By Robert Reed / Special to The Japan NewsNormally, it would be a less-than-extraordinary and perhaps somewhat lonely scene: five brightly painted rowboats, empty and bobbing quietly near the docks of a port on the black surface of a nighttime bay, lit only by some outdoor lights.
What makes it extraordinary is that a few minutes earlier you were in an elevator climbing up to the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower in Minato Ward, Tokyo. There is no bay here, and no water to make the rippled reflections of the boats we see, and it is up to us to figure out what we are actually seeing.
A little farther on in the exhibition, we find ourselves gazing out a window at what appears to be the small courtyard garden of an apartment building with the windows of the neighboring apartments looking in from three sides. It all seems quite ordinary, until you take a peek into the window of the apartment off to the left and are surprised to see yourself staring back from inside the neighbor’s window.
Welcome to the world of Argentina-born artist Leandro Erlich, at an exhibition currently running at the Mori Art Museum. Born in 1973, Erlich is an internationally renowned artist best known for the large-scale installations he has created around the world that use a variety of devices to make us think about the relationship between seeing and believing what we see.
“Leandro Erlich: Seeing and Believing” is one of the “Mid-Career Retrospective” exhibition series that the museum organizes, according to curator Reiko Tsubaki. “This time it’s with an artist who already has a highly successful career,” she said. “Notably, he’s the first Latin American artist chosen for this series, and one who happens to be already very popular in Japan.”
A big reason for Erlich’s popularity here is his creation “The Swimming Pool,” a permanent installation at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. This work provides visitors with quite a beautiful view of an impossible world from inside or outside a swimming pool, without getting wet.
While magicians have often been ridiculed for using “smoke and mirrors” to make things disappear, Erlich uses glass and mirrors and other means to let us see things that aren’t really there as we believe. It’s also an exhibition where you can take a picture of yourself where you aren’t — contrary to normal museum rules and etiquette, we’re told we can take pictures of anything in this exhibition, as long as we don’t use a flash.
One of the highlights of the show is an installation that gives you just such a chance. Titled “Building,” this “immersive installation” lets you take a picture of yourself — and perhaps a friend or two — seemingly defying gravity on the facade of a building, as creatively as your imagination allows. We won’t explain the trick here, because a lot of the fun is seeing its magic yourself.
Tsubaki has known Erlich well and followed his career closely since first meeting him at the Istanbul Biennial in 2001, which he participated in. Asked about his character as an artist and a person, she gives an interesting answer: “[Besides the creativity of his ideas], one point I could raise is that he has very good ‘common sense’ and [because of] this, he can also question ‘common sense’ itself.”
In his own message to the visitors who will see this Tokyo show, Erlich writes: “I hope the experience of this show would help people notice ... how our habits and/or actions taken subconsciously, in fact, shape our behaviors, and how stereotyped images endure beyond perception.”
Another thing that Erlich always urges audiences to enjoy is the “fun” of his exhibitions. And indeed there is plenty of that to be had in this show. But art can never be all fun, in the carefree, frivolous sense of the word. As an artist, Erlich is always aware of where he is and the weight of the issues of the times, an aspect that is seen in many of his place-specific works.
As a frequent visitor to Japan, Erlich chose a subject for one work that reflects a number of the issues in Japanese society today: a dilapidated classroom in a long-abandoned school — a poignant symbol of the country’s declining birthrate and rural depopulation. In this installation, you can pose yourself in the long deserted classroom as a ghost-like, but hopefully happy, image of the person you have become since your school days.
In addition to the new works, some recreate famous works from Erlich’s roughly 25-year career, like a large outdoor installation/project he did at a marketplace in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 2015 called “Pulled by the Roots,” in which a large crane appears to literally “uproot” a house from the ground. The show is full of such food for thought about seeing and believing. And unlike most exhibitions, you won’t want to forget to bring a camera.
“Leandro Erlich: Seeing and Believing” runs until April 1 at the Mori Art Museum in Minato Ward, Tokyo. Open daily. Visit www.mori.art.museum/en/ for details.