The Subduction Zone
Juliana Leite: Orogenesis, Trolley Books, 2019
DH: When tectonic plates collide, the lateral pressure either forces surface material upwards along both sides of the fault line, forming mountain ranges, or causes one of the plates to buckle beneath the other, creating volcanoes. This process is termed orogenesis. Earthquakes and fiery mountains have always captured the cultural imagination, figuring prominently in origin myths, as a metaphor for political upheaval and psychological turmoil. Vesuvius is a paradigmatic case of a volcano that has destroyed and yet preserved a world. Perhaps it has even been creative, in terms of its cultural significance. As a sculptor, Leite often gives solid form to gestures and dynamic motions, such as climbing or reaching. Invoking the birth of mountains, the title of this exhibition proposes analogies between geologic configurations of matter and postures assumed by the human body.

NS: In many of her works Leite effects female nudes in plaster. This choice of medium engages particular symbolic and art historical tropes: plaster is a neo-classical material, and so we are immediately in the discursive realm of how a body should be represented. For the belle arti, classical sculptures of the sort housed in National Archaeological Museum were the best examples. Artifacts such as the Farnese marbles, and those housed in the Villa dei Papyri, were object lessons. In many academies, plaster casts of such sculptures were used as teaching models—to draw from, etc. Striving for a one-to-one relation to classical triumphs (in art, and perhaps even subjectivity) the academicians’ sought to fix, quite literally, upon the best—through a profusion of plaster copies. Through deployment of this indexical material, plaster, a certain aspect of academic art was a monument to ancient monumental sculpture and its bodies. But how could it ever achieve its task?

Consider the calchi. Human bodies buried under the ashes at Pompeii existed just long enough for negative casts to be made by natural accident. Later, these casts were refilled by human agency. The calchi are positive plaster casts of the negative space left by the bodies. Leite’s project invites one to speculate about the political function of the calchi as monumental sculptures of a sort (or sculpture-relics). Indulging this meditation, we must ask if they are merely monuments to the idiosyncratic life of particular people, and the tragedy that befell the town of Pompeii, or if they operate in another way. In the context of this exhibition, might they, for instance, support some kind of spiritual/metaphysical proposition in relation to the sculptural figures recovered from the same site? One looks to Juliana’s sculptures as conceptual mediators between the calchi and the classical sculptures of the Villa dei Papiri. But they seem to relate to more than that too…

DH: It is interesting to consider how this ancient world has been conjured for the modern imagination. The excavation of Pompeii began in the mid-eighteenth century, fueling an obsession with antiquity (and antiquities) that drew elite travelers on the Grand Tour over the Alps to Rome, and then further south to Naples. This was a journey on which new aesthetic categories were born. Once viewed as ugly and dangerous obstacles on the route to the beauties of Italy, mountains became sublime.1 Broken statues became transports for the imagination for the Romantics. In the rubble, poets and philosophers found keys to the grandeur of a lost past, tokens of mourning for Modernity’s secular fall from an ancient state of grace. From a piece of a broken classical sculpture (a hand; a foot) one might extrapolate to the complete figure. This imaginative operation relies on the underlying logic of an idealized body, whose perfect sculptural representation is implied by any given element. Ultimately the fragment becames an aesthetic form in its own right, and works of art and literature are created ‘unfinished.’

As you observe, Leite’s project brings the relic into dialogue with classical sculpture via the evidentiary artifact of archaeological excavation. If fragments are transports for the imagination, relics are transports for the soul—a hair, a fingernail, a shred of clothing, a bone from the foot of a saint, anchors a spiritual presence within historical time. While engaging with the calchi as aesthetic forms, Leite simultaneously offers them up as indices of profane bodies. The implication is that, like religious relics, the cachi contain fragments of a life, albeit an everyday life. A fragment of a classical sculpture is not just a piece of a figure that is beautiful in its formal proportions. It offers a glimpse of a lifeworld in which the gods were present and taken to inhere substantively within such artifacts. Leite returns to Pompeii to excavate other aesthetic logics using new bodily and material practices.

NS: Staying with material politics—the link between plaster and the relic is the death mask. In the ‘enlightened’ state that emerged in eighteenth-century France, archaic religiosity and the modern came together in this quasi-sculptural practice. Recall how Madame Tussaud’s first business was casting severed heads that fell from the guillotine. Certain heroes (ordained by the not entirely ancient regime of Christian monarchy) had to be torn down before a post-revolutionary Neo-Classicism could take hold in the arts, with the reliquary bridging the gap between art per se and the world as an aesthetic project. After toppling the old statues, and fragmenting so many real bodies, plaster casts of faces emerge as key symptoms of a post-revolutionary body. This said, we should note that such positive quasi-monuments, taken from negative casts, are made from wax, something even more soft and fragile than plaster—something closer to liquid. Certainly, this is a suggestive a metaphor for modern politics—that reality is infinitely malleable: sculptable.

DH: I am reminded of Linda Nochlin’s argument that, after the iconic use of the guillotine during the French Revolution, the fragment is always accompanied by the promise—and the threat—of revolution.2 As she argues, yearning after the coherent totality of an unbroken past is itself symptomatic of Modernity’s own fragmentation. This is expressed, in turn, by the elevation of the fragment to a position of prominence as an aesthetic form, from poetry and philosophical writing to painting and sculpture. What wax suggests is the destruction of an absolute ideal or reality. The re-assembled body is contingent, both materially and imaginatively. Reassembly is speculative and uncertain, but it is also potentially more radical, as you also have the possibility of making things (people, worlds) differently.

NS: You can melt wax down and reform it into a new face. You can grind plaster down to dust and reset it. Once the reliquary practice of casting from dead bodies and filling the subsequent mold is on the table, full-body mummification is not far away—closing the circle between relic and sculpture entirely. Ergo, Lenin: pumped full of chemicals—his corpse having become a mold for liquids, polymers, and waxes that take on his form from the inside. But I digress—

The conceit of Orogenesis is the seeming reoccurrence of a particular body position (rounded back, arms held up in front) across different contexts: the pugilistic attitude of the calchi; Martha Graham’s signature move, ‘the contraction’; and what NASA has identified as the Neutral Body Posture assumed in zero gravity. But what is it that really flows throughout these contexts?

DH: There is a certain essentialization of this pose that could only occur to a dancer or sculptor like Leite. A visceral intuition connects her investigations of Pompeii, dance, and space exploration. It is an association that might otherwise seem arbitrary. You can draw connections between Modern dance and the space age, as ideological gestures towards the future, for example. But the more significant issue is how the body, especially the female body, takes up space. These disparate contexts show us ways that the body can command or extend into space. It is not just a matter of appearance but, rather, the exhibition of the body’s potentialities that is at stake.

The pugilistic attitude is an automatic posture assumed by a dead body as it is heated, causing the muscle tissue to contract. By contrast, Graham’s contraction is a life pose: even as it purports to free the dancer from the deadening constraints of classical ballet and dusty ballroom choreographies, it requires a huge amount of energy and focus. It is expressive, in an ostensibly primitive sense, animalistic even—far from the passive, deathly pose of the calchi. It is, therefore, surprising that a zero-gravity context should produce the same posture. We might think of the body in outer-space as occupying a kind of liminal state between life and death, in which the astronaut loses muscle mass and is dependent upon an extensive technological prosthesis to survive, almost a state of suspended animation. Buried underground, dancing freely on the earth’s surface, or hovering above it, the body keeps on assuming this pose!

Is there some kind of corporeal wisdom at play in this position? Is it a pose we relax into? Or is it a mere compulsion? If so, what does it mean to take such a compulsion and transform it into an expressive practice, as per Graham’s move, or Leite’s sculptures? Assuming the pose deliberately, as Leite does in Calcify, offers a chance to interrogate what it feels like to be in this position unwillingly. The artist buries herself as if she was caught in the efflux of Vesuvius. Throughout the process she is conscious, whereas the historical victims were not. As such, there is a strange infusion of conscious awareness into the space of a dead body.

In contrast to an archaeological excavation, of symbols, artefacts, images or frescoes, Leite’s method suggests an excavation of affect—of the experience of being present there as a body smothered under ash. Hers is an eerie supplement to the archaeologist’s effort to reconstruct life as it was before the eruption. Perhaps through this reenactment there is a sense in which she seeks access to an afterlife lived within the space of the burial chamber, as imagined in the funerary practices of some cultures. In granting a measure of agency to the pugilistic attitude, the project gestures towards a transient state of being before the bodies disintegrated and left the empty spaces that would later be filled with plaster.

NS: Despite the formal evidence that Leite presents, it is not important for the viewer to truly believe that what looks similar is the same thing. By this I mean—Whether one believes Martha Graham’s claim that the ‘contraction’ is a key bodily expression (and/or whether the conceptual universe of this contraction necessarily maps onto the calchi) is not the the most interesting way into the project. Rather, it is enough to attend to the drama of Leite’s analogical thought. Analogy is a pillar of the mythic imaginary—wherein ‘if any entities or phenomena bear some resemblance, in any aspect, [then] they must be related’.3 Under this rule, the imagination wanders and, all of a sudden, you imagine the calchi as dancers. It is a dark yet intriguing idea, these bodies dancing underground—beneath a cloud of ash, within the great scenographic extravaganza of a volcano destroying a Roman seaside town. It is the aestheticization of these figures; the basis of a thought that turns the calchi, dug up next to antique sculptures, into art too.

Why not? They have already been displayed in various contexts, including museums. Leite’s work demonstratively delivers them up to aesthetic judgment and delectation. It is almost too much, and that is where things get interesting: The gesture seems to uncover something latent. Moreover, while making the calchi (or the persons they were) dancers, the work also reframes the NASA special study of the human form as a question of creative representation. I should say, species self-representation: Anthropometry explores what representation of the human figure enables. How, for instance, does it extend the body’s action in space? It would seem that rendering the human form effectively, in a systematic way, allows the body to act on a gigantic scale—exceeding the reach of the human hand, beyond a bio-corporeal scale, out towards the stars. Representation appears to be the original prosthesis. The image of the body and what it can do actually changes what the body really does—it enables it to do more.

DH: Leite builds Anthropometry by performing the possible range of arm reach motions from a seated position in a replica of a NASA space shuttle chair. This is the only work in the exhibition created with the artist’s distinctive procedure of carving out a void from within a block of wet clay and then casting it in plaster. Like the calchi, it is a cast of a space once occupied by a body in a liminal state. In this case, not a dead body but one dependent on an elaborate life support system, including the extensive energy, communications, and other technological infrastructure that makes space travel possible. We can think of this work as creating a fragment of hollow space that evokes the life that could be lived within it. Instead of a fragment of a larger solid form, Leite has offered us Vestibule (2017), A Potential Space (2016)—so many fractions of that limitless domain of (outer) space. Like fragments, these hollow spaces gesture at alternative spatial logics of completion.

NS: I am reminded of the first chapter of Michel Serres’ book Statues, which offers an astonishing triangulation in relation to what we are discussing. He comments on the Challenger rocket disaster of 1986, in which seven crew members were incinerated. He describes witnessing the event on television, and draws a parallel to ancient worship of the god Baal. Specifically, he talks about the Carthaginian practice of putting people inside a sculpture and burning it as a sacrifice to this deity. He writes that, in both cases, living bodies were interred within a casket of some kind and destroyed in front of a mass audience, and that the difference between the conceptual designation idol/sculpture and vehicle is what separates the Challenger disaster from a sacrificial rite. The latter concept renders the explosion (and so many more mundane incidents, like car crashes) an ‘accident’ rather than an indicator of structural depravity. Serres reminds us that the semantic difference is culture making. With the Challenger ‘what stands, in the end, before the multitude is a Trojan horse leaving at a gallop for the moon’. Moreover, he concludes, ‘the idol and the rocket are tombs’.4 His ultimate question is ‘are our scientific societies still founded on human sacrifice?’ How does this bear on Pompeii? We have called the city’s destruction an accident, but what if some part of its reality is something else? Certainly, interpreting the Pompeii disaster is a key rite for archaeologists focusing on the classical period. Leite is getting at something here…

DH: Pompeii is a paradigmatic natural disaster. The site, frozen in time, appears to be set of a living theatre—replete with figures caught in the moment. It is tragic in the high poetic sense. In terms of its cultural genesis, tragedy converts the spectacle of human sacrifice into art, staging coming to terms with a terrible destiny and extracting a higher meaning therefrom. Pompeii is commonly allegorized as a natural disaster in which everyone is a hero because death is inevitable. Everyone, even the bit players in the narrative of Roman society, are remembered, in the form of the calchi. Even the servant girl is memorialized and, in a way, elevated to the status of the sculptures of gods and heroes buried beside her. Whereas the modern era wants for truly natural disasters (in which we are not, somehow, complicit), there is only glory in dying under the dramatic force of the volcano’s fury.

NS: You’re right. That (myth-making) analogical regard puts the calchi and the classical statues on the same plane. It is an ecumenical thought, from the present. The tragedy happened in a classical historical moment, but the mythos of the calchi as heroes is part of our rite. The Romans made no statues with that kind of pathos. The Romantic take on Pompeii is that the the gods were buried with their people. A contemporary view would be that the people were elevated to the level of the gods.

DH: This is interesting because in their early 1990s an Icelandic vulcanologist named Haraldur Sigurdsson went to Indonesia’s Mt Tambora, looking for the Pompeii of the East—a fantasy of a kingdom encapsulated intact under ash.5 It is not so much that a fabulous well-developed society/settlement was reputed to have existed there, but more that the prospect of being buried under a volcano confers grandeur. He did find some things on his first excavation, but further digging yielded little else. There is a metaphorical traffic between the way in which a society falls and the value that it appears to have.

NS: Let’s talk about the rite. Contemporary life is, arguably, an ongoing disaster. Moreover, following Serres, it appears as though our society is founded on human sacrifice. Now, when Leite draws a line between the calchi and Martha Graham’s work it is hard not to view the ‘contraction’ as a flinch. The circulation of implication (in Orogenesis), which makes the calchi dancers, also sets up Graham’s modern dancers as performing some kind of trauma: It makes the contraction a death dance; a spasmodic beat in a death rattle.

DH: The other way to think about Anthropometry is that it is exactly how you would try to dig yourself out of your own grave. Instead of an exuberant dancer, the astronaut becomes a flaccid little worm, groping around inside a tin can. It is morbid….

NS: And we should mention that Leite’s last important project was an engagement with Amazonian funeral urns of a spherical shape.

DH: There is something very important about Leite’s invitation to imagine your own embodiment by seeing an image of the space that you take up; literally, the volume traced out by postures and gestures. Here is a woman performing the act of taking up space and monumentalizing that performance. NASA had to cancel what would have been the first all female spacewalk, recently, because they only had one space suit in a woman’s size. The mission was eagerly anticipated for its symbolic significance. That old saying “you make the path by walking” stings when a way forward is obstructed. Making space for oneself is an intensely laborious process. Leite exhibits this, by digging, groping, and scooping her way through immense mounds of clay.

In Anthropometry, she is exploring a pose in which everything one needs is within arms’ reach. It is a pose in which all of the conditions of life are designed to be as manageable as possible for a worker operating within a very small space. In SHEE (2018) Leite investigated another architectural prosthesis of the space program, the Self-Deployable Habitat for Extreme Environments (SHEE)—a robotic expandable structure meant to facilitate simulations of life on Mars, and offer shelter in disaster zones and terrestrial extremes. Rather than casting the nominally comfortable living environs offered by this protected bubble, Leite excavated the interstices of the apparatus in its collapsed form. She was interested in what is prior to open space, and all the support infrastructure involved in keeping it open, so she crawled around in the collapsed structure, taking its measure with her body and plaster.

Is there an impulse to life in the space program, or is it a death wish—the nihilism of a culture that projects its fantasy of life into space while neglecting the habitability of our own planet? Where does taking up space with a life impulse begin, with respect to outer space? Does it begin with a female body? Personally, I think the contemporary outer space program is death-wish bullshit. But. Juliana is performing what it means for a female body to take up space within the apparatus of the space program. Hers is a different agenda To press the analogy all the way, in Leite’s sculptural logic she is looking for the vagina of the space program. She treats SHEE the same way she treats the vagina in A Potential Space, which is created by making a mold of the vagina using alginate, a soft body-casting material. In a philosophical sense, this project employed a particular method of body casting to look at what the vagina is in and for itself rather than for another—a penis, or the phallus.

NS: I like that. Her artistic agenda is the Female Space Program. This wordplay lets us speak about a female relation to a state techno-industrial project that colonizes outer space (usually on behalf of men). But it also lets us address the exploration of spatial agency at the level of individual (female) bodies—what can be reached, etc. In this latter sense, perhaps the Male Space Program was traditional fine art. This double implication also illuminates the distinction between accident and rite. What is rite delivers rights. The accident of one’s body as female, for instance, is set against the choreography of a galactic phallus; the erection a prosthesis that pushes outward towards the stars. A massive tool.

It seems as though the female space program cannot operate in virgin space, because the idea of such space underpins the male space program. The female space program has to trace its own path through cosmic manspreading; it has to dig its way, find a potential space within this big other; within a manspreading that reaches from the grave to the stars. I think that this is what you mean by finding the vagina of the space program. And I suppose that this new path (or program) traverses regions that the male space program has trodden, and finds them littered with statues, heroes, and limbs. It works its way through a ground of male images, or figural manifestations of a male space—sculptures of dicks; sculptures made by dicks—and uncovers a potential space for (another) sculpture, in places unrecognized as such, wherein things like the calchi are revalued.

DH: Right—how do we explore space without merely projecting into it whatever assumptions, desires, or investments will fit? This is precisely the point in Leite’s previous work A Potential Space. How do you find out what shape a vagina is, other than having it assume the shape of a speculum, a dildo, a dick? It resists being known. It remains a hiding place (a place that hides). There is an art to palpating space(s)—as there is to knowing the past. In fact, one could compare the eighteenth century desire to possess antiquity to the space race today.

NS: Orogenesis takes place amid the recovered objects from the Villa dei Papyri: an upper-class domestic collection that includes busts of philosophers, poets, etc. So, Leite’s sculptures are installed within a pantheon of historical and allegorical figures. While her motif is, in one sense, formal (some sculptures come into being through algorithmic processes, based on repetitions and rules), an invitation to myth and allegory obtains. That after digging through the layers, visitors should uncover a female space program, an inner space, demonstrates that Leite’s project is in no way classicizing. Sometimes the most contemporary artistic statements actually take place in a museum full of old marble. In as much as we might marvel at the balanced and polished forms of the Villa dei Papyri sculptures, and observe them pulsing with Olympian divinity, Leite’s repetition and fragmentation monumentalizes the body anew. Leite speaks to the body’s fleeting temporality—a being that is only partially visible during any given action. Her work suggests a finite body in an unfinished representation. This aesthetic conjures more of that particular body; more body to come; more embodiment. Orogenesis is not solely an activation of the national museum’s collection, as much as a fundamental statement about occupying space…

DH: Yes, but finally, I want to return to moving mountains, to orogenesis. There is also an insight about our relationship to force: natural forces, technological might, the agency of our own body here. Leite’s Orogenesis is a dance of receptivity to forces that overwhelm us. The weight of matter and history on our bodies. Playing with the question of how we position ourselves in relation to threats, it demonstrates the importance of resistance to maintaining muscle mass, literally and figuratively. The distinction between mountains and volcanoes is that the volcano always holds the potential for change from within, as opposed to the mountain, which erodes from without. There something suggestive about the volcano for Leite’s practice, in so far it is odd, as a sculptor, to dig her way through our out of a mass of matter, rather than chiseling away at it from the outside. Leite’s sculptural practice operates within the subduction zone, in sculpture’s unstable ground, where there is always potential for new becoming.

1 Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1959) Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite, University of Washington Press, Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classics-Reprint Edition 1997
2 Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity, Thames & Hudson, London and New York,1994.
3 Elizabether Wayland Barber & Paul T. Barber, When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2004, p.34.
4 Michel Serres, Statues, p.4.
5 Site of the largest volcanic eruption in the last 10,000 years (1815).