Juliana Cerqueira Leite
ARTFORUM, by Rachel Churner
Jan 19, 2019
During the inaugural Antarctic Biennale in 2017, held aboard research vessels surrounded by icy desolation, the artist Juliana Cerqueira Leite met the architect Barbara Imhof while working on shee (Self-Deploying Habitat for Extreme Environments), inflatable housing for inhospitable terrain. Funded in part by the European Union’s Seventh-Framework Programme, the shee comes fully equipped with a kitchen, sleeping quarters, and working areas to provide one week of shelter. The artist obtained plans for a shee and built a cardboard-and-wood three-quarter scale replica in the back room of Arsenal Contemporary; in its retracted state, it looked like a truncated shipping container.
Over the course of the exhibition, Cerqueira Leite cast parts of her body as she negotiated the model’s tight interior spaces. While leaning into a corner, for instance, or sitting at a table, she filled the interstices between her body and the structure with different tints of plaster, so that layers of washed-out pink, yellow, and peach slowly accumulated every time she moved. The artist also gradually dismantled the shee as she worked in it. By the time the show closed, all that remained were roughly a dozen partial impressions of a body interacting with an architecture that was no longer there. Despite the humor in the metaphorically rich acronym for the provisional dwelling (the future is female, indeed), it was hard to avoid reading doom into the misshapen forms left behind.
The eleven works in this show brought up urgent questions of what and who will remain after a deadly catastrophe. The swirling, mottled stands of . . . a thousand year kind of flood//completely ripped off//whipped up and smashed//the living room//relationships that didn’t withstand//an additional 15 to 25 inches of rain . . . (all works 2018) dealt with a more familiar, yet no less horrifying, kind of devastation. Having compiled news interviews with people who lived through hurricanes, the artist reenacted, while immersed in a huge box of wet clay, the gestures they used to describe how high the water went, or how far the debris scattered. She then cast these depressions in pigmented Aqua-Resin, whose browns and pinks recalled geological stratifications, but appeared too artificial to mimic nature outright. Cerqueira Leite’s isolation of her motions (and, in the work’s cumbersome title, the phrases that elicited them) endows these events with an empathy and weight that normally gets lost in the barrage of media coverage, as one ecological disaster quickly supplants another. And yet, despite her dogged insistence on the specificity of meaning for each gesture, they are ultimately illegible. Is that raised index finger at the top of the sculpture wagging in reprimand, or demonstrating the swirl of wind?
Cerqueira Leite’s “Urns” collapsed further into indecipherability. The series of five sculptures takes as its starting point the large terra-cotta pots that were used in ancient Amazonian funerary rituals (the receptacles were originally intended to restrain and shape the spirit of the deceased; some were decorated as birds, while others had elongated limbs and stylized human faces). As with her duplicated shee, the artist used these objects to track the body’s encounter with an enclosed space. For Urn 5, she built a coil pot just big enough for a person to crawl into. She coated her body in Hydrocal, then twisted and struggled to escape it as it hardened. What remained was mangled clay from which rough, limb-shaped protrusions spilled out. The strongest work of the group offered the body itself as a vessel: Approached obliquely, Urn 1—with its impossibly thin white legs and dangling brown arms that seem ready to slide off a stool to the ground—has the slouchy insouciance of Sarah Lucas’s stuffed-pantyhose Bunny figures, which were on display at the New Museum, across the street from Arsenal. But seen from the front, the work evinces no recognizable form. Instead, the belly opens up to reveal a monstrous cavity. Of all works in the show, Urn 1 most urgently expressed Cerqueira Leite’s grasp of the dark costs associated with trying to break free of stifling molds.