Juliana Cerqueira Leite

Juliana Cerqueira Leite on Pompeii and planetary motion

View of “Juliana Cerqueira Leite: Orogenesis,” 2019, National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Foreground: Anthropometry, 2019. Photo: Enrico Fiorese. Courtesy Alma Zevi Gallery.

To make her sculptures, Juliana Cerqueira Leite often crawls inside large mounds of clay, casting the imprints of her body. By prioritizing touch and spatial orientation, her research has led her across different disciplines to explore gestures both physical and psychic. In her latest show, “Orogenesis,” Leite links space travel to the archaeological remains of Pompeii though anatomical postures of vulnerability in the face of vast environmental extremes. Installed in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples through September 23, the exhibition speaks to the endless possibilities for embodiment that connect us as much to ancient humans as to an unknown future.

DURING THE EXCAVATION OF POMPEII, Giuseppe Fiorelli created an archaeology of the human body by pouring plaster into negative spaces where corpses had decomposed after being buried by ash and cooked by the heat of the volcano. For my exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, I was interested in bringing these figures into the present. There’s a lot of sedimentation of form and material in my work—it’s part of my engagement with forensics: trails, traces of movement, transmutations.

I was also in dialogue with the museum’s Farnese Atlas, a second-century sculpture of a Titan holding up one of the earliest three-dimensional models of the celestial sphere. For the show, I tied in my research on NASA anthropometry and modern dance to the excavation of Pompeii. NASA astronauts in zero gravity float in a very similar position to Martha Graham’s contraction. The Pompeii bodies look very similar: a fetal position but more open, oddly elevated and prepared for action, but also involuntary. I became really fixated on this position and how it repeated in completely different contexts.

Most people think the Pompeii bodies are in this contracted pose because they were fighting for their lives or shielding themselves from inevitable doom. The bodies are seen as evidence of a past human being’s desire to live. But they were already dead when their bodies moved into this position due to intense heat. In a way, the pathos of Pompeii rests on that confusion.

I was curious to see what it would look like if a human body was frozen while performing a defense response. So I did some research into a field I didn’t know existed, ethology, the study of behavioral responses in animals. For humans, it’s not just fight-or-flight; there are others like faint, freeze, beg for mercy, and jump and scream. These responses are species-specific instincts; they unify us as humans because they are part of our body plan. I rehearsed different scenarios with dancer and performer Meredith Glisson in front of a 360-degree array of cameras that captured her body from every angle and turned her into a digital file that I could 3-D print. I then edited this information in a sculptural way to create the impression that Meredith was within a cloud of movement, but also that she was a specific body within these possibilities of temporal duration. As Martha Graham would say: It’s not a pose; it’s not a form. It’s about driving yourself energetically to find movement.

Everyone knows that the Earth is spinning—I mean, most people consent to this. We’re moving around the sun, and the sun is moving around the center of our galaxy. The Earth and all of our neighboring galaxies are all shooting toward a dense region in the universe called the Shapley Supercluster. No one really knows what it is, but we are going toward it. In collaboration with MIT professor Steven Dubowsky, I made Atlas, a machine that points toward the Shapley Supercluster all day and all night. One of my favorite things as someone who is from the Southern Hemisphere is that it is generally pointing south. People think of north as a fixed point, but the North Star is like the only other car behind us on a really dark road. It’s just totally dark ahead—that’s what the experience of the Earth in space has become to me now, after making this sculpture.

Our world has become so photography-based, and photography is evidence of a certain kind of stasis. When you look in the mirror, you don’t look perfect every day. Sometimes you look like shit in the morning; sometimes you look wonderful, and you don’t even know why. I think that sense of physical embodiment gets destroyed by a very image-based culture. Sculpture is evidence of endless transformation; for me, this feels more truthful to lived experience than the stasis of an image.

For Anthropometry, I considered what we’re actually able to experience through touch at any given moment. I replicated a NASA “grasp reach study” by sculpturally creating the volume of my sphere of reach. I was inside this box mold, strapped to a replica of the space-shuttle chair, gesticulating in all directions into clay. The work is a ball sculpted from inside, scored by my fingertips, almost swallowing the chair like a crazy amoeba. I can’t even reach to certain parts of the chair; it’s right behind me, but there’s this blind spot in the center of the back. We’re reaching out into the unknown, actually quite blind and bounded by our very specific location in the world at any time, which is the body.

Right now, conservative governments are actively defunding major museums. Look at what happened to Brazil’s National Museum. It burned down because of the lack of funding for renovations. These spaces create narratives of human history; their collections are evidence of the roots of democracy, the roots of patriarchy as well. I think it’s really important for us to step out of the mind-set that idolizes the white cube. Why must the first destination for an artwork dissociate it from its own historical, political dimensions? As contemporary artists, why not approach these spaces to claim and edit their histories? This is the first time I’ve done that. And I’m going to do it again.

As told to Vanessa Thill