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“The body canvas” An in-depth interview about João Leonardo’s body politics

The Interview was conducted by Lisa Hauke and Maria Wüstenhagen at the artist studio in Bamberg, in January 2011, and printed in the exhibition leaflet One Hundred And Six Columns, Four Heads And One Table, Villa Concordia, March 2011

You will show an exhibition at Villa Concordia from 11th of February to 11th of March: You collected cigarette butts in Bamberg and made sculptures out of them. Could you tell us something about the general idea? 

I’m a natural born collector and I use these collections to make my work. These kinds of object-base assemblages or installations are a substantial part of my output. I collected cigarette packs, plastic caps, crossword puzzles, among others. These are objects that relate to the daily actions of my life.  But with this exhibition I wanted to open up this methodology and actively invite people around me to contribute to my collections. Of course I keep all the cigarettes I smoke, but the essence of the work its precisely the fact that most of the cigarette butts come from other people. Part of the challenge of the work was to create a routine were I systematically would collect the cigarette buts from different places of the city and from different contributors. 

Since the beginning the idea of the exhibition followed this general rule: I wanted to collect the cigarette butts and transform them, like recycling them in a way. So then, the core idea is to have an object that is thrown away in the garbage and keep it, preserve it. Then trial and select all of them, separate the papers from the filters, recollect the ash and also collect the tobacco that is inside them. So everything was useful and everything was used and preserved, as if it was something precious. I find a sort of beauty in these banal things; I think, what artists do, is to make something visible that is not usually visible. It’s like giving life to something. When you see the exhibition you see several pieces that will create this effect hopefully. For example you have the collection of all the little papers, everything organized with a certain systematic logic. I see beauty in this orderly kind of display.

But returning to your question, the essence of this exhibition is to collect as many cigarette butts as I can and to transform this material into something else. I have a clear idea of what the exhibition is going to look like: The sculptures are spread along the exhibition room. Then, there is an area that is more object-based, on the left side there are the framed pieces  – the works with the papers and the filters, the diptych and cigarette pack calendar – and on the other side there are paintings. Of course for me painting is another tool that expands the concept: all the paintings are made with liquid nicotine and discarded tobacco or with ashes and other material that comes from the collected material. But because they are on canvas, I’m playing with the idea of traditional painting using my own strange material. 

I don’t define myself as a painter or as a sculpture or as video artist – I use a variety of media. There’s a big variety of mediums which I like. It’s funny, an artist friend visited me here, who helped me stretch the canvas – he is very proud to define himself as a Painter. I understand him and respect that position, but for me this would be very limited. I think you have a much more complete way of expressing yourself when you can touch all these different mediums. Off course the sculptures are kind of the stars of the exhibition, because I like them a lot, they are impressive, but I’m going to show other things as well.
So you have one idea, which you are realizing with different media?

Exactly, one idea, one concept – I have this process, this collection, then I think, what sort of things can I make with it.

Is it like a play?

It is a play, totally. I deliberately create the works in response to the material and not so much illustrating one exact idea. Especially in conceptual art all the work is done in your head and when you’re going to make it, you know exactly what is going to happen. In my case I first wanted to just play with the things in the studio – of course, I have to have some ideas, what am I going to do, this doesn’t start from zero – but it was very much an intuitive process. 


Yes – to see: this piece doesn’t work, this I like, that I don’t like – but it wasn’t like thinking the title of the exhibition is this or the pieces should be around this. It was really a play and an extraordinary period in having this studio and this opportunity to be here, to use it like that. Normally I don’t have these conditions. Most artists, when they are emerging artists, you probably live where you work and there is always this mixture of these things. But being in the residency has been fundamental for my development; I go to the studio, I can be here eight or ten hours a day and I can work. I can treat it like it is an office – then I lock the door and go home, to cook, watch TV and hang out with my friends and so on. Keeping this consistency helps me develop.

We want to get back to the action of collecting – what does it mean for you, why is this so central in your work? 

You can say collection but before the collection is the action of repetition. In purely aesthetic terms I really like to see an object that is repeated in a space. It makes me think about us, about being humans. We are about seven billion people on the planet, we are all different, everybody is unique and special, but in a way, when you think in abstract terms – which I often think in, it’s a kind of zooming out of your consciousness – we are one big creature, we have this essence. I know this sounds a little bit esoteric and mystical – it’s not that I believe in these things, I feel these things, I truly feel empathy for people. I think we are part of something bigger. Even when I see the cigarettes or the caps or something else, I see:  There is this very specific organism, which is one of these hundreds but in the end it’s one thing. That’s one of the reasons, I guess. 

When we created the poster you said that you are really into numbers - has for example the length of the period of collecting any meaning?

It always has some meaning – but the idea about numbers, what I love, is not in a mathematical sense – also I’m very bad with counting, but what I feel about mathematics is, that it’s truly a universal language. It’s the language of science, many scientists say, it is the language of God. 

It’s again not a conscious thing. I can feel it. There is a beauty in mathematics, a beauty in order, that’s the thing I like about numbers. Of course I would like to have round numbers that the whole exhibition would be the result of a period of twelve months of collecting – that would be ideal. In fact I’m still collecting everyday – probably after the exhibition opens I will have it in this specific timetable. Why? Because it’s like a unit, a measurement of time, there are 12 months, about 360 days, there are pieces that actually repeat this number, there are four seasons and you have the number four in one piece. There are little details, it’s connected but in a subtle way, it doesn’t have to be in your face. 

It’s not like: for this piece I use exactly 100 cigarette butts because of something …

No, no, no. Again: I like mathematics, but I like chaos as well. It’s also part of the play to embrace the randomness of things. I can’t control how many cigarettes I will find in one day. That’s part of the piece, sometimes you have a lot, sometimes you have less. I also use the randomness of luck. This has to do with the rules of the universe, there is a randomness and at the same time this mathematical thing – there is this duality which I try to explore in a way. 

You are not only collecting cigarette butts, you are collecting other things as well: cigarette boxes, pacifiers, you also collected your sperm. Do you collect to try not to forget or are you afraid of losing something – to document things with photos, it’s always like keeping things …

Preserving. Yes. Well, different objects have different meanings – apart from the pacifiers, the caps, there are also the gloves that people lose, that I’ve been collecting for some time now. There is something about memory with all this. It’s an attempt to preserve things and it’s also ingrained in me. Don’t forget! That’s important for me, because it’s the same with history. Like that quote “The ones, who forget history, are condemned to repeat the same mistakes.” I’ve studied history and I am fascinated by it. Again there is another quote: “study the past if you want to understand the present”. 

But coming back to the question, obviously I want to preserve the objects I’m collecting. There is this need of keeping their memory somehow. Anyway different objects and materials have different meanings, but there is connections and relationships between them: the sperm for example is a substance that comes out of the male body, a cigarette introduces nicotine inside your body. Again I see the bigger topic: duality. And if you see the show you’ll see there is an image of a womb and an image of a skull; it has to do with darkness and light, life and death. 

Maybe I didn’t answer the question correctly (laughs), but it’s because there are a lot of things to say about these different objects. There are also things I’m collecting I don’t know yet what am I going to do with them. I just enjoy the process of collecting them. I think: OK, I have still five or ten years to decide what to do with this.

Is it like a performance per se?

Yes, in a way you can see it definitely like that. 

There are things I’m very keen on and that it’s an ongoing slow accumulation process. But I like the experience in Bamberg where I have people who’ve contributed. So maybe I can put an open call on my website saying, if you like to contribute to my pieces, I’m collecting pacifiers, gloves and so on, so that people could send me these things. That could be interesting as well. 

Another central theme in your work is your body - you said: I’m interested in the body. What does that mean for you, what does your body mean for you?

It’s not my body specifically. Honestly. (laughs). It could be, because of the tattoos. I love tattoos; it’s an art form in itself. It’s a piece of art that you wear. It lives with you and it dies with you. It’s like a canvas that you transport. The body is our home; it’s where our emotions and thoughts live, where our whole consciousness is physically contained. If you look through the art history, the body IS a central theme. Like the first really documented sculptures, the Venus of Willendorf; it’s a pregnant woman, which is fantastic: it’s the celebration of life – it’s something very spiritual. There is a connection between body and spiritual aspects of life. 

I also like the body, because it’s very aesthetic; it’s very precious and special.  

Maybe we can go much more into details. We thought about body artists, like the artists of the “Viennese Actionism” – they use their body to show something, they destroy it, immolate it and paint it. Smoking, tattooing is also a sort of forming, destroying your body. Do you see any connections, do you relate to them in your work? 

It’s a good question because some people especially informed by my video art associated me with these artists. Of course, I respect and I appreciate that specific movement, but I think they were responding to a very specific context, which was the repressive society of Vienna, they wanted really to have something very visceral from the guts and everything. I can relate myself a little bit to that and I think some pieces that I’ve done a few years ago, could be related also, because in Portugal we were a little bit repressed – and I don’t think that anybody in Portugal did the things that I was doing with that courage, I guess, to spread it in your face. 

But I’m a bit more on the side of the Fluxus art movement of that same period. I’m very interested in dance for example and choreographers like Pina Baush – she has had a big impact on me. And I like other performance artists that don’t go into such extreme actions, for example Vito Acconci or Marina Abramovic – she is a little bit subtler. Although sometimes she can be very “in your face”. 

For a while I thought about working with performance, but I’m just too shy. I could do performance, but it’s like everything within my video works: I have to be alone, it has to be a very strong concentration and I wouldn’t do it live. So I can’t consider myself as a performance artist. But I love performance, and I think, that you could see many things that I do as performances – but as time-based performances that are stretched over a very long period.  

Your works are also related to the topic: addiction, which is really related to the body, not only smoking also drinking and sex.  Is this an idea, a subject, which you can only show with your body? 

When you think about the concept of addiction, actually, if you break it down, the origin of the word addiction comes from: you + something else – so you add something else to your body, normally it’s a drug, a substance that you become dependent of. These two together - that’s what makes the addict. When you are an addict you go away from yourself, you need to add something else to become you. That’s something that I’m interested in exploring, because I have addicts in my family, I have friends who died from overdoses, I know people who are sex addicts.

What is interesting about this and also related to the body: When you are addicted to something you have something that you can’t control, the body takes control over you. This is really bizarre, because your body doesn’t want you to inject heroine or to smoke – it’s your brain that wants it. It’s the complex chemistry of our brains that craves it. It’s something that I often refer to or try to analyze because I’m really interested in it. I care about it. In today’s art world the art that is “in” has to be very political, artists say things like: “we care a lot about people in Africa, we are feminists” and so on –  and I think there is a big cynical aspect to all this. I really doubt some artists really care about the subjects they are trying to comment on or if they are just playing the game trying to impress the curators. 

Would you call yourself a political artist, anyhow? 

(He laughs) How much more political do you want me to be, if I’m a person who actually goes out to the streets, in the garbage, collecting garbage – I think this is taking action to change the world. It’s not like taking a picture of a homeless person and say: I care really about the homeless’ problems. And then put the picture in a gallery and sell it.  I’m not that cynical. The art that I do is something that I do for myself and for the people I love. I do it because I really care. I do it because I have something to say.  Starting by looking at myself in the mirror and say: Look you have these problems how can you address that? It’s not that I find myself so special, it’s because that I know from experience that other people can see themselves in the works as well. We are talking about being human in the end. 

So do you have the intention to spread a specific message?

Not in conscious way but in a visual way, yes. Hopefully something stays. That’s the thing, it doesn’t have to go through words and it’s a visual thing. I believe, when you go to see the exhibition, when you go out, you’ve found something. It’s a little bit like going to a shrink, you don’t really know what happens, what he or she says, but after that something is a little bit clearer. I think that good art does that in your mind. 

Another theme, which seems to be important in your work, is gender roles and sexuality – are you related to a theory like the queer theory – we especially think about the video work “Funeral party”. 

Yes, that’s a specific piece that you could write an essay about and talk about all these things. But again I don’t feel so confident in intellectual terms. 

When I explain what’s behind a piece, I have to make an effort not to say too much. That’s also a problem. If I tell exactly what I think about the piece, I’m giving you all the keys to enter. The work should be ambiguous enough for you to find your own key, to find your own mechanism to relate to it. Of course, different people have different ideas; I like that, that’s the way it should be. 

At that time I made the video, I was reading some stuff about queer theory, gender roles and so on. And I’m gay and everybody knows it, but that it’s not something that I put out like a flag.

You wouldn’t say, that your homosexuality plays a role. 

Well that’s a question. I don’t think it’s a central theme, but I think if you read through the underlines, you can see that there is a sensibility. 

It’s like asking a heterosexual artist …

Yes exactly, if his heterosexuality is important for his work, and his work is abstract. Of course, if you want to see something, you’ll see something. But maybe this theme could appear later and I will address this subject in different works in the future; but it’s not an essential thing right now.

Although I care about sexuality and I think sex is important definitely; it’s in the core of many of our emotions, in the core of many of our relationships, and I’m not only talking about the relationships that you have through sex, sometimes it’s almost like a chemical thing. There is this animal inside of you. I’m very conscious about this.
Was that the reason for collecting your sperm? 

No, that was for a very specific piece. Of course, I care about being original, but this was not made to be original. 

In this case it was like that: I often try to project myself in the future when I am thinking about the exhibition. I imagine I am another person, and this person is going to see an exhibition of me, then I project myself and I try to see what is in this exhibition. I was thinking about children actually: maybe the first time the kid sees sperm, instead of seeing it in a porno movie like it happened to me when I was very young, maybe it could see it in a sculpture in a museum, with his parents and they could explain: this is a white liquid, this is something that comes out of the bodies of men, with this, that goes inside an egg, that makes a human being – and have this mature talk, because I think sex education is important for children, there are many levels. 

To another topic: you have said, that you don’t want to give the key to the viewers, they should think about the art by themselves – you’re writing in your essay “words don’t come easy”, that you want to achieve non-verbal communication, on the other side: you are really present in the internet, your homepage is very detailed, you are writing about your work, you are explaining it. 

And you see a contradiction in this? 

Yes, a little bit, this would be my question – and more: Are you scared, that your works are going to be misinterpreted? 

No, I don’t care about that. I care about the public, about what people think, but I don’t want to control it. I never underestimate the public’s intelligence and that is very important I think: to care and respect the public.  Specifically about the website: of course, there’s a little explanation, why do I do that? Because when I see a site of an artist that I don’t know I like to have this information. I think it’s a generous thing to do. Of course, you could just put the picture and the title and with that information you make up your own mind. That is ok, when you are in the exhibition space, when you are really confronted with the object, that’s how it should work; but on the Internet, when you don’t have the measurements, when you don’t have the perception of the scale of the things, as much information you can give helps the reader, to have a clear idea of what it is. Of course, I make the effort to concentrate and not say too much, just to contextualize a little bit. 

It’s hard to believe that you can’t find words … like you want to say it through the title “words don’t come easy”

(He laughs). I think: the works are richer than anything I could say about it; the works are completed not for that what I say about them, but they are completed by the viewers, by the different people, who complete the work in a different way. 

Another thing is that: of course, I’m mortal, I’ll have to die, hopefully in many, many years – but once that happens and if I achieve a certain recognition for what I do, the works will be preserved. I won’t be here to explain what they are; I won’t be here to write about them. I really hope that in a hundred years the works still exist and that people still see things in them – resisting the test of time, which all good music and all good art does. And maybe in one hundred years there are no more cigarette smokers in the planet so the works will be seen as something very rare and disturbing. I don’t know. Maybe they will think, that is “so much 2000s!” But I think when the work is so abstract it could have been made in the 50's maybe, hopefully it will resist the test of time.

We want to talk about your stay in Bamberg. Do you think that the location, the architecture or the city has some influence on your work?

I can say straight away: yes. Specifically because of the church St. Michael. I heard about the plants on the ceiling and I was interested especially, because all these plants are medicinal herbs, which are affecting your body, your brain. I wanted to check that. But as I came there, I was confronted with these fantastic “memento mori”-statues, which seem really modern: They remind me of Damien Hirst’s work. It’s not the celebration of death, but it reminds you – really in your face – that you are going to die. I took lots of pictures and I chose one to make one of the works shown in the exhibition, the skull of filters. 

Bamberg is very impressive; you have to be affected by it. Because it’s romantic, and I’m romantic by nature. I feel the city, feel the architecture, you almost feel a little bit out of time, sometimes at night if you walk alone in the light of a full moon at midnight and everything is empty and there is fog and the sound of the bells; it’s very photogenic. In that sense it reminds me of Lisbon, it’s so photogenic as well.

When I accepted the residency, I checked, what is this Bamberg … I said: ok, it’s a small city, but I could see myself enjoying this time here. I love New York and I like big cities and I love the energy of these anonymous, giant cities. But here I like that it has a different time. It’s great to walk from the studio to my home, from home to the supermarket. I like routines, routines help me to become stable, help me to be calmer; it has to do with everything I do. But another part of me likes chaos … there is an exchange. 

Again the duality. 

Yes, but I’m Libra with an ascendant sign in Gemini. It’s all dual (he laughs) 

How is the get together with artists from other disciplines. Are you influenced by them? 

I enjoy it a lot. I wish I had more time to develop. I definitely would have made a collaboration piece, even with the writers and the musicians. But the time wasn’t there. I feel very lucky, because the group works very well, there is no antipathy, everybody is very polite and nice. In that sense it was very good.
Last question: Do you have some dreams, some projects, you want to realize? 

I have a lot of dreams and I have a lot of ideas. 

Explain a few. 

OK. Just two. (he laughs) 

One for example is to make a public sculpture in bronze. I know that will cost a lot of money, but hopefully there will be some open calls … I want to have something public. Why? Some of my work is very vulnerable and fragile and needs all this protection and care to be preserved. I would like to have a piece that is on the opposite side of this spectrum; you know something really resistant, heavy and big. I can see children playing around it or animals, for example in the middle of a field with cows. I have already some rough ideas, it could be the pacifiers or another stage of the cigarette piece, keeping the shapes but translated into a noble material like bronze. 

There is another thing, which is really completely crazy: to make a smoking machine. I probably have to contact people in Japan, the most skilled people from the field of robotics, and also medical people, because the idea is to create a machine that reproduces exactly the respiratory system with a mechanism, that you insert cigarettes and the machine will smoke them, you see there is a filter, which filters the nicotine and a pair of artificial lungs. When the piece is on show, you will put a pack of cigarettes and the thing will smoke them and you will see how it works. It’s like a very deranged subversive Pinocchio!

Of course this is very specific. I also dream of material things, having a home, having a studio in Portugal near the place where I live – I dream to have a space big enough to receive people to work with me. I’m really interested in collaborating with other artists. It’ s very exciting to be with people that have similar ideas and thoughts and put the energy of two people together in one project; the sum is greater than the parts. Hopefully I will achieve an economical situation where I can make these dreams come true.

The Interview was conducted by Lisa Hauke and Maria Wüstenhagen
Bamberg, January 2011