TRACING THE BODY: GESTURE AND MATERIALITY IN THE WORK OF JULIANA CERQUEIRA LEITE . AMELIA JONES
Where does the body begin and end? How does the artist’s body relate to the work of art? In conventional Western aesthetics we could say that a work of art is the record or materialization of a body’s expressive action (what phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty has called an “intentional arc” of movement and gesture1).
In Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s new work, made during a residency at the Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado in São Paulo and exhibited there in 2013, she explores the hinge between embodied action and artistic expression. Where is this hinge? What separates the action from the final materiality that we (as gallery-goers) encounter as a “work of art”? How do we interpret or engage with the material forms that resulted from the artist’s former actions? How do we relate these forms to her corporeal intentional arc, the gestural extensions of her embodied self in the moments in which the works were being made? How does that temporality of the work’s “having been made” in the past relate to our experience of it now, now that the trace is frozen in space and time?2
Each of the works in the São Paulo show examines these questions in different ways, with an insistent, repetitive focus on bodily gesture and the relationship between this gesture and its material traces—the images, shapes, objects, environments that remain after the gesture has been completed. In Columns, for example, we encounter two lumpy white plaster columns, the height of an average woman (about five and a half feet), punctured by large asymmetrical holes. The inside surfaces of these apertures have the texture of skin; they are not cut directly through the column, but bend partway through, obscuring our view. The hollows are fleshy casts from parts of the Cerquiera Leite’s body that bend—elbows, wrists, knees. But the relationship between these bends and the rigid sculptural form is one of tension rather than ease: capturing the bending of joints, the artist illustrates the body’s capacity to move while, paradoxically, doing so through freezing its movement into the inverse of the cast body part. Rather than “reading” the forms as “representations” of bodily movement through space and time, we experience the forms as bodily extensions that convey a process of the body’s having moved in the past, a process rearticulated as artistic form (rendered static) in the present.
With the graphic works Horizontal, Vertical, and Diagonal Cerqueira Leite produces large-scale imprints of her body, which leaves literal traces on the canvas support (oriented horizontally, vertically, or diagonally according to her movements through space). The pictures are both luscious fields of color, energetic in their implication of the body’s past intentional arc as it pressed, rolled, swiped, slapped, and otherwise marked the two dimensional plane of the image, and graphic renderings of bodily movement (like dance diagrams, but ones made after this action by registering its traces). Clearly reminiscent of Yves Klein’s notorious Anthropometries of the early 1960s, where Klein, wearing a tuxedo, would publicly perform the act of directing or dragging naked women coated in “Yves Klein blue” paint across canvases mounted on the wall or laid on the floor, Cerqueira Leite’s pictures propose a totally different kind of relation between the female body and its indexical imprint. In this case the imprint of a clearly female body is, again, driven by the intentional arc—in particular, that of a model who is also an artist (female, Brazilian), highly aware of the connections between her embodied actions in the “now” and their artistic traces to be presented “later.”
In the Fold and Gesture series, Cerqueira Leite rearticulates these relations of embodied action (creative or just plain motivated and directional) and representation, posing in different ways again the question of where bodily movement “ends” and art “begins.” In Fold, the artist poses, photographs herself with old-fashioned slide film, and then, through a series of projections, foldings, and rephotographings, produces a blue field of body parts fragmented and haunted by the tension between the signification of her original gestural actions and the multiple representational actions that distorted and refigured this movement into a ghostly image field. The Gesture works even more directly address socially significant bodily movements (“gestures” that come to mean in terms of individual and social codes) and the inside-out complexities of embodiment as we apprehend it through its movements and its representations. In this case, the representation is again an imprint or index of a gesturing body: hollowed out sculptural forms made of plaster are mounted on wire frames like Greek amphorae in a museum; these vase-like shapes were cast from her arm and hand as they gesticulated to convey social concepts (such as “come here”) or as they completed an action (washing hands).
Cerqueira Leite’s explorations of the power of bodily gesture to produce communicative traces in the world (as “art”) can be thought of as actively enacting the phenomenological notion of the “style of corporeality” through which the body is performed in the world and takes on meaning. The hinge between this intentional arc and the work of art is the bodily trace, which in Cerqueira Leite’s case is also the work of art. And yet, far from claiming some kind of essentializing truth to the body or, for that matter, to the work of art, the brilliance of Cerqueira Leite’s insistent plays along this hinge is the way in which the resultant objects and images, so phenomenologically rich in their staging of bodily gesture in or as the work of art, instantiate what Merleau-Ponty called a “fold” where the “flesh of the world” becomes manifest.3 Perhaps the artist’s ultimate message is, then, the fact that the body makes the world exist in and for us, and art is one of its potentially richest modes of extension.
1. See Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (1945), tr. Colin Smith (New York: Humanities Press, 1962).
2. I explore this aspect of Leite’s work in my examination of the climb is also the fall in the brochure for the exhibition I organized and in which I included this work; see Material Traces: Time and the Gesture in Contemporary Art (Montréal: Leonard and Ellen Bina Gallery, Concordia University, 2013), 19.
3. Merleau-Ponty, "The Intertwining—The Chiasm," Visible and the Invisible (1964), tr. Alphonso Lingis, ed. Claude Lefort (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 130-155.