Judi Werthein & Leandro Erlich’s “Turismo,” the Most Ingenious Work from the Havana Biennial, Comes to Soho.

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

through Aug. 2 at the Kent Gallery, 67 Prince St. (Crosby St.), 966-4500.