Port of Reflections was the impressive centerpiece of the exhibition of the same name featuring the always intriguing Argentine artist Leandro Erlich. Although a visual trickster of the highest order, Erlich says that he is interested in illusion as a way to question modes of perception, not simply as trompe-l’oeil. “Revealing the trick is crucial,” he has explained; it transforms the deception into something more complex, beyond the entertainment of mere eye-catching phenomenal conundrums, although it is not a criticism to say his practice gleefully includes them.
While Erlich has exhibited frequently at venues around the world, he had not had a show in New York since 2011. This very welcome survey of his work from 2008 to the present included well over a dozen models and plans, including some beguiling miniatures. They often had a surrealistic tilt, and referred to some of his best-known installations such as a swimming pool in which fully dressed people seem to float. Then there was the building façade that is a giant mirror. It replicates the movements of self-choreographing viewers on the ground as if they were effortlessly scaling its heights, dangling from its terraces and ledges, or posing otherwise precariously, suggesting classic Hollywood trickery (James Stewart famously gripping the edge of a building in Hitchcock’s Vertigo comes to mind).
Erlich also somehow got permission to fool around with Buenos Aires’s most iconic monument, a soaring obelisk with a pyramidal top that he altered to appear as if it had been lopped off and relocated to street level. It caused the kind of public outcry that the decapitation of the Statue of Liberty and the relocation of its head might have in the United States. A consistent strategy of Erlich’s is this skewing and undermining of familiar spaces and places to create a puzzled, giddy sense of disorientation and displacement, often with humor. Audience participation is another trademark, although some installations are more dependent on spectators than others for activation.
Port of Reflection is one of the artist’s less interactive, more purely optical endeavors. The exhibition featured a new version—the original was made for the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, South Korea, in 2014. Situated in the museum’s largest gallery, the work consists of an approximately life-size group of five colorful rowboats anchored in a marina. The setting was dimly lit and required visitors to walk around the marina on a raised boardwalk that edges it. The boats gently bobbed up and down in what seemed to be water, joined to what looked like their reflections—but no spoilers beyond that. Reminiscent of the fishing boats in van Gogh’s bright, bold-hued paintings, they would have looked cheerful were it not for the somber night-time setting that introduced a vague sense of dread. Boats have figured too frequently in the news of late, and it seems inevitable that these empty vessels conjured images of desperate refugees and their tragic voyages. In addition, the formal and conceptual questions that Erlich raises about the nature of perception and how it can be manipulated could be viewed as a critique of leaders who offer lies for truth, spinning and subverting facts as part of their normal discourse. Erlich’s sly feints and the questions they elicit were timelier than ever.