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It is a sunny Sunday morning in Milan: it is the final day of the Fuorisalone and around the city you can still feel the after-effects of that week's frenzy.

I am in the Palazzo Reale to satisfy my craving for contemporary art when suddenly I see a man clinging to the railing of a balcony with his legs dangling; a little further on, a girl holding onto a windowsill with one hand; just above, a child hanging from a gutter.

But – astonishingly – they are not scared; nobody asks for help.

Palazzo, 2004, building façade lying on the ground under a mirror suspended at 45°.

It is just the reflection on the mirror of the enormous installation that Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich had placed in the inner yard of Palazzo Reale in occasion of his monographic exhibition entitled Oltre la soglia (Over the Threshold), curated by Francesco Stocchi: a fake façade of a building lying down on the ground, where visitors can take photos of themselves while pretending to climb among the windows and fall from the third floor (a typical feature of Erlich’s installations is precisely their interactivity: it is the public, in fact, who activates the work by interacting with it[1]).

Everything is fiction, obviously, everything is illusion: “everything in the world is a hoax” as the characters in Verdi's Falstaff sing at the end of the opera. Illusion (just like Reflection, as we will see) is exactly a key word to describe this exhibition and, more generally, Leandro Erlich’s thirty-year artistic production, with his elaborate installations which ironically challenge our perception, our relationship with reality and our interpretation of it.

Nothing new here, actually: from Zeuxis and Parrhasius’ myth to traditional pictorial trompe-l’oeil (e.g., the famous Mantegna’s Camera degli Sposi in Mantua), we can recall several historical examples of artists who have tried to trick the eye and mind of their audience.

Erlich and his works also fit into this centuries-old groove, as we can see in his Milan exhibition, using various devices he questions traditional concepts of time and space: thus, he offers us the unsettling opportunity to ponder the way medial technology (particularly screen devices) has been altered our approach to reality, confusing past and present, reality and fiction, inside and outside space.

There are two recurring elements in Erlich’s installations: screens and mirrors.

Wandering around the exhibition rooms, I come across several installations with screens and projections, such us Elevator Pitch, Window CaptiveReflection, Subway, The View, El Avión, Global Express: all of them that for an instant - just an instant - manage to give me the illusion of being somewhere else. Through GlobalExpress’ window I see the skyline of New York, Tokyo, Paris, just as if they were a whole, huge landscape, that acts as a background to the 'global train' that gives the work its name. Not only do distant and different places blend together on the screen into a single imaginary media space, but also different times meet. Indeed, we don’t know exactly when Erlich has shot those moving images: perhaps he did it in very distant times, perhaps even in a different order from the one he has chosen to assemble Global Express final video. Therefore, in this installation linearity and temporal continuity – suggested by the landscape out of the window – are just mere illusion.

Global Express, 2011, metal structure, folded metal case, aluminium frame, 60-inch screen, video player, video animation

As I’m walking through the rooms, I spot the second recurrent element, the mirror: Ascensore, Lost Garden, Changing Rooms, Infinite Staircase, Classroom, not to mention – of course – Palazzo, the enormous en plain air installation, where I believed to see people tragicomically in danger.

The mirrors’ function in these installations isn’t yet to reflect reality, instead – on the contrary – Erlich’s mirrors confuse, disorientate, mystify our perception of space and reality. Changing Room, for instance, uses the presence (or the absence) of mirrors to create a maze of changing rooms where the space is reflected, amplified, sculpted so that people cannot find their way out without bumping into some other disoriented stranger or without confusing a mirror with a free passage.

But there is another installation in which the mirror really succeeds in creating a sense of bewilderment, far beyond the mere perceptual illusion. It is Classroom, a large installation consisting of two rooms: the first one – were visitors are allowed to enter – it’s a black, dark space, without any specific characterisation and occupied only by some black desks and benches; the second space – inaccessible – is separated from the first by a transparent glass and furnished like an old, crumbling classroom, where time seems to have stopped – as we can read on the broken clock hanging on the wall – at 12.05 p.m. of who knows what day in the past. Once inside the installation, I sit at a desk and then look towards the other room: I expected to find it empty but, instead, I notice someone. “How is it possible?” – I ask myself. There is a feminine ethereal-looking figure: if ghosts were real, I think they would be like that. Suddenly I see her moving her head just as I was doing; I raise my hand and she does it too.

It took me a while to realise that the ghostly girl I believed to see in the other room was just me. The glass between the two spaces isn’t just a transparent surface but it is also a mirror that reflects visitors’ images, projecting them in the other empty room. That solitary classroom, thus, becomes inhabited by all those creepy and larval figures.

I can tell of a similar adventure. I was sitting alone in my compartment when the train lurched violently. The door of the sleeping toilet swung open and an elderly gentleman in a dressing gown and travelling cap entered my compartment. I assumed that on leaving the toilet, which was located between the two compartments, he had turned the wrong way and entered mine by mistake. I jumped up to put him right, but soon realized to my astonishment that the intruder was my own image, reflected in the mirror on the connecting door. I can still recall that I found his appearance thoroughly unpleasant. [2]

Changing Rooms, 2008, paneling, stools, golden frames, mirrors, curtains, carpet, and lights

This is how Sigmund Freud, in his essay Das Unheimlich, describes an episode - apparently insignificant and even a little comical - that he uses to explain the concept of the “uncanny” (in German, precisely, das Unheimlich or, literally, something “unfamiliar”, “foreign”, that we are unable to recognise, and which therefore leaves us uneasy).

This sensation is exactly Classroom’s key element. We really are those figures that we can glimpse on the mirror but, in the beginning, we cannot realise that or, perhaps, we just don’t want to realise it: a sixth sense seems to suggest us this, but the image disturbs us and, somehow, we don’t recognise that appearance as ours. So, we try to convince ourselves that it belongs to someone else. We resent that image because is creepy, uncanny, just Unheimlich. The illusionistic power of Erlich’s works is enough to make ambiguous and odd even what, theoretically, should be the most familiar and the most well-known thing to us: our image, ourselves. Especially in the age of Instagram, of Facebook, of selfies: everyone should know exactly what they look like, instead, once we enter the installation, we hardly identify ourselves and what we see even frightens us.

I see myself reflected in the mirror and meanwhile think to myself: why this is all so uncanny? What does really upset me here? Then I realise: that face staring back at me through the glass is me but, at the same time, it isn’t. I am facing my old self, sitting at a desk in an old classroom, and together with her I begin to retrace my life up until now.

Classroom, 2017, two identically sized rooms, wood, windows, desks, chairs, door, glass, lights, blackboard, black boxes, and other school furniture

Meanwhile other people are entering the installation and now the empty classroom begins to be crowded with other ghosts. Everybody stares at their ectoplasmic double: someone smiling, someone astonished, and someone else apparently unconcerned. We are so many now, but nobody seems to feel each other’s presence actually: everyone is too busy focusing on themselves. The artist choses an old school as the setting for his installation: a location quite familiar to everyone, capable of evoking in our minds images and old memories, recalling a time that is gone. A distant time when everyone was a bit different from now because as we grow up, inevitably, we change. We accumulate experiences, expectations or fears of the future, disappointments, sorrows, hopes, loves, anger, friendships, illnesses. That's why I didn't recognise myself at first, that's why I feel that image sitting behind the counter so Unheimlich to me.

Once we have taken our seats behind one of the desks in Classroom, we are in front of the ghost of our own past: it is the “elderly gentleman in a dressing gown and travelling cap” who stares at us and who asks us to come to terms with it. Because, Over the threshold isn’t just a jolly Instagram-worthy exhibition: in the frenzy of contemporary world, amid his overwhelming speed, it’s difficult to find out a moment to reflect on who we really are, where we come from, where we are going, what we want in our life. Leandro Erlich, hence, seems to give us a moment's respite, really putting us in front of ourselves even if, perhaps, the image we see in the abandoned classroom won’t be so pleasing in our eyes.

But with all these reflections my time flew by. It’s my turn to go and climb on Palazzo.

My ghostly double follows me to the exit perfectly imitating every movement I make without understanding my concern about time passing, though.

It will always be 12.05 to her.

[1] As the exhibition curator notes in an interview with the magazine Artribune (see: ), “Along with mirrors and light, the audience is the founding material of Erlich's works (…) they do fifty percent of the work”. [2] This quote from Freud’s essay entitled The Uncanny (1919) is recorded in M. SENALDI, Obversione. Media e disidentità, Postmedia books 2014, p. 9 (English translation of Freud’s essay is available here: ).



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Eddy Smith
Eddy Smith
19 jun

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