Body at Zero Gravity: Juliana Cerqueira Leite at the Naples Archaeological Museum

by Anna Kovler

Juliana Cerqueira Leite has described her working process as being similar to that of a worm. Working frequently with massive amounts of clay, she literally burrows inside of the heavy material, sometimes at the risk of being crushed. This line of thinking began for her as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London where she decided to challenge the idea of an artist “mastering” their material. What if the material crushed the artist? And, by extension, what are the dangers of perpetuating the master-slave relationship within artistic practice? Her answer came in the form of continual struggle, a realistic negotiation of power between artist and material imprinted into the clay itself.

The body is the focus of Leite’s sculptural production, the basic unit where human struggle takes place. Unlike her previous work where the body exerts force from semi-conscious movements like hand gestures, her newest research looks at involuntary physical movement. Pompeii is the starting point of this investigation. Leite is fascinated by the mummies unearthed at Pompeii, where the eruption of Mount Vesuvius created a unique scenario for the preservation of the body. Found in a fetal position, the corpses of the dead were covered in ash, which solidified before the body had decomposed, creating a mould. It was initially believed that the fetal position of the corpses recorded the moment of death, but later concluded that it was in fact the involuntary position taken by the already-dead body when exposed to heat. It is the natural contraction of human muscles.

The fetal position is not unique to the Pompeii mummies. Leite identified a formal similarity in a famous dance move, the trademark pose of dancer Martha Graham, and the “Neutral Body Posture,” the form of the human body at zero gravity, and the basic shape NASA uses to design spacecraft. For her upcoming exhibition at the Archaeological Museum in Naples, Leite will connect these three instances of the human body as it is reduced to pure physics and anatomy. She will work with dancers, recording their interpretation of the fear freeze response with motion capturing technology, and use this data to create a sculpture. The exhibition will also include a series of photographs showing the connection of patterns between the iconic dancer, NASA, and the mummies of Pompeii, a series of body casts, and a live dance performance.

Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s exhibition at the Naples Archaeological Museum is scheduled to open in spring of 2019. Her exhibition “Until Different” was recently on view at Arsenal Contemporary New York.


Mummies of Pompeii, Ancient Rome, 6th Century BC- 79 AD. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Martha Graham Dance Company. Graham pioneered the “Contraction and Release” principle in modern Dance.

NASA’s “Neutral Body Posture”, developed in Skylab studies.

Juliana Cerqueira Leite in her Brooklyn studio, 2018.