“What makes you human isn’t some sort of human soul. Your ‘essence’ is disloyal to your form”, says Juliana Cerqueira Leite. The Brazilian artist, who moved to London to study and pursue an artistic career outside of the traditional education system, has been exploring the materiality of the human body and what it means to be human through her work. With a highly demanding and complex process that entails sculpture but also performance, Cerqueira Leite creates huge pieces embedded with personal histories, trauma, but also a more global, collective consciousness. With the exhibition Orogenesi/Orogenesis on view at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli until September 23, we speak with her about her collaboration with an MIT professor, our galaxy and outer space, and being a woman from the global South.
You graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in London with an MFA in Sculpture. What made you decide to move from Brazil to London to do this programme? And why did you choose to study sculpture?
Moving to London was about finding the type of art education I couldn’t find in São Paulo at that time. The two top art schools were still modelled very much on the Académie des Beaux-Arts, technique-focused tradition. I dropped out of FAAP art school after six months in a sort of depression and basically had no idea what to do until I met the daughter of a distant family friend who was studying in London. When she described her programme – having a studio, developing her research organically –, I knew I should move.
At the time, I wanted to be a painter. There were no artists in my family, no one we ever knew was a working artist. Painting seemed already like a stretch of possibility in terms of profession. Sculpture only occurred to me in London when I was on my foundation year at Chelsea College of Art and found myself running around Battersea with a stolen supermarket cart at night digging through people’s front yards for broken furniture on trash day. I thought: this is it. I don’t want to spend all day staring at a canvas in the studio, I want to use everything I can!
Art Viewer thinks of your work as “physical presences and absences in the world and body, negating the mere reassertion of subjects and their environments through acts of pivotal transformation.” How would you describe your work yourself?
I like that description. In my words, I am working to generate new representations of the human that go beyond the fixed or recognisable body form from a more contemporary perspective. How does it feel to be a correlative embodied agent in the world that performs artefacts like gender, nationality, and that shares a body plan with other animals that we define – through history, science and art – as human? I am a living being, I simulate the future in my mind. My definition is action-focused, determined by intention or accident. My environmental and social contexts constantly re-frame how I can define myself, and also how I am allowed to think of myself. How can form keep up? How can it maintain integrity?
I’ve become very interested in the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and what he describes as ‘Perspectivism’ – his interpretation of Amazonian-Amerindian ontology. Basically, this concept suggests that what defines you as human isn’t anything more than your human body-plan. If you were in a dog body, you’d have a dog’s perspective. This idea seems simple, but the shift is massive: what makes you human isn’t some sort of human soul. Your ‘essence’ is disloyal to your form. It is your potential to be any of these animals depending on the body plan you occupy. It is the ability to transform.
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Your work always involves your own body as a material, and your main focus point is working from the inside-out. What is the reason that you use your own body in your creations?
I do this very consciously as a female and as someone from the global South. My body is me as far as I understand that what we mean by ‘self’ is possible – specific histories, actions and relations that define me. The actual of me is done or not done through and to my body. But my body is also formally a repetition of a species-specific shape. I like the anonymity of that. Your body precedes your self.
One of the first steps in feminism is to reclaim your body, to take it back from the ideologies that have framed you since you were born. Using my body in my work is a strategy engaging this history and also a desire to collapse the difference between form and content in art. I work from the inside of materials as an attempt to upset the power structures of productive control that exists in what I see as a paranoid schism of not owning your material body, but projecting ownership outside of yourself onto other objects.
Instead of having some inner idea and then shaping a supposedly dumb lump of matter to represent this idea for me, I want to perform this idea myself with the material as my environment, as my dancing partner. I am distorted by our possibilities. My works are almost always casts or prints of positives that are ephemeral, they only exist as actions.
As you are mainly using your body during your creative process, you need to have a quite structured time management planning and you need to be very precise and careful with the movements you make. How does such a sculpting process look like? Guide us a bit through your creation/production. How long does it take you to create one sculpture?
I’m occasionally fast, taking a very direct impression or actually using impressions to build something bigger, a conglomerate of different times. The works involving large solidified spaces are slow. I’ve been making some 3D-printed works recently that are also extremely slow because they start as choreography, then become videos, animations and then are digitally sculpted by hand into something else. I often start by moving around my studio, kind of choreographing a form. I then make large drawings on the walls to map my motion.
I’ve used the same clay for about eight years now since I never let it dry. The moulds I make involve a lot of carpentry. I need to build a rigid support for this soft material and my body. Sometimes, I phone up Ed Reilly, my retired naval engineer friend, for some advice if I think things are getting dangerous. I either work inside moulds or over them, carving into the clay. These processes leave negative spaces that I cast as positives. I want to learn from what I am making, it’s not all about seeing an initial idea through to the end.
This way of working is very demanding – both physically and mentally – and involves a strong element of performance. So the process of making the artwork, in a way, is part of the artwork itself. Your practice is not result-driven but rather process-driven. How do you prepare for such process and everything it entails?
I think I have the brain of a long-distance swimmer. My grandfather was a swimming coach in Uruguay and my mother also used to swim for Corinthians Athletics Club in São Paulo, so I was in the pool training from a very young age. I’ve learned by now that I have to stay fit or risk hurting myself with my work. I take modern dance classes when I can, and I do a weird hybrid routine of yoga and dance in the mornings. The heightened awareness that dance brings to observing movement and the body from within has had a positive effect on how I think about composition and my work.
I’d say my practice is result-driven but the result is something I find through the process. I don’t believe in illustrating a pre-conceived idea with form, it’s about finding the point between what I enact and what I can read as the material’s responsive attributes. I really love Charles Ray’s Plank Piece, for example, where he’s just propped up by a plank. It’s so of its time, but it says a lot about a shift in thinking that I feel has become more urgent now: owning your materiality.
“I work from the inside of materials as an attempt to upset the power structures of productive control that exists in what I see as a paranoid schism of not owning your material body.”
The sculptures you create are huge. Can you elaborate on the most important steps that need to be taken in order to bring such massive pieces to a successful end? What are some of the biggest challenges you face to achieve so?
It’s kind of a problem! I get excited and go big. Not killing yourself or others becomes a priority when you start working large. A mould that weighs four tons could suddenly crush someone. I remember being shocked the day I realised I needed to buy a one-ton gantry crane for my studio and a big industrial clay mixer. I had a romantic notion of being some kind of Giacometti or Agnes Martin, fussing away alone in my little studio. Making things that have a direct conversation with the limits and space occupied by a human body means I mostly work my size or larger, so I need industrial gear.
I don’t use toxic resins and the materials I use are often heavy. It’s key that I have several parts of the making to myself, but I really enjoy it when I’m with a team working on a sculpture. It’s great to have part-time assistants when I can. We can talk about things, drink coffee, have group lunches… It makes the studio feel different for a few days. When I have it all to myself again, I feel excited to be there alone.
During another interview, you told a story about one of the scariest moments you lived while working. In it, you explain how you accidentally set yourself on fire because you spent too much time in a lithium natural hot spring. Can you tell us more about this?
Well, I set myself on fire in Banff (Canada). It was the last day of my residency. It was a very cold February and I’d been experimenting with casting into snow for weeks, using mostly wax. I and a few other resident friends had driven up to some natural hot springs by a frozen river earlier that day – it was a beautiful day and we’d spent it outdoors in the warm water surrounded by the ice. One of my friends commented that the water was full of natural lithium. We all felt suuuper relaxed, giddy and slow.
I had to move out of the workshops that night; it was my last day, so as we got back to the residency, I went straight there. I put a pot with old wax stuck inside of it to melt on a gas hob so that I could clean it. I remember seeing the orange glow from the corner of my eye as I was tidying up other things, and being confused before I realised it was a big fire. The wax pot had a flame about two feet tall coming up from it. I at least had the presence of mind not to throw water onto the fire – that would have been a huge mistake –, but I was definitely thinking slow. I tried to smother the fire with a much bigger pot, but I knocked the flaming wax all over myself.
Did you get harmed?
Luckily, it was winter, so none of it was on my skin. But all my clothes were on fire. I had a moment of looking down and thinking, hmmm, what is it again that you are supposed to do when you’re on fire? I took two steps towards the sink and, of course, the flames grew because they were exposed to fresh oxygen! So then I remembered this stupid public safety campaign of ‘stop, drop, and roll!’ I’m pretty glad no one was around to see any part of this incident. I rolled around the floor until the fire went out. Then I went to get a beer.
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You also created the so-called ‘vagina’ book, titled Potential Space. The vagina is reproduced in the book as a negative space in 1:1 scale, and this is the first project where you didn’t make use of your own body. Why is that? What sets this project apart from the rest of your body of work? Why did you feel like expressing yourself in a way that you weren’t used to?
The other day, someone I don’t know very well said: you make vagina art, right? And I thought, oh fuck, I’m that artist now? A Potential Space had to be a book as opposed to a sculpture because I wanted to show something that has a very troubled relationship with visibility and representation. The vagina is an internal organ that can make space, but it doesn’t normally contain space. Anatomical studies suffer from several limitations. For example, it has a male-centric perspective – the standard model of a human body in science and medicine is male.
I was also historically depended on techniques like dissection, which, like a book, split things open in order to understand them. Visual representations tend to fail at accurately depicting things that do not contain or occupy space without abstracting them. Representations of the inside of the vagina mostly reduce it to an open tube leading from the outside of the body to the uterus. It doesn’t take much to realise that the map does not match the road. I wanted to have a better, three-dimensional illustration of what I understood as a topographically dynamic and intellectually complex bodily relationship to space.
How did you do it?
I spoke to some doctors and decided it was safe to make an internal cast of my vagina. The experiments for making this artwork were done on my body in classic mad scientist fashion, but it felt important for me not to use my vagina in the book because I didn’t want the book to be gendered. I know trans-men who have vaginas and I quite like that you can’t know from looking at the organ in this book if it comes from someone who identifies as a man or a woman, is white, brown, hetero or gay. Using my vagina would collapse all those possibilities.
Currently, you are having an exhibition titled Orogenesi/Orogenesis at the Archeological Museum in Napoli. It is the culmination of a two-year research and it is composed of sculptures and photographs. What were the starting point and the story behind this exhibition?
This show goes back to a deep terror that I feel when I look at the Pompeii calchi 1863. Giuseppe Fiorelli, an archaeologist, produced a plaster cast from a negative space found during the excavations in Pompeii. His team poured plaster into a hole that perfectly described the absent body of one of the victims of the eruption of Vesuvius, nearly two thousand years earlier. These plaster casts – there are many now – are artefacts: hybrids between dead bodies and mineral, like fossils. These bodies are all in a very similar position: kind of like the fetal position, but with their arms and legs bent forwards as if they were defending themselves from the eruption. But the bodies moved into this pose after death.
In forensics, this is known as the ‘pugilistic attitude.’ It shows that a body was exposed to intense heat. It’s the position we humans assume when we cook. I see this pose repeated in other moments in history with different intentions and contexts. In the anthropometric work of NASA, what the agency defines as the ‘neutral body posture’ of a human floating in zero gravity is almost identical to the pugilistic attitude. In the work of dancer Martha Graham, who is one of the mothers of modern dance, her famous ‘contraction’ poses the body in an uncannily similar way. This pose became a key for me to engage history and dialogue with the Roman sculptures excavated from Herculaneum and Pompeii, housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
“I’d say my practice is result-driven but the result is something I find through the process.”
For the exhibition, you have been collaborating with Steven Dubowsky, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Together with him, you’ve created a kinetic sculpture with a Neolithic stone that is able to point in the direction in which the earth is rotating to. How did this captivating collaboration come about?
This artwork is a machine, and it’s been a long time – since art school – I’ve made machines or worked with motors. For Orogenesis, I wanted to produce a compass that pointed in the direction the earth is going. The earth spins, it also orbits the sun, and the sun orbits the centre of our galaxy, which is itself shooting towards a place. This area is called the Shapley Supercluster – it’s a relatively new element in our understanding of the universe (the fact that there are these super dense areas where galaxies concentrate).
Could you elaborate more on that?
Behind us is an increasing void, and it seems we are either being sucked, pushed, or both into the Supercluster along with everything that is around the Milky Way at a speed of about 600 km/s. This is where the Earth is going. It won’t be fun when we get there, but it’ll take billions of years. To me, that destabilises the idea of our planet as something that just spins around the sun every year and rotates every day – spaceship Earth is going somewhere. We’re susceptible to forces of change way beyond our control or full understanding. I also love that the Shapley Supercluster is south. As someone from Brazil, I like the idea that we’re all going south.
How did the collaboration with the MIT professor come about?
MIT has an existing department for partnerships between artists and scientists/engineers, so it was a natural choice to approach them. Steven kindly offered his expertise! We worked on modifying the type of systems that already exist for tracking an object in space with a telescope. It’s not a complicated machine, but it has to be quite precise and durable within my budget, so I found myself simplifying the design over and over. Pointing with a Neolithic arrowhead felt very right in this context. I also was excited to bring into the National Archaeological Museum something that was from an extinct Native American culture and pre-dated Roman artefacts by nearly eight thousand years.
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It is something unique that you decided to work with someone whose field of work is so separate from art and sculpture. How did you experience this collaboration? What is the most important thing you’ve learned along the process?
I didn’t expect and really enjoyed the questions that Steven had about if what we were making was art, and why, or whether it was a machine, and what was the difference. I think those were great exchanges, and I appreciate having to justify my ideas outside the bubble of contemporary art. I know Steve had some fun with his friends who are astronauts trying to figure out our rotation speed and orientation. He’d call me and say things like, yesterday I was having a drink with my friend, who is an astronaut, and we started talking about your project.
We bounced around whether the device could be complex and spherical as I initially wanted. In the end, a lot of Steven’s feedback became part of the design of the machine, which looks like what it does. It slowly evolved over many drawings into something more pointer-like. I imagine it as a robot arm. This shape suggests a machine built for a task as opposed to the more passive associations I normally have with a rounded compass. The most life-changing thing that happened as a result of this project came from understanding that although all compasses point north and we think of the north star the main guide for navigation, the Earth is, in fact, traveling south. When you point north, you point at where we’ve already been. In many ways, the lack of a ‘south star’, the antarctic version of the north star, makes the future seem more open.
You mentioned in an interview: “My desire is to engage the use of the body occupying space and how that manifests itself in many ways, formally and politically”. How is your creative work able to manifest itself politically?
That is a good question. I see a lot of our problems as inherent to the nature of the political, religious, and capitalist structures that are dominant in our world right now. You can’t push a cart that’s stuck in the mud while everyone is sitting in it. You need people outside. Art’s autarchic nature naturally bonds it to less structured models of labour and commerce, with good and bad consequences. Its real magic is in imagining new forms of being, engaging compassion, and hope through representation, proposing new narratives for history, opening up cultural space for alternatives to the existing system.
I think it is extremely important that the arts act as more than a platform for critique and that we actively imagine new relationships to the body, to each other, to the past, and new futures. I think it is necessary to solidify this thinking in a durable form. I mean, think of Russian Kosmism for a trendy example: it’s no surprise Russia went to space first. They had built a visual and literary culture around imagining space travel for two hundred years.
You are extremely creative as you are not only working on sculpture and installation but you also express yourself through photography, drawing, and video-making. What are your plans for the future? Would you still be in favour of combining all your talents together or would you also be curious to discover new ones?
Well, thank you. At the moment, I’m working on a project I’ve been developing for two years with the Archaeological Museum of the University of São Paulo. They have an amazing collection of pre-Columbian ceramics that rarely get exhibited, while some of them are also evidence in a major money laundering case against a bank that foreclosed a few years ago. I like working on things that allow me to use different mediums together. The project will be presented at Casa Triângulo, my gallery in São Paulo, and it will include a work in video, drawings, a sculpture and, hopefully, some commercial replicas of these pre-Columbian artefacts. This last component allows me to work with the ceramicists at the edge of the Amazon in Pará, which have been part of a project with the Emílio Goeldi Museum to produce these replicas.
All of these museums suffer from very serious underfunding, but their buildings are amazing and their collections are some of the most important in the world. The third and largest museum I was in conversation with for this project was the National Museum in Rio. They had some incredible and unique artefacts from extinct Amazonian cultures. The museum burned down last year, apparently because their electrical wiring was so ancient, and now that collection is gone forever.
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