own message.
Leandro Erlich’s first Seoul exhibition is titled “Inexistence” and is currently being held at SongEun ArtSpace in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul. The exhibition runs through July 7, and admission is free of charge.
To get the exhibition, go to Apgujeong Station, line No. 3, exit 2, and transfer to bus Nos. 4318, 4419, 240, 143 or 362. Get off at the Cheongdam Elementary School bus stop. For more information, visit www.songeunartspace.org or call (02) 3448-0100.