‘Tricky Territory’: In a New Book, Juliana Cerqueira Leite Looks at How Best to Represent the Vagina

Brazilian-American sculptor Juliana Cerqueira Leite has been working with the human body, specifically her body, in her art for the majority of her career. One ambitious project involved the Brooklyn–based artist casting various parts of her own body in alginate, including her vagina. Pretty soon, she was inviting friends to cast their own. (She made sure to get the okay from a doctor, or as she put it, “I phoned NYU’s OB-GYN educational department and managed to get a doctor there to really off the record say, ‘It should be fine.’ ”) All of this eventually led a book, titled A Potential Space, which will debut this weekend at the booth of London-based publisher Trolley Books at the New York Art Book Fair, hosted by Printed Matter at MoMA PS1 in Queens. (Leite will also be part of an artist talk, titled “The Book, the Woman and the Body Politic” with Tatana Kellner, moderated by Corina Reynolds, on Friday at 6 p.m. as part of the fair.) The book is wordless and has 83 pages, each one laser cut to map out a cast of one of the vaginas using a high-resolution 3-D scan. (In an email, the artist clarified that the vagina was not modeled on her own, but another woman who wished to remain anonymous.) Sumptuous and minimal, and printed on 250-gsm paper, the piece adds a new chapter to the long tradition of representing the female body, and specifically the vagina, throughout art history. I spoke with Leite, who was in Berlin at the time, by phone to find out more about the project.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

ARTnews: Can you tell me what happened with the casts of vaginas you had started to create?

Juliana Cerqueira Leite: I started to collect a small series of these sculptures and they were really fascinating. You definitely see the same topographies but not necessarily the same volumes. That’s when I started to realize that this wasn’t really a good sculpture project. I started to realize that, first of all, these objects were distortions of what I was trying to depict, and placing a series of these together created a comparative reading that I felt created these ideas of, “This is bigger; this is smaller.” I sat on it for a few years until the idea of turning it into a book came about. I started to think of it more and more, and kind of realized that it was a work of fiction. At that point, I decided this should be a book.

Juliana Cerqueira Leite's A Potential Space (2016). COURTESY THE ARTIST

Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s A Potential Space (2016).


What do you mean when you say “it was a work of fiction”?

The object itself is a distortion of what it’s representing because inside of the vagina there is no space. It’s completely closed in on itself. What I find is its best description anatomically is “a potential space,” and that’s actually an anatomical term that’s used to describe parts of the body. It’s essentially a space that exists only in potential in the body and it can be generated and activated. Why these objects are a fiction is that there is no effective way of realistically representing a form that doesn’t occupy space. We can do it through abstraction, we can do it through metaphor, but there’s no direct, representational method for showing something like. So it became clear to me that the only way to represent these was through this lie, through this fiction.

Do you think that calling it fiction can be interpreted incorrectly or be seen as problematic?

It’s definitely tricky territory. What I feel is a certain trapped-ness within a system of representation and language that doesn’t accommodate certain things about what the female body should and could and can and shouldn’t and won’t and doesn’t want to or does want to do in the world. By saying it’s a fiction, I want to point the problem out. I don’t want to reproduce the problem, but I am reproducing the problem. How can I represent this when the tools we have are only suitable for things that have a relationship to space that is generative? How can I show it without distorting it? That’s where it becomes a fiction in the sense that I’m forced outside the bounds of what representation can do in order to talk about this at all.

When I talk about it as a fiction, it also has to do with this very direct relationship with the problems of representing the female sex. There’s definitely this repeated art-historical use of the female body as a sounding board for working out problems in how the human being is depicted or thought about. Often that throws the female form into the language of metaphor and the language of fiction, and fails to depict the real female.

Juliana Cerqueira Leite's A Potential Space (2016). COURTESY THE ARTIST

Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s A Potential Space (2016).


Are you thinking of specifically of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World, 1866)?

It did come up in my mind. I wouldn’t say that that was the specific thought for me. I’m thinking more in terms of, for example, Cubism. If you talk about [Picasso’s] Les Demoiselles d’Avignon being the birth of Cubism, I think it’s very important to say, “Well, this wouldn’t have been able to occur in such an impactful way if it had been a painting of an object or a painting of a man.” The aggression of the deconstruction of the body in those images is facilitated by it being a female form because there’s this dehumanization that is possible through the use of the female body.

How do you mean that?

One way that I’ve been thinking a lot about this book is that it’s an attempt at re-reading or re-describing how the vagina is depicted and talked about. For example, this rhetoric of the female body being defined by an absence, a lack, a hole, a void, and in anatomy books, the vagina is described as a canal, a passage, a tube. When it’s illustrated, it’s usually illustrated in a way that is very similar to the negative space a penis would form in something. Doing these casts for me was very liberating because it changed that perspective. It says, “Wait, no, actually you don’t have a hole. You don’t have a space down there at all; it’s completely closed until you want it to be something else.”

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