by Dilpreet BhullarSep 17, 2022
Sculpture as an art form and art practice has been traditionally dubbed as a simulation of the human form. The perfection of the human body—personified by the drawing Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci or the Renaissance sculpture David by Michelangelo—along with the annals of history have seen uniformity and balance as the two key principles to achieve this universal perfection. The act of questioning these assumptions saw a significant surge with the dawn of feminism in the 20th century. Decolonisation further motivated these movements to reclaim the female body that had for long been scripted by men. Contemporary artist Juliana Cerqueira Leite, a Brazilian-American artist based in New York, lends a fluid expression to her feminist sculptures in order to reconfigure the conventional history around body and femininity. With her long and successful art practice, Leite has investigated the materiality of the human body to question the meaning of humans. Her clay art practice emerges from the intersection of performance and fine arts to talk about personal histories and trauma—events in history, which could not be recorded otherwise.
As opposed to the rationality of men, women have been synonymous with untamed facets of nature. Historically, religions and early philosophy construed the idea of the feminine, as a means of forcing women into unnaturally limited roles and establishing a patriarchal society. In an interview with STIR, the sculpture artist informs, "This process coincided in many cases with a shift in relation to nature—one of material domination instead of familial, or spiritual connection. Working inside large volumes of material, like clay, or applying plaster directly onto my body to create shapes, I question the hierarchy between maker and material. I want to consider myself, an embodied natural animal, as inherently material. My relationship to materials is therefore often an exchange of qualities and possibilities.”
Even in geological science, the human body plays with scale concerning space. This idea was realised in the publication of a handbook Manned System Integration Standards by NASA in 1986. Anthropometry by Leite responds to the handbook's ‘grasp reach’ study, which shows an astronaut’s range of reach when they are strapped to the space shuttle’s chair. The large spherical sculpture art made out of the clay-lined mould sits like a model of NASA’s Space Shuttle chair. “Anthropometry began with the same questions that drove other sculptures of mine,” mentions Leite, “like Oh and Blind Spot. These are works that measure my range of motion—how far I can reach in all directions. They question the humanist ideas behind the Vitruvian Man of Leonardo da Vinci, which seems to show a divine, geometric symmetry in the human body. These works are made inside room-sized, wet clay-lined moulds.”
Constantly working on offering novel representations of the human form that could defy the norms of the human body, Leite has even collaborated with Steven Dubowsky, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, for an exhibition Orogenesis. The kinetic art sculpture created with a Neolithic stone points to the direction in which the earth is moving, once again complicating our notion of planetary movements. To create these works, Leite has been involved with an array of extremely delicate materials of clay, latex, and plaster.
A graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art in London with an MFA in sculpture, the sculptor started using clay and plaster in art school because these materials were free, non-toxic, and available in large amounts. “With time I became attracted to the fact that they are both extremely abundant on Earth, and very familiar to most people. This makes my work more accessible. Most people have memories of touching and handling these materials, which allows people to project themselves into the process of making my work. I have two tons of clay in my studio right now. I re-wet and use the same clay over and over, for years. It’s like having a gigantic, heavy, dance partner with an excellent memory. Plaster also has a relationship to time that I appreciate, turning from liquid to solid in a few minutes, and becoming strong enough to hold up my body weight. It remembers shape and texture for thousands of years if protected from water,” elaborates Leite.
Since body and performance are key to her practice, the visual artist thinks we need to redefine what a human being is in the world so that we can create more inclusive and less destructive relationships. “I use myself—my body, as people possessively say—as a material in order to question how we represent human beings to each other, and the narratives that determine our relationships to each other’s bodies, the environment and history,” explains Leite.