After growing up with a family of architects in Argentina, artist Leandro Erlich has adopted a rather personal, and even “emotional,” relationship with the practice. The Building, one of the most vivid examples of this in the artist’s oeuvre, is on view at Jersey City’s Liberty Science Center. The participatory installation, which is the most recent edition of his Bâtiment (Building) series, invites visitors to crawl across a horizontal facade of a typical New York City apartment building. Made out of wood, steel, acrylic, fabric, and foam bricks, the platform holds a typical zigzag metal fire escape, balconies, air conditioners, and a storefront. A 45-degree angle mylar mirror intersects with the flattened exterior to give the illusion of people defying gravity as they climb balconies and hang from the fire escape. “Spaces we live in define our daily existence and rituals,” Erlich told AN. “I can create a narrative through references to architecture by stripping it off of its primary goal of function.”
Liberty Science Center’s President and CEO Paul Hoffman invited Erlich to install the work as part of the center’s 30th anniversary celebration, which has also staged The Politics of Eternity, a glass and mixed-media sculpture by Brooklyn-based artist and Pioneer Works founder Dustin Yellin that weighs 10,000 pounds. While the opening of the science center’s new 30-acre campus extension is still a few years away, the two artists’ projects provide an invitation to explore the center’s prospective plans for the future through play.
The Buenos Aires–based artist has previously exhibited similar installations in different iterations in Paris; Towada, Japan; Donetsk, Ukraine; and in his hometown. Humor, indeed, is a shared quality between the installation and the science center. “Humor is a perfect connection because although science represents hard facts and results, scientists come up with those findings through experimentation and playfulness,” Hoffman said.
Erlich’s illusory building is a love song to New York City. While the artist lived in an apartment in the city in the early 2000s for three years, Hoffman was raised in a brownstone. They both agree that the horizontal sculpture embodies their emotional associations with the facades through a medley of key cues. “I felt like Frankenstein who assembled different parts of many buildings together,” Erlich said. He wove together fundamental elements of a typical West Village or Park Slope block to create a sense of familiarity and nostalgia subverted with the work’s ultimately eye-popping visuals. A three-story structure was a deliberate choice to convey a sense of thrill—even peril—in the impression of people hanging from balcony ledges or walking on all fours over the brick exterior á la Spider Man.
Erlich’s practice flirts with the uncanny, working with a familiar or shared experience or imagery to attract viewers into participation and unusual engagement. The allure in the experiences he crafts is the exposure of his technique rather than an intentional mystery. “There is a shock effect in altering or subverting the logic, but this is not the work’s ultimate goal,” he explained. “I am not acting like a magician who is secretive about this trick—in fact similar to architecture, my entire process and reasoning is open to be understood.” He finds a connection between his work and architecture based on their mutual “honesty for the way they are.”
The artist’s ongoing survey, Liminal, at Miami’s Pérez Art Museum, features a pool installation outside the museum where the participants enter the bottom of the pool through a door. From the inside the pool is empty, but for those viewing the work from above the participants look like as if they’re standing at the bottom of a filled pool—made possible by a thin water-filled glass layer Erlich installed to the basin’s surface.
The artist’s other ambitious projects include building-like sculptures being pulled out of the ground with massive cranes, claustrophobic mirror-clad elevator mazes, and a house melting into the ground. While pulling attention to our psychological relationship with buildings, Erlich carves an alternative path forward to the surreal in architecture. “There is a moment of hesitation and doubt but the viewer eventually realizes the engineering behind what they’re looking at,” he added. Movies where “architecture is a character in the plot itself,” such as Roman Polanski’s The Tenant or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet are among his inspirations, too.
The pandemic invited Erlich to see the Bâtiment series from a different perspective. The crisis changed our relationship to our own spaces as well as the environments we share with others; that memory adds a new layer to the work’s current adaptation. In the installation, the illusion of physical risk replaces the recent familiar danger of simply being outside.
The play between interiority and exteriority as well as gravity are pillars in the artist’s concept, but socializing is a particularly essential intention in this case. “Bringing people together on an engaging platform and letting them be the protagonists of their experiences resonates with this moment,” Erlich said.
The Building is on display through the summer on the first floor at Liberty Science Center.
Osman Can Yerebakan is an art, architecture, design, and culture writer based in New York.