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An Interview with João Leonardo by Jürgen Bock

Published in the the exhibition catalog One Hundred And Six Columns, Four Heads
And One Table, Villa Concordia, Bamberg, March 2011

Jürgen Bock: João, I know that you are a heavy smoker and that you have also experiences with other drugs. How do you negotiate your ‘self’ in your art in relationship to these experiences?

João Leonardo: Some of my work addresses the theme of addiction, but the issue is not personalized in the sense of revealing myself. Instead I try to universalize the work, pointing to an existential idea rather then a personal story. Of course the subject interests me because I have a history of alcoholism running in my family, but I think everybody has his own addictions in one way or another.

Right here on my desk I have two catalogues that I often read, one is Roth Time, on Dieter Roth, and the other is The Problem Perspective on Martin Kippenberger. It is not a coincidence that both these artists were very heavy drinkers and very much self-centred. I love their work as much as I am interested in understanding how they addressed their own addiction problems in their work. And how much their work and their lives were highly mixed up.

How would you describe your drive for the obsessive, compulsive sampling of one of the lowest categories of garbage, cigarette butts?

The drive to collect comes naturally, it is engrained in me. I have collected all sorts of things from a very early age. So when I look at my own cigarette butts in the ashtray I feel the need to preserve them. And when I look at the cigarette butts in the street, trashed away in garbage and on pavements I feel a desire to also collect and preserve them, or use them for an artwork. What attracts me in these small little objects is their humbleness, their extremely lowly qualities as you might say. I also like their simplicity a lot, their dirtiness, and their own story. Each and every single cigarette-butt collected was smoked by someone and each and every one has traces of the DNA of that person. A cigarette is a highly sophisticated machine created to deliver a dose of nicotine to the one who smokes it. So I like their metaphorical potential. I like the fact that even if the cigarette-butt is all twisted and dirty and smelly, it was once clean and straight, it touched someone's lips, it was inside their body, it was sucked. So there is this almost sexual intimacy one has with the cigarette, for the duration of a few minutes. And then the object that gives you pleasure ends, we throw it away. But I see here a parallel with other ideas, from the abstract concept of consumption to a romantic idea of a love relationship that ends. A love affair that only lasted a few minutes.

Could you talk about your methodology of working in the arts, your practice of doing/producing art in general and, remembering the intense discussions on artists’ practices we had when you studied at Maumaus, could you speak about your references from the art world and beyond?

I guess my method of working is very instinctive, by this I mean that I often follow my intuition, I allow chance and the irrational to come into play with the concepts and materials I work with. Still there is another side of me that is very rigorous and logical and the work is created following very strict rules. I try to balance both sides. But when looking at my production you can divide the work into two categories: video works and object-based works. The videos were made with very simple means, a camera, some light source and myself in the studio. Before recording I make a small script drawing with the actions that I will perform. I record and then I edit and in the process I try not to over-think too much about what it is. I know when it is good, when it comes from the heart or when it reaches a level of emotion and complexity that I am happy with. The object-based works are basically collections that are assembled as sculptures, collages or installations. The objects I choose to collect are things that relate to my daily life, on the one hand, and things that are related to the body, like lost baby’s dummies, plastic bottle caps, gloves and now cigarette butts. With these works the art process is time-based and part of the challenge is to actually spend months or years trying to find these objects. I feel that in the end the work has a much deeper resonance than if I just went to the supermarket and bought them. So in both categories of works I say that the method of working is a compromise between research and play, between historical references and intuition, or emotion and reason. As you know I have also studied art history and I have made works that specifically relate to some artists. My video Clean is a direct reference to Bruce Nauman. My video One Letter from Sol LeWitt, as the title says, is based on a letter that Sol LeWitt wrote to Eva Hesse. The works Autointerview and Another Autointerview are based on a text by Lucas Samaras. I have made these works because I truly admire these artists and I wish I could start a dialogue with them or give them something back somehow. I create works for them. And I find the energy to do so out of admiration and respect for them. 

But in the end it is not just art and art history that is used as reference. I love music and that is important. I love nature and documentaries about science, you know, quantum physics, super massive black holes, the history of time, the origins of the universe and so on. I am curious about many things. 

Looking at your work the notion of skills come into my mind. Your art is always very well conceived in all kinds of techniques. Looking specially at the work for this exhibition you execute your sculptural work in an impeccable way and the accumulation of cigarette packs reminds me strongly of the works of the German artist Peter Roehr, who died very young in the 1960s. The ‘top’ of the cigarette pack in your work can be read as such 'tops' but also turns into an image organized in serial sequences arranged in square frames, reminiscent of Roehr’s technique of organized repetition of the same motif kept very strictly within a larger form that is highlighted through it. It is somehow curious that Roehr also came from design – or what was the equivalent of it at the time. He was trained as a illuminated advertising and signage designer.

Its great you mentioned Roehr as he is not a mainstream artist and I remember exactly the day I first read about him. It was some years ago I was browsing the net and read something about an artist who had done a video-documentary about the Latino community of Smiths fans in Los Angeles. The name of this very interesting artist is William E. Jones, and I was looking at his work on his webpage. And there was this video piece that it is also a homage, or a tribute to another artist, called Film montages (for Peter Roehr). And this caught my attention. On the page, there was a compilation of essays about Peter Roehr and after googling him I felt instantly connected with and touched by his work. These incidental similarities are not deliberate but it is obvious we share a sensibility and fascination with repetition. In literature, repetition is used as a way to highlight something. When we say a word twice we are underlining it, or amplifying its sound and its meaning. Advertisers know this by heart and that is the reason when a marketing campaign is created that the same commercials are repeated over and over. By the time I started to collect cigarette packs, I was 16 years old, and knew only about Andy Warhol. And Warhol also came from graphic design and illustration to art.
So for sure design training can give us special tools we can use as an artist. And for sure it influences our perception of the visual culture that surrounds us. In my specific case the following story is also curious: in Sydney, in 2002 I was working for an advertising agency that was hired by BAT - British American Tobacco - to design and create sponsored events and all sorts of undirected branded objects, bypassing the existing laws of Australia, which, unlike Germany, strictly forbids cigarette advertising. So I guess this first-degree experience, like with the experience with entheogens, informs my work. But now returning to your first comment, it is true that I do not define myself as a Painter, or a Video-Artist. I work across a diverse range of mediums, because different projects require different mediums and I enjoy this diversity of approaches and results.

Do you think, that your work could also be read as references to modernism resulting often in forms, which we know from somewhere; which we have seen somehow before?
Yes absolutely! In this specific exhibition I consciously use forms that refer to modernism. The grid structure, the monochrome plane, the simple geometric shapes, the square, all this is a reference to the visual vocabulary and aesthetics of modernism. There is a high level of abstraction in the way the materials I use are manipulated and presented. And this is informed by art historical references, in particular Minimalist, Conceptual art and Art Povera. So the work critically engages with these historical precedents but infuses them with a personal, almost autobiographical trace. I should also add that while these decisions are conscious the truth is that I really do work from a place other than my brain. I really do play with the objects in the picture; I organize them in a structure that is above all decided on a purely aesthetic base. Of course I like order, I like straight lines and I like things that are clearly displayed. So the works follow this internal logic and this mathematical precision, but there is also a lot of playfulness and chance.

The exhibition this publication coincided with is considered by you as an important moment in your life. Is this exhibition a turning point in or a continuation of your practice? Can you also talk about the title of the exhibition? 

This exhibition closes an important period of my life in which I was able to considerably develop my artistic practice. What made a real difference were the excellent working conditions I had during my residency in Bamberg. I had the right time frame – around 12 months – and the right spaces – a studio to work in and a flat to live in. This physical separation is for me important to have for separating art and life. It is not that they are not connected, but my work can only grow and mature if I take it almost like a job. The exhibition is both a turning point and a continuation of my work at the same time. I see it as a new chapter because I feel that I am closer to a visual language that is becoming more something on its own – like driving along a road on my own, and even if there are still a lot of references and influences, I feel that the works emancipate themselves from them. Simultaneously the exhibition is also a continuation of my previous work. There are recurrent themes that keep coming back, that can be tracked back to my first solo show in 2006. There are key-words and concepts like memory, the body, addiction, that are always present; there are research themes like the tobacco history, identity and the representation of the self, and stylistic formats like the use of repetition and the critical dialogue with the vocabulary of modernism that is also a constant. I feel that I am one of those artists who keeps doing the same work over and over; rewriting always the same.

The title of the exhibition comes from the sum of all the columns in the abstract works. Normally I choose a title for the show at some stage near the end of the creative process. But in this specific exhibition I decided not to think about the title at all until all the works were produced and the exhibition was clearly defined in my mind for the space. When all works were finished I took pictures and printed them on the scale of the model I had of the exhibition room. It was then that I understood clearly how the works had a rigorous numerical composition. Most of the abstract works were doubled and all of them were organized in columns. I counted each column of each work. The diptych counts as two columns, the text painting four columns, the collection of papers four columns multiplied by two, the collection of filters twenty-five columns multiplied by two, the cigarette packs twelve columns multiplied by two and the permutation piece three columns multiplied by six. So I made this sum and that is how the number 106 was reached. When entering the exhibition, on the right, the only figurative elements that you see are the head sculptures. They have a strong, almost spiritual presence and are also part of the title. Finally on the left side of the exhibition there is a work referring to the process. It is the table I have used in my studio for the past twelve months. Presenting the table is for me important as it challenges the aura of the other objects by allowing the viewer access to the mechanisms of their production. I think it works well as a statement also, because I believe the process is as important and enjoyable as the end result. The title then is absolutely concrete and descriptive and this becomes only clear when you see the exhibition. But by itself the title is also ambiguous, a bit poetic. If you see the exhibition as one work, and I think this is true for all my shows, the title, like a serial composition, is in harmony with the presented art works.

Jürgen Bock works as a curator, publisher and art theorist. His curatorships have included the Project Room at the Centro Cultural de Belém in Lisbon in 2000/2001 (Eleanor Antin, Nathan Coley, Harun Farocki, Renée Green, Nuno Ribeiro, Allan Sekula and Heimo Zobernig), the 2003 Maia Biennial and the German participation in the 2005 Triennial of India in New Delhi (Andreas Siekmann). In 2007 Jürgen Bock curated the Portuguese Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennial (Ângela Ferreira). At the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon he curated in 2008 the group exhibition 'Drawing a Tension' and in 2009 'Heimo Zobernig and the Collection of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Modern Art Centre'. His publications include the book 'From Work to Text - Dialogues on Practise and Criticism in Contemporary Art' and the Portuguese version of the artist’s book 'TITANIC's wake' by Allan Sekula. He is the Director of the Maumaus Visual Arts School in Lisbon and also teaches on the MA Curatorial Studies Course at the University of Lisbon.