Judi Werthein & Leandro Erlich's "Turismo," the Most Ingenious Work from the Havana Biennial, Comes to Soho.
Sometime in early November of last year two young Argentine artists, Leandro Erlich and Judi Werthein, flew from Jamaica to balmy Cuba loaded down with "twelve outsize crates, two suitcases and 6000 sheets of Polaroid film." They didn't go to the island to practice traditional photojournalism or snap pictures of old Edsels for American coffee table books; Erlich and Werthein disembarked in Havana to participate in that city's 7th Biennial of art, the theme of which was "Communication in Difficult Times: One Closer to the Other."
The two were uniquely prepared to tackle the biennial's double-edged theme and highly sensitive to the fact that in Havana political meaning can be ascribed to ordinary phenomena like the color of one's shoelaces. They put together a fantastical, playful project?something capable of tapping into Cuba's most profound realities while steering well clear of political manifestos and Fidel's khaki-clad authorities.
Erlich and Werthein wanted to hatch an idea that would at once "allow [them] to come into close contact with the Cubans" and challenge the island's circumscribed reality. They recognized that international tourism has served Cuba both as an economic life raft and a source of sharp social dislocation, and designed and fabricated a stage set that playfully, and cleverly, explored this paradox.
Using a printed backdrop of an Alpine scene, fake styrofoam snow, a sled and several pairs of skis, the artists gave Cubans a fictional view of what many of them have never and will likely never see: a snow-filled vacation spot thousands of miles away from stifling travel restrictions and the sticky Caribbean heat. As an artistic act it was pure genius. Equal parts weird photo-transport and velvet-gloved slap at authorities in Cuba and abroad who make political hay from that country's longstanding isolation, the work opened up a powerfully associative and liberated terrain?an arena deeply reminiscent of what the old surrealists once called le merveilleux.
Installed inside the colonial fortress of La Cabaña (its rather dark history includes its use as a jail by Fulgencio Batista and a field for "revolutionary" executions under the command of Ernesto "Che" Guevara), Erlich and Werthein's project, which they fittingly called "Turismo," drew hundreds of delighted, mugging Cubans. A girl in a bright, tulle quinceañera outfit showed up to have her picture taken as a mocha-skinned Pippi Longstocking. Workers from a nearby office collected Alpine portraits to trick their colleagues into buying a make-believe trip to Switzerland. One man who had his portrait taken returned with a sweater, which he then lent to folks in the queue for added realism.
Finally, a stern-looking lieutenant in Cuba's armed forces arrived and asked the artists to stop taking photos of his soldiers in uniform. A stiff, officious exchange ensued, during which the lieutenant was shown some of the portraits the artists had taken the previous day. In one he recognized a high-ranking officer perched smilingly upon a pair of skis. Immediately he asked if Erlich and Werthein charged money for their photographs. On hearing that they did not, the officer politely asked if they could take a picture of him posing with his daughters.
By far the most ingenious, profoundly resonant work in this rather lackluster 7th Havana Biennial, "Turismo" has been recreated inside Soho's Kent Gallery, Erlich's venerable Manhattan representative. Reinstalled with 13 of the developed photographs the artists originally took during their 20-day stay in Cuba, 54 additional Polaroids arrayed around the space on a continuous shelf and a video that briefly documents their energetic project, "Turismo" is the perfect summer show for three basic reasons. First, it boasts a jumping Cuban salsa soundtrack; second, it is an exhibition that wittily and unusually combines the lighthearted and the serious; and third, because the installation transports the harried, sweat-drenched New York viewer into an imaginary landscape that wonderfully matches warm Cuban innocence with a refreshingly gelid, fictional Alpine cool.
Disconcerting, cool, intelligent transport has become the specialty of Erlich, one of the most inventive and solid young artists to have emerged in the late 90s. From his first brilliant exhibition at Kent two years ago to his recent participation in the 49th Venice Biennial, Erlich has, time and again, built seemingly everyday environments that strikingly subvert their own ordinariness. A sort of 21st century, installation-based Rene Magritte, Erlich has like that Belgian perfected the difficult art of the suspenseful double-take. He leans on deceptively ordinary environments?a seedy hallway, an elevator, an apartment house corridor as seen through a peephole, a swimming pool?and has become a master at turning the safety and banality of the familiar on a dime.
His first New York gallery installation, "El Living" (it means "living room" in Spanish), featured a tiny, undistinguished room tackily furnished in 70s modern style, and packed into its false perceptual bottom an eerie Hitchcockian twist: looking at two large mirrors inside the room revealed an inverted image missing only the viewer's reflection. Doubt in the sturdiness of normal appearances led to the discovery of an identical room behind the mirror, which Erlich himself had painstakingly built in reverse. "Rain," a work exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, presented a square structure made up of rows and rows of windows: through them it was possible to see a perfectly simulated rainstorm. A more recent installation, "The Swimming Pool," which Erlich presented at Venice, features a shallow, glass-bottomed pool. To those standing above it the visitors strolling below can't help but look like the inhabitants of some impossible though evidently visible Atlantis.
In sum, Erlich's message is powerful but simple: Don't believe your eyes. Concentrating on the slippages between the "real" world and its hidden, latent possibilities, Erlich, alone or with his partner and wife Werthein, makes hard and fast reality appear and feel tensely, vertiginously, even playfully unstable. Together they spelunk beneath the stiff, brittle surfaces made by first impressions, and come up with mesmerizing visions of the rich possibilities located in the inner reaches of the fantastical imagination.
"Turismo," through Aug. 2 at the Kent Gallery, 67 Prince St. (Crosby St.), 966-4500.
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