In the few years since graduating from London’s Slade School of Art, Brazilian-American artist Juliana Cerqueira Leite has been building a reputation as one of the most exciting young sculptors working today – garnering attention from the likes of Charles Saatchi and New York’s Sculpture Center. 2012 has proved to be her busiest yet, with solo shows at Galleria Lorcan O’Neill in Rome and London’s T J Boulting supplementing her commissions for the 4thMarrakech Biennale and Art Basel Miami Beach.
Leite’s art focuses on the capabilities and limitations of her own body, employing repetitive movements and physical exertion to visceral effect. All of her works are self-portraits but not in the classic sense, with laborious pushing, crawling, scratching and climbing into her chosen material without the help of tools her preferred method of creation. As she does so she is unclothed, affecting the tactile qualities of the finished cast – impressions of feet, knees, elbows and fingers defining the surface condition, frozen imprints of her movements that merge into a strange whole. Dazed caught up with Leite to learn more about her distinctive process.
Can you briefly explain the general process for making one of your sculptures?
Juliana Cerqueira Leite: I produce a hollow space within a large volume clay by moving through it. Then I cast a positive version - usually out of plaster or latex - of the void left behind by my motions. The result is an amorphous, ambiguous form whose scale relates to my body and the action that was carried out. The sculptures are shapes that were created and inhabited by me. Basically, I make negative space positive and positive space negative.
How does the viewer make sense of this process when experiencing the finished piece?
Juliana Cerqueira Leite: The overall shape of the work is visibly defined by my movements . Traces of my actions also define the surface texture of the cast – things like foot prints, knees, elbows, fingers, marks that are made by moving and removing material while working without tools.
What about clothes?
Juliana Cerqueira Leite: I don’t really want prints of clothing to appear. In practical terms, the fabric gets attached to the clay and I get stuck. Also, I think clothing dates the work. As body casts, the nude form implies a more transhistorical field. So, no clothes. Only Chanel No. 5.
Does that mean you’re interested in archetypes?
Juliana Cerqueira Leite: Not in a Jungian way. I more interested primal activity – a basic interaction between the human body, its ability to move through space and its interaction with matter. One of the reasons I use so much density of material is that I want to upset the status quo – the idea that matter is consistently subservient to our desires. I want to put myself in a position where matter is in just as much in control as I am. The work is a negotiation.
How important is time?
Juliana Cerqueira Leite: The sculptures are actions in collapsed time. My various acts become elongated and blur into one when time is compressed into a finished three-dimensional form. I’m not interested in discrete expressive moments. We endow time with this magic power of erasing and healing because it apparently separates acts. I don’t know if this is really the case. Time doesn’t erase or heal anything. In the sculptures, by turning negative space into a mass I’m able to freeze time and produce a shape that reveals a sequence of actions as one - as opposed to multiple separate things. In a way, I aim to show the true shape of action schemes.
How do your sculptures relate to your photography? Your V piece is, one way or another, a nude descending a staircase. So, we’ve got Muybridge and Duchamp there…
Juliana Cerqueira Leite: The sculptures preserve a specific sequence of actions in time, and chronophotography acts in a similar way. The way I use photography is to overlay actions to find something of their essence – in the sense that where they overlap most consistently the image is clearer. With the hollowing out of clay to produce a negative space the forms that are generated are produced by my repeated intention.
Is this just a formal exercise?
Juliana Cerqueira Leite: No. Its important to push figuration, formally into new directions. Its important to open up the possibilities for figuration. Werner Herzog once said that if we don’t create new imagery that we can use to explain our contemporary experience of being then we’ll die out like dinosaurs. I think figurative art just stopped in time. It’s important to generate a body that isn’t fixed and singular – and promote the sense of embodiment as being full of coexisting possibilities; mutable and changeable. The antithesis of my interest is a body fixed and defined by its social functions, by its temporal and political contexts. A body that isn’t allowed to change is a body as prison.