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Body – Language – Repetition – Collection – Time

One essay about my practice


This text is the written component of the Master of Fine Arts examination assignment of the Malmö Art Academy, Lund University - were I graduated in 2009. It was published in the  Malmö Art Academy Yearbook 2008-2009, edited by Anders Kreuger and Jee-Eun Kim, ISBN 978-91-978623-0-1.



Words don’t come easy

"Words don’t come easy"[1] – this is the title of an early 80´s pop song and this could be also the title of my essay because I often play with layers of meaning by shifting one familiar concept into another context in a process that I associate with an idea of conceptual collage. This is a typical post-modern strategy of working, where one believes that everything has already been made and that the condition of the contemporary artist is to recycle ideas, shift concepts and try to find new ways of working, new approaches and new meanings by playing on and with existent materials – being objects, ideas or even titles of songs. But more then this I try to make a double game. On one hand there is the shifting mode, where I’m addressing the collective memory of a given title in popular culture. On the other hand there is the actual literal sense of the title and in this case I am absolutely not being ironic. Words don’t come easy to me at all. This isn’t because I don’t like to write or read – my initial academic training is in art history and I have always been interested in philosophy and psychology so I do read and write a lot – but when I come to analyzing, understanding and translating my own practice into a coherent text this task comes as an ambiguous, paradoxical and dangerous project. Ambiguous because honestly I am above anything else a visual artist, and my work is always reaching for a non-verbal form of communication  – At the risk of stressing a cliché, I repeat, I am constantly trying to reach a non-verbal form of communication – that is the essence of what I do as an artist. Paradoxical, because one must be able to separate the art producer, the creator, the one who sits in the studio and makes things, from the one who is looking at the work and talks about it with a certain degree of distance and with eloquence – I often feel a bit frustrated of not being able to make that separation work properly. Dangerous only in the sense that I know I do have the tendency either to say nothing at all or too much, that is to try and "explain" the work, to justify it. So at the end of this two year academic training in an art school I will try to avoid these traps and just focus on some aspects of my practice, some key works and the process that leads to them, with a specific emphasis on the exhibition Time after Time – that was presented at KHM Gallery in December.


Hunting High and Low

"Hunting high and low"[2].  If I were given a retrospective exhibition in an institution today I would probably choose this title. My work constantly shifts between art history references and popular culture – having said this one can guess that there are quite a lot of influences and sources of inspiration. But I also feel that since the very beginning I have looked deeply inside myself and tried to find a voice, the inner voice, to find not only something relevant to say but also a personal visual language. I don’t think I have developed a very identifiable visual language – at least in the commercial sense of the concept where one produces a typical Leonardo piece as the art market normally demands – but there are some aspects, issues, concerns and forms that keep surfacing and are repeated. One body of work is performance-based videos. Another is object-based installations or sculptures. 

When I was about six years old I once made a strange drawing at home. It was a pornographic kind of drawing with very visible sex organs penetrating something. The bodies were painted in bright pink and I remember being happy that the proportions and perspective seemed correct. I remember to show that drawing to my mother and that she was angry with me. She said that that wasn’t good, I remember that her face even turned red and I could feel, through empathy, her embarrassment and her deep feeling of shame. So she just took the drawing out of my hands and tore the paper in pieces and put it in the garbage. And she not only ignored it. We simply didn’t talk about it ever again. I think that was my first attempt to use a visual representation of something that was not possible to articulate with words.

When I was 25 years old I was a very heavy drinker and later a drug user. I started working as a graphic designer in a hip advertising company in Sydney, where I had moved.  There was something about directing my creative energy into advertising that made me feel like a prostitute, as if I was selling myself, so I guess I drank to cope with my low self-esteem. Five years later, after being a functional alcoholic, things got out of control and I changed my life by moving back to Portugal and entering a rehabilitation program, that involved family group therapy and –most important of all – I enrolled in an art school.[3]  In school I had the opportunity to meet and actually talk with such influential historical contemporary artists as Martha Rosler, Harun Farocki and Jimmie Durham. I was also looking at key artists like Bruce Nauman, who was obviously a rich source of inspiration and influence to almost all artists of my generation and before. So one of the first video works I made, Clean, 2003, was an appropriation of an early video piece by Bruce Nauman, Art Make-up, 1968. In this video the artist is seen on screen putting four layers of make-up paint over his naked upper torso and face, starting with the color white, then red, green and black. In my version I repeated his same gesture but presenting the video in reverse and renaming it. It takes some time for the viewer to understand that the image is reversed, as the action of putting on the paint or removing it seems very similar. In terms of form this work is important because it’s the first where I used my own body as the main material to work with. I also think it’s a hybrid piece that relates to painting, to sculpture and the manipulation of time in video. In terms of concept it relates, by homage, to art history but taking it into another, more private dimension. If the Nauman piece is usually read as a metaphor for the artist’s condition, as if through life he is bound to put layers of make-up on himself, my work points to the possibility of using art to reveal ourselves without masks. I know this line of thought might be simplistic – the work is always more than what I can say - but that is what I think. I also know, and felt it deeply, that using the performance time – even if I was alone in the studio in front of the camera – was a profound experience that I can’t explain with words. It just felt right. It felt that I was meant to do it exactly like that. And it felt I wanted to further explore it, pushing the boundaries and limits of myself.

In 2004 I made what I know is one of my most important works. It’s called The hair of the dog and it’s another performance-based video work. Formally I had a Farocki’s early work in my mind[4], but conceptually, the main focus of my interest was to address the issue of addiction using a non-verbal tool. The action of the video is as follows: a man in a suit with a yellow tie enters the scene where there is a chair and a desk with a bottle of beer and a glass, the man pours the beer in the glass and drinks it quietly, when the bottle and glass are empty he stands up and urinates inside the glass, then he sits again and drinks his own urine, and when is finished he gets out of the scene and the video fades into black. The action is continuous, without any editing or cuts, the sound is direct and there is no artificial lighting. The action is absurd and abject. This abject nature of the work is in extreme opposition to the seductive visual language often used in the advertising industry of beer commercials – where the consumer, usually a man, is seen as the successful seducer of a variety of young, sexy, female characters. But more than a grotesque parody, this work is about the circular nature of one addiction, alcoholism.

Another performance-based work from 2004 is The funeral party. In this piece the action is as follows: a man wearing overalls is seen in an empty room, a girl enters the room and kisses him, then she leaves and the man takes a menthol breath-spray out of his pocket and sprays the inside of his mouth, then a man comes in the room and the action is repeated, then another man, then another girl, and the action keeps being repeated with 10 different people of both genders, with the male character spraying his mouth in between each kiss. Again here the action is absurd, almost violent, almost pornographic, in the sense that the kiss, if it started as something intimate and delicate as an expression of affection, through repetition and change of characters, ends looking like a collective rape or a gang-bang[5]. The ambiguity of this piece, and the contrast it makes with several other kisses we may find in art history[6] makes it more effective with the editing process, where the action, seen from three different angles, was captured.

Another body of work I have been dealing with is related to collections. I have collected things since an early age, natural things like stones, bones, leaves, dried mushrooms, shells, insects and artifacts like stamps, postcards, cans, coins, plastic bottle caps and so on. I look at some of these collections as material to work with and have created some objects with them, assembled as installations or sculptures.

One of them is called Calendar 1. I started smoking cigarettes when I was 12 years old and ever since I then I’ve collected every single empty pack – losing many of them along the way of course, due to moving out of the country – but keeping many of them intact in a safe place at home in Portugal. When I was given an exhibition in a gallery, for my first solo show in 2006, I assembled these empty cigarette packs in boxes, each of them had 360 packs. There were enough packs to make 10 of these boxes, that corresponds to 10 years of smoking one pack a day, so I had 3600 empty packs of cigarettes, all of them exactly from the same brand, and all of them smoked by myself. The boxes were hung together in the gallery space, making a grid, looking a bit like a nice minimalist sculpture – but creating, I have been told by the people who saw it, a disturbing mental image of the amount of nicotine, tar and poison one can actually insert inside ourselves, inside our own bodies.

An even more bizarre collection started in 2002, and it is precisely a fluid that comes from the inside of our own body: semen. Having a very high sexual drive I believe that masturbation has saved my life in the sense that otherwise I would be a sex-addict or a predator. Growing up in a Catholic country, where sex and the idea of sin are somehow always related, via repressed religious views, it was a liberating experience to discover psychology and read Freud. After five years of collecting my own sperm, kept frozen in a freezer, I made a piece called White Cube[7], that is exactly a white cube made of semen inside a refrigerator system. As with the Calendar 1 work, it is the idea of collecting the uncollectible, the endurance process, the patience and care put into it that defines the work. The final result is somehow disturbing and difficult to categorize[8] – but I believe it has relevance and interest and that one can see several layers of meaning in it. I believe, among other things, for example, that it can be interesting for a child to see sperm for the first time in his life in a work of art, in a sculpture.

When I went to Iceland in 2008, I participated in a workshop organized within the context of the KUNO express network and I came to discover the work of Dieter Roth. Roth was an extraordinary artist with a wide scope of interests and with whom I felt an instant connection. It was with no surprise that I read he had made several dysfunctional collections, from the little leftover bits of food that normally stay on the table after a meal, arranged in thousands of archives, to normal postcards. His dark undertone and compulsive, almost obsessive nature, is something I feel close to in my practice. Without being a moralist, I believe my work points to our own failures, our contradictions and behaviors.


Time After Time

The exhibition Time after Time[9] was my master’s degree show at the Malmö Art Academy in December 2008. The show had two pieces; one 4-channel video installation, titled Timeline, as well as a 12 minute video-performance piece called Autointerview.

The starting point of the first work was a collection of images, the pictures I have been taken daily ever since I bought my first digital camera, four years ago. After one year taking pictures every day I first edited a kind of visual diary in a video-work from 2005, called Sony-Cybershoot Memory Stick. From this work I wanted to further develop the concept of a visual diary but within an installation format. So my first idea was to use this collected material and make a kind of a memory room, as if you were actually stepping inside my own memory (as a physical and mental space), with something really overwhelming in image terms, with video projectors pointing at all these weird places, from the floor to the ceiling and the walls! I thought of making a video for each month, from the past 4 years, so you would see 48 months each projected on 48 video-projectors spread all over the gallery space, all playing in loops for many hours without repeating any image. But soon enough this idea was replaced by something a bit more humble. I mean, I became realistic and at the same time very focused on details – like the size of the space – and the technical equipment available. I knew that in the end, the main issue would be the selection process, and I knew that intuition was sacred[10]. But before I started the selection process there were a series of decisions to be made that shaped the piece as it is, and that had absolutely nothing to do with subjective choices but rather very logical, rational options. At that stage I saw this vast amount of pictures a bit like a marble block, and my work to be like a sculpture, to find a way to shape that block into a form by removing pictures from it. So I started by counting and dividing the images, first by years, then by months. So I had 4 years, each with 12 months and in each month a different amount of images, sometimes hundreds, other times just a few. The room where the show was to happen had a wall of around 12 meters long and I had 4 projectors available, I then decided that each year of photos would correspond to one projection, and that each projection should be 12 minutes - that corresponded to the 12 months of the year and also to the 12 meters of the wall - once this was established I started feeling confident and happy with the logical-rational element of the decision. Then I noted that if the projections were to be 12 minutes, and if it was my purpose to show a massive number of images (but not as fast as with the Sony-Cybershoot video, which had an extremely fast tempo that was underlined by the music) I thought that each image should be on screen for 1 second – one unit of time that is enough to enter the viewers consciousness. Now being each minute 60 seconds, 12 minutes would be 720 seconds – then I knew that for each year I had to choose 720 images to make a 12-minute projection. With this data in mind I went further in the rational deleting process. First I removed all the images that were not in the landscape format – because it didn’t make sense to crop or zoom in the portrait pictures. Second, in order to keep a proportion between the number of images of each month and the actual images selected for the projection, I made a mathematical calculation. So the total amount of images within a year would be to 720 what the amount of pictures in a certain month would be to number X. X would be found by multiplying the number of pictures in one month by 720 and then dividing the result by the total number of images in that year. Once all these calculations were made for each month the selection process began. In terms of subject matter another decision was taken, not to use self-portraits – this would be another work in its own right and I was more interested in putting the viewer behind my camera and not in front of a mirror. With this in mind the process began naturally. How did I choose the images then? Using a form of knowledge that is not easy to define but it plays a crucial role in some visual artists - intuition.

"Accumulated experience that is not immediately accessible to language, but which does affect our consciousness, is usually called intuition. An intuitive choice is thus as conscious as a considered choice; it simply uses aspects of consciousness that are not accessible to language. It cannot say, but it can show. "[11]
 
Naturally, the order of the images in the projections was chronological but the final installation of the work shows a timeless stream of images flowing in the gallery space almost as a large painting, with the images out of synch constantly emerging and disappearing, time after time. I see the work as mental landscape – a mental space that is filled with memory, and memory that is presented as 2880 one-second images. There are as many images as there are subject matter: people, portraits, landscapes, still-lives, abstractions, images of buildings, of details, of body parts, of family and friends, of strangers, of food, animals, objects. In this context one can look at this work and remember Susan Sontag words "To collect photographs is to collect the world."[12]

If one work is looking out into the world, the exterior, the second piece of the exhibition was somehow looking at the inner-world, the interior or the self. The work is a 12 minute, video-performance piece based on a 1971 text by the Greek-born American artist Lucas Samaras[13] in which the artist interviews himself. I read this text more than 8 years ago and ever since I read it I wanted to do one piece based on it. It stayed in my mind for a very long time and it was one of those ideas that kept coming back to me, surfacing in my consciousness as something I really had to do. The text is almost a schizophrenic exercise of self-discovery and crucial interrogation. He asks himself questions like Who are you? What is art? Why do you make art? And often the answers are surprisingly contemporary, intelligent and relevant. I have made another work based on a text by Sol LeWitt[14] – this was a letter that he had written to Eva Hesse, published in 1975. The Samaras text however, is a very different work. As with all art I found myself taking decisions and experimenting. I knew I wanted to make a video and I knew I wanted to perform the text. One idea was to make it a bit like a Beckett play, with the same character doubled on one screen - this was what I called the twins version. The other possibility was to have two separate screens making the dialog as two different bodies, one asking the questions the other answering – this was what I called the talking heads version. I made both versions and set them up in a large photo-studio in the school. I am normally extremely careful about asking for advice. I have learned to trust my instinct and know that ultimately it’s my own decision to make. But I thought about the unique situation I was in, in a very special art school where I have been practically living, where most of my friends are, and where genuinely concerned people are – so I listened to some people and observed the reactions and discussed the project but there was no consensus – which I actually appreciated a lot. In the end it was the version of the two monitors that I chose because it was the most simple and effective. The work was installed in a totally black room, covered with a black fabric that absorbed sound.  The monitors were stacked on a black plinth in front of a bench, at eye level when you are seated. Inside the room echoes the powerful voice of the voice-over artist I had hired to deliver the text, with the NY accent I imagined Samaras would have had, and we see the video monitors with the top side asking the questions and the bottom side, with the image upside down as if it was a reflection or Narcissus on the water, giving the answers, with both images showing a black and white close up of my lips, in lip synchronization, also delivering the text, over the Samaras words, with the actor’s voice and with the subtitles in English.
 
There is a kind of intimacy in the image and also in the size of the work that contrasts with the gigantic visual presentation of the projections. These contrasts are not only in scale but also in terms of color, sound and content. In my view both works complement and illuminate each other in the sense that both address memory, perception, the intimate relation between life and the creative artistic process, and the often complex inner dialogue that art-making demands from the artist.


Body talk
 
If I make a statement about my practice I would say that my main interest is to achieve a visual language that can be simultaneously intimate and universal. My work formally can be divided into two bodies. One is performance-based videos that address the issue of human relations and human behavior. The other is the collection of objects that relate to my daily life and that assembled together in sculptures, collages or installations formed a kind of calendar or archive of myself, a map of life through time.
 
I have a way of thinking that is obviously visual but at the same time completely abstract and conceptual - so I often need to sit and draw these concepts that are so clearly connected in my mind in order to understand the work and be able to translate it into a text or presentation. This is what is called an explosion drawing, where one can see the different parts of the components of a large machine.  But I resist the temptation of just showing you the drawing because I would like you to follow my logic.
 
In the core centre of my practice the word BODY is set very clearly in the middle of an empty page. Right next to it, on one side the word LIFE, on the other side the word DEATH. Our body is our layer zero of identity, before any cultural given fact like our name, it is the vehicle, the instrument we have to exist, to express ourselves, to perceive and understand the world. Under the keyword death I make an arrow that is pointing down to the word nicotine. At the same time under the word life an arrow is pointing to the word semen. If one adds here the concept of movement, the nicotine is connected through the body via an outside-to-inside movement. On the other hand the semen is connected to the concept of body via an inside-to-outside movement. One is to insert the other is to expel. In the internal logic of my practice these are the concepts underlying the two collection-based works I previously mention in this text – Calendar I, 2006 and White Cube, 2007. But what makes these pieces substantial and relevant is their inherent obsessive nature and the time-consuming process, their endurance and absurdity. What interests me here is above all the relation these pieces create with the viewers, the implications they establish and the attraction-repulsion aspect that is mediated. I want people to think and to feel something and in this sense I might be accused of being manipulative. There is a certain degree of perversion in these works but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
 
We are what we repeatedly do[15]. The issue of REPETITION is obviously a major aspect of my practice. The consciousness of time is experienced by humans through the repetition of natural phenomena, like night after the day, winter after summer, and so on.  On a different level, in our childhood we learn to talk through the repetition of articulated sounds and we learn to write by drawing repeatedly the letters of the alphabet.  The concept of repetition touches a lot of the things I’m trying to focus on. I’m interested in representations of time – and time is represented through a set of repeated marks that emerge as patterns. A pattern is a set of elements that are repeated in a predictable manner. That’s why the basic principle of physics and all science is to discover the patterns of the universe - that is, the laws that make us understand the physical world and eventually predict future events.  Patterns exist in nature, in the center of a sunflower, or in a crystal, for instance. They exist in all sorts of artifacts from the Arabic-inspired tiles of a house in Lisbon to the grid of a NY skyscraper.  But often I try to look at patterns of behavior and patterns that relate to our unconscious. The death drive, the compulsion to create and destroy, is a pattern we all experience at some point in life. By focusing on these aspects I hope to address the vulnerability and contradictions within ourselves.
 
The manipulation of time is an essential component of video-art. So again it feels like a natural process to have used this medium extensively in my practice. I’m not particularly interested in creating narratives. Each performance-based piece is more like an experience, a visual metaphor, than a short-story. However there is always a distinctive need to communicate something. I definitely want to say something visually.
 
If I drew another explosion drawing and focused on the two works of the Time after Time exhibition, the keyword here, the one that would stand in the center of the page would be LANGUAGE.  On the left side of the page is the word IMAGE. On the right side, you’ll see the word WORD. To see is related to an outside-to-inside movement – we absorb the external, we capture the image, with our eyes or the camera. To say or to speak is an inside-to-outside movement – we expel the internal, we let go of the word with our voice. We are to let the world enter our minds; the other is to let our minds enter the world. In the inner logic of my practice these are the concepts that link both works from the exhibition. One piece is a collection of images, displayed in time simultaneously and out of synch. It’s about seeing. The other piece is about saying. It’s about words made visible – as the text of the subtitles – and words made audible – as the sound of the voiceover.
 
TIME and MEMORY would finally be the keywords I have been dealing with over and over, again and again, either as process or result. It is my major concern to understand and question myself, who I am, and what is to be alive. I believe the best tool I have in hand is to make art and if you ask me what is art today I will agree with Samaras: the physical look of humanity[16].
 

João Leonardo
January-April 2009

 


[1] - Lyrics of the song "Words", 1982 from the Tunisian-born French singer F. R. David who sold eight million records across the world.

[2] - Title of the debut album from the Norwegian band A-Ha, released in 1985 – the album was a huge commercial success selling over 10 million units worldwide.

[3] - Maumaus School of Visual Art, directed by Jurgen Bock, where I studied from 2002 to 2005 in the Independent Study Programme.

[4] - After seeing Harun Farocki Inextinguishable Fire, 1969 I was completely blown away. In this work the artist is seen sitting on a desk, a bit like a journalist reading the news on TV, and delivers a speech about the Vietnam war and the napalm bombs – at the end of the video he takes out a cigarette and burns himself in the hand, making a literal, painful but extremely honest parallel with the horror of war and at the same time making a powerful political statement. On a complete different register the work, Baldessari Sings LeWitt, 1972, by John Baldessari, presents exactly the same formal set-up of presentation, entering on screen and performing an action facing the camera.

[5] - In the porn industry a gang-bang is a scene where a person has sexual intercourse with multiple partners – at the time I made the work I was disturbed when I read about the the production of films ostensibly setting gang-bang records, in one of them a woman had sexual intercourse with 500 men over a period of 24 hours. In a completely different dimension, in the 1993 film by Peter Greenaway, The Baby of Mâcon, (1993) a woman is sentenced to be raped 208 times. Both these references, the porn films and the Greenaway film, had an impact on me for the extreme actions teach one about the boundaries of life, something beyond morality.

[6] - From the painting of Gustave Klimt, 1907-1908, to the sculpture of August Rodin, 1889, to the Andy Warhol 54 minute black and white film of 1964

[7] - Alluding to Brian O´Doherty’s essay Inside the White Cube – The Ideology of the Gallery Space, first published in Artforum in 1976

[8] - Although the use of bodily fluids in art is nothing new, from Piero Manzoni´s ironic Merda d´Artista, 1961 – where he collected his own faeces in one edition of  small cans, sold in the art market at the same price as their weight in gold – to the more recent frozen blood self-portrait sculpture by Marc Quinn, 1991, where he collected his own blood for a period of 5 months.

[9] - "Time after Time" was a single by singer Cindy Lauper, the second from the album She´s So Unusual, 1984

[10] - As the dialog with my tutor, the artist João Penalva was progressing, at a certain point he wrote to me, and I totally agree, that "intuition is sacred".

[11] - SANDQVIST, Gertrud, On Intuition IN: http://www.kaapeli.fi/~roos/gertrude.htm

[12] - SONTAG, Susan, On Photography, New York, Anchor Books Press, 1990, p. 3

[13] - SAMARAS, Lucas, "Another Autointerview," in Samaras Album; Autointerview, Autobiography, Autopolaroid,, Whitney Museum of American Art and Pace Editions, New York, 1971, pp. 5-7

[14] - The work is One Letter from Sol LeWitt, 2004, video, color, sound, 8’30’’

[15]  Aristotle, 284 BC – 322 BC

[16] SAMARAS, Lucas, "Another Autointerview," in Samaras Album; Autointerview, Autobiography, Autopolaroid,, Whitney Museum of American Art and Pace Editions, New York, 1971




BIBLIOGRAPHY


BARTHES, Roland , Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Hill and Wang, New York, 1981

BARTHES, Roland , "From Work to Text", in, HARRISON, Charles and WOOD, Paul, ed, Art in Theory 1900-2000 – An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Blackwell Publishing, New York, 2003

GARRELS, Gary, ed. Sol LeWitt: a Retrospective, MOMA, NY, 1998

O´DOHERTY, Brian, Inside the White Cube – The Ideology of the Gallery Space, University of California Press, 1999

SANDQVIST, Gertrud, On Intuition IN: http://www.kaapeli.fi/~roos/gertrude.htm

SAMARAS, Lucas, "Another Autointerview," in Samaras Album; Autointerview, Autobiography, Autopolaroid,, Whitney Museum of American Art and Pace Editions, New York, 1971

SONTAG, Susan, On Photography, New York, Anchor Books, 1990