Each year seems to bring a blockbuster museum installation that’s engineered to thrill both adults and children. This year’s is Dalston House, a mirror "house" that gives visitors the spine-tingling sensation that they are scaling the side of a building sans safety harness.
The installation, currently at the Barbican Art Center’s Dalston Mill site in London, presents passers-by with a peculiar sight: Young tykes dancing along the window ledges of a three-story Victorian terraced townhome while splayed adults garland the wall face with equal disregard.
Dalston House was conceived by Argentine artist Leandro Erlich, who has built a career on similar somersaulting feats of art. Among his previous exploits, Erlich has conjured up a pool that entombed would-be bathers without getting them wet; he also re-created blue summer skies inside a gallery. In fact, this latest illusion—officially titled Leandro Erlich: Dalton House—reworks an earlier installation, Bâtiment, a mock immeuble stationed at a Parisian art center.
For the Barbican show, Erlich translates the work for a British audience. The house reproduces the weathered brick shell of erstwhile London housing stock—the stuff that lived through the blitz—complete with vivid building details. The faux facade, however, doesn’t stand erect but rests flat on the ground. A mirrored plane is suspended overhead, poised at a 45-degree angle and reflecting the gravity-defying antics unfolding below.
The project follows up on the immense success of Rain Room, easily the most blogged-about art event of 2012. That work, also staged at a Barbican offshoot, helped cement the "museum as theme park" trend that’s been brewing over the last several years. Large-scale artworks like the New Museum’s giant, floor-piercing Carsten Höller slide from 2011 (or the full-sized version at the Tate Modern in 2006-7) are blockbusters meant to draw the crowds. Needless to point out, the emphasis is on spectacle, not substance.
To be fair, these installations are billed more as "experiences" than all-out works of art. And the advertising isn’t all that dissimilar from that superhero summer flick. As Jane Alison, senior curator for the Barbican Art Gallery, says in a statement: "Dalston House is a theatrical spectacle, one where the audience makes the show. It is a delightful experience suitable for all ages."
Even so, Dalston House offers a bit more than the odd diversion, yielding some insights with relatively little work. The piece borrows from the cinematic spaces explored by auteurs like (a young) Roman Polanski and David Lynch, who, as Erlich says, "have used the everyday as a stage for creating a fictional world obtained through the psychological subversion of everyday spaces." But by far the guiding influence is that of Alfred Hitchcock, whose Hollywood films like Rear Window form the primary blueprint for Erlich’s intervention. Dalston House updates the experience, letting you reenact high-wire Hollywood action sequences right then and there.
Leandro Erlich: Dalston House is open to the public for free through August 4.