News of Leandro Erlich’s site-specific installation work first surfaced in 1999 when the Argentinean artist, in his mid twenties, turned a Houston exhibition space into an uncanny swimming pool. Puzzled viewers found themselves underwater at the bottom of the pool, dry as a bone. Erlich’s Rain, which kicked up a thunderstorm in the last Whitney Biennial, and his doubled apartment, El Living, at Kent Gallery (in one room’s mirror you existed; in its twin you didn’t), proved he was giving new meaning to the old magic realism. His faux-snow photo shoot in the hot Havana Biennal (everyone who got into the spirit got a souvenir Polaroid) was as generous as it was demystifying, without losing its sense of the marvelous.
Erlich’s latest installation, Neighbors, can easily disappoint the casual viewer. But the bland apartment corridor—with two double-locked doors, one welcome mat, an impersonal elevator, and the requisite fire extinguisher—rewards an acute observer viscerally and perceptually. Making your toes curl and, once again, turning reality inside out, it’s a visual non sequitur. Peer through the peephole of one door as if you’re the apartment’s occupant, and you might see another viewer in the hall, waiting for the elevator. Peek through the other door, and they’ve vanished into thin air. (The secret is a miniature replica of the hall hidden behind the second peephole.) And be sure to press the button for the elevator and wait for it to arrive. I won’t spoil that surprise. Let’s just say Erlich’s newest deception is a little more reticent but just as tricky as his previous work.
Neighbors, however, is far from a one-liner. It suggests not only a labyrinthine heritage of Borgesian infinities, but a host of questions about the other America’s perennial climate of through-the-looking-glass unreality. Does it also reflect the mental state of a country that hasn’t quite recovered from the traumatic time when relatives and neighbors were “disappeared”? Who dares say for sure? But the work certainly proves that an artist from the tip of a hemisphere that remains more or less invisible to its northern neighbor can be at the cutting edge.