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Interview with João Leonardo by Emília Ferreira

Published on the ocasion of the exhibition  Making Sense / Fazer Sentido, Casa da Cerca - Centro de Arte Contemporânea, Almada, May 2017

Emília Ferreira – After your Art History degree what lead you to artistic creation?
João Leonardo – Art and artistic creation were always the center of the universe of my interests as far as I know myself as a human being. The question of the degree in Art History was more like a circular detour around that interest, but it was due to an economic issue. I can explain: my dream as teenager was to enter the Faculty of Fine Arts in Lisbon, but it was mandatory, in the admission tests, to do a Descriptive geometry test and so one needed to finish high school in an area with that specific discipline. I didn't had that discipline in the high school of my hometown, Odemira, were I was born. It wasn't possible for me to change town in that time so I end up high school with Philosophy as a main subject (I had 18 out of 20 score!). So my idea then was to enrol in Art History at Nova University and in the end of the first year change to Lisbon's Fine Arts School. But the thing is that I started to really enjoy the Faculty, the people, colleagues and teachers; I felt that in the FCSH [Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities] I had found my intelectual and political family and so I ended up concluding my Bachelor (Honours) of Arts Degree in Art History and delayed Fine Arts for the future. And that did happen, but a lot longer then I had expected at the time.

E.F. - How does your initial academic training help you, guide you or hinder you?
J.L. – In the early 90s Art History was still a variation of the general History Degree and that academic training gave me precious instruments that can be applied to the artist activity: the research of a theme, the simple act of going to a library and know how to find, read and summarise diverse types of sources, learn to contextualise images in a certain period of time, understand that art doesn't come out of nowhere, that the individual always has a social, economical and political context... all of this are things that stay with us and help us understand what is art. This benefits creation because only with a dialog with the passed, with all the artists from the passed and present, can we, ourselves, grow as an artist.

E.F. - What made you look up for the training in Graphic Design and then Fine Arts?
J.L. – After deciding not to change University and to stay at FCSH I opted for an alternative training and for one year I had classes of Drawing and Painting with the artist Filipe Rocha da Silva. This training was good for the technical skills experience (there was a lot of life drawing classes, which is always an important tool in the development of the eye and the hand), but also for the small seminars from American historians and critics (it was there, for example, that I first came in contact with the Italian art paver movement - something that deeply interested me and that complemented a big gap at FCSH, in which we only vaguely touched the XX century art in the end of the 4th year). Its also important to note that the decision to stay at the FCSH was influenced a certain family pressure to conclude the degree. Note that I come from a mile class family, in which the gap that separates the access to education has been dramatically reduced in tree generations: my grandmother was illiterate and started to work ( "to serve" in a house as we used to say, at 6 years of age), my mother has the basic education (four years of primary school) and started working as a seamstress at age 12, while me and my old brother (who also studied at FCSH) both of us have Master Degrees and only started a professional life in our 20s. The idea of enrolling in Fine Arts was perceived has a risk in therms of having a professional career and financial stability. That doesn't meant that the Art History degree gave more security, but there was always the idea one could follow the academy route or be a teacher and so have a life with a minimum of dignity. My parents never really forced me to choose, it was my decision, but I know that for them, for the effort they made to guarantee that both me and my brother had access to the higher education that none of them had the opportunity to have, it was important to get a university diploma. For me, above anything else, it was essencial to move away from the rural environment of my small town and be in a city with an active cultural life. When I moved to Lisbon at age 19, I went to live in a rented room at Avenida Elias Garcia. I could walk to the Faculty and Gulbenkian. In the 90s I saw practically all the temporary exhibitions at CAM [Gulbenkian's Modern Art Center]. Attended the opening of CCB [Centro Cultural de Belem], the CGD/Culturgest exhibition space, ZDB gallery. I also started to travel a bit around Europe, mostly London and Paris, and of course I would see and absorb all the contemporary art exhibitions I could. All of that was essencial in my training.
But coming back to your question, once I finished the degree, and not being interested in an academic career, I seriously considered to study either at the Goldsmith College in London or at the ENSBAP in Paris (that had Richard Deacon has a test teacher), but then again a certain insecurity regarding the future and the lack of financial support made me choose another alternative. I did then, in 1997, a Multimedia training.It was something very hybrid about how to plan and produce contents that use diverse media (text, image, sound and video) in one single support - at the time cd-roms more then web applications (that were still very limited in technical terms and speed of data processing). I made a cd-rom about the artistic tiles of the Lisbon subway and that somehow open the door to a unique working experience with was the Expo 98. When the work contract was over I decided to embrace a life long dream which was to make a trip around the world. It was a fantastic experience and when I returned everything seemed infinitely, somehow, how would I say?, relatively or subjectively, "smaller". For me if Portugal was the world Australia would be Alentejo. There is a mix of dryness and beauty, an expanse that attracted me a lot. But it was mostly personal issues that made me return to Sydney, that is a very beautiful and cosmopolitan city. I was 24 years old and I was in love.
To enter the country on a student visa was the easiest way and so then I was admitted in an International graphic design school, with lots of students from Indonesia, Japan and of course Australia. At the end of the first semestre I was working as a junior designer in the studio that did the layout page of the Sydney Morning Herald. But, even if I was good professional my heart was in art. From Sydney I applied to the master programme of the goldsmith college with a portfolio that were a compilation of digital drawings, fotos, collages and paintings of diverse artistic identities, as a kind of homage to Fernando Pessoa heteronyms. I was contacted by the Collage but the tuition fees were way to expensive and without thinking of scholarships I stayed a few more years until there was a breaking moment and I returned to Portugal.
I was still in Sydney when I ear about the Maumaus School of Visual Arts (through the Publico newspaper to which I was a subscriber) and the first generation of artists that did post graduate studied there after ESBAL ( Vasco Araújo, Ana Pérez-Quiroga and João Pedro Vale - to which I admire a lot and felt and still do feel aesthetically close). I start working again in an advertising agency in Lisbon at the same time I get admitted at Maumaus. It was there that I had the first big academic training focused in critical theory of contemporary art, and that opened my horizons. From then on I finally started my artistic practice. At the end of the 2nd year, in 2005, I won the EDP award. There was an exchange programme with the Malmo Art Academy, and that school had guest artist-tutors that I loved like Jimmie Durham and João Penalva. The next step was natural so I first came for the exchange to do one semester and then I stayed to do the Master programme with a Gulbenkian scholarship. By circumstances of life, to which the serious economical crises we had in Portugal contributed, I end up staying here in Sweden. It wasn't a deliberate choice it just happened and still to this day I haven't learn Swedish as I see myself here as kind of temporarily. Its within my plans to return, sooner or later, but when and how, in which circumstances can we live from our artistic work, those are questions I still can't answer. 
E.F. – Regarding the material we normally associate your work: how did you come up with the idea of using cigarette-ends?
J.L. – Cigarette-ends is a type of waste that is always present in the private space of any smoker. I have always been concerned with recycling and am interested in transformation processes, being chemicals like when we cook, or biologicals like when we make a compost pile in the garden. On my first solo exhibition at galeria 111 in 2006, I showed a sculpture with the 10 years of the daily cigarette packs I had collected (always with the objective of creating an installation). Being a work with a significant symbolic charge, although somehow private, almost autobiographical, I though it could be interesting to extend this possibility of work to something a bit more public, somehow universal, that entered the sphere of society, ecology and the environment, a residue, an insignificant waste, somehow repulsive, but very common and pervasive, with the same symbolic strength as the cigarette packs, but necessary different. The first pieces I made was a series of dummies / pacifiers called "Happiness Machines" in 2010. That year I was invited for a residency in Bamberg, Germany, with german and Portuguese artists and writers. I lived there for one year with Dulce Maria Cardoso, José Riço Direitinho and Filipa César. On the first day of the presentation each of the residents had to make a small presentation of his/her work and an eventual work project that we had planned for the residency period. I was happy with the Happiness Machines series and soo in my work presentation I wrote a very simple unpretentious text about the symbolic act of picking up cigarette butts from the streets and ashtrays of the city as a kind of long term performance act and simultaneously an artistic gesture. Everybody's response was really positive and having the physical possibility and economical stability to do it, I trough myself at work passionately. From there came the first exhibition with cigarette-ends, the edition of the first monographic catalog and all of a plethora of creative possibilities that I wanted to explore systematically.

E.F. – Why did you never abandoned this medium? Tobacco ends up being present in almost all your works, isn't it? Even in painting...
J.L. – Not in all the works but yes, it is present in many and there is a specific reason for it and that is the attempt to address the issue of addiction or the contamination of the body. This is a recurring theme in much of my work. Smoking is just one of the addictions that somehow eloquently points to human contradictions, between pleasure and death compulsions, seduction and danger. Its a fertile ground but there are some traps. In a heated conversation we had on a studio visit, João Fernandes accused me of being a moralist. On another occasion, when I showed the beer video "The hair of the dog", 2004, Isabel Carlos stated: "I will never drink a beer in my life!".
The works, in particular those initial performance based videos, may point to ethical issues, like our individual choices, but they aren't nor they try to be moralists. I don't say "do what I say, don't do what I do", on the contrary, if these works say something about myself they are like staged, bare, self-portraits. They don't want to show beauty but try to touch some kind of essence, something deeply human and visceral.
But back to tobacco, as I said before, its a material that has a strong symbolic resonance and rare physical presence in visual arts but not in cinema. While working at the residency in Germany I deepened techniques and ways to explore the material thoroughly. To take this path, meaning to dive into a creative process, its essencial for me. Even at the risk of the work being labeled as kind of mannerism, it doesn't matter what others say, only our inner voice, our intuition, is sacred. And I will continue to make works using cigarette butts if I feel like it or if I have ideas that are stuck in my head. Thats the best way to know we are in the right track, when we listen to that voice of ideas that keep coming back to you, that persist and insist in being made. But like anything else in life, artist can only do what we have the possibility to do and there are plenty of limitations in such a subjective, even if essencial, activity.

E.F. – How does the public reacts to the use of this material so common in everyday life, but so unusual as art material?
J.L. – The feedback from my peers and the specialised public, critics, some curators, collectors and institutions is positive. Also the general public, people including children, like my work, specially the most figurative pieces - which is always more imediatte and accessible.

E.F. – Your work spans sculpture and painting, collage, photograph, drawing, installation and multimedia. How do you decide the way forward, when does a work begin?
J.L. – That is an interesting question and its hard to answer. Sometimes the work starts with an image, not necessarily a two dimensional image but actually a tridimensional projection of the piece installed in the exhibition space. It may be a bit romantic but thats how it works for me. Other times there is a specific theme that one researches and the choice of the medium for the work or the series of works, is made according to concept or specific narrative. But there are other considerations since the choice of a medium already contains a reading in itself.
Until the mid 60s talking about art was basically talking about the history of the last 500 years of painting. I read something funny about an analogy one can make: by being the last guardian of tradicional values, painting is for art like an heterosexual family. On the other hand sculpture, that also always existed, was considered like a poor cousin of painting. All of this started to be subverted in that period, when we started to questioned the nature and authority and power of all aspects of life, naturally including art and painting. Conceptual art eliminated those traditional categories and basically everything that was not painting become sculpture or installation  or performance or video. A sculpture could be a text, a photograph, a video projection, a walk in the forest... I think today these divisions or categories continue to be questioned and most departments of art schools encourage a multidisciplinary approach. Personally I identify myself as a constructor of things, objects, ideas, narratives and experiences and in this context the word artist is more appropriated then sculptures or painter.

E.F. – You have mentioned once in an interview that you are a natural collector. What do you collect and why?
J.L. – My first collection was of stones, to which I would identify with the help of a book about rocks and minerals. After that I started a collection of cacti and succulent plants - that I also liked to identify with the correct names in latim. I also made a collection of herbarium specimens (and later on was so delighted with the discovery of the work of Lourdes de Castro). I collected bones, lichens and other things I would find on the fields. Later I start collecting non natural objects like stamps, coins, cans and cigarette packs - these as soon as I started smoking as a teenager. With the passage of time the compulsion to collect as faded a bit I must say. Maybe its from the age, we have the tendency to be less attached to material things. Still I do collect materials that in some way interest me and that can be (or not) used in future works or projects. Here in Sweden, apart from my own cigaret packs and filters, I collect plastic caps, dummies or pacifiers and gloves people loose in the winter.

E.F. – Why does your work has that strong bond with everyday objects?
J.L. – Good question also. Several possible answers. Everyday objects contain histories in themselves - either by the people who lost them or discarded them, or for what the objects themselves reveal. I believe this sensibility came from my training in History, by the way FCSH gave importance to the French branch of historiography in which the history of culture and mentalities, the history of everyday life, the history of costumes and sexuality, have the same value and importance and interest as institutional, political and economic history. Each object is always an historical artefact, a testimony of a certain time. Another answer as to do with the question of repetition, of duplication and multiplication of an object and how that makes them, in proximity, paradoxically unified, as one. This attracts me. Of course strategies of seriality were explored by the artistic movements that influence me or inform my work. I refer not only to American minimal and conceptualism but also Italian art paver and the french new realists. But I could go further and think of how surrealism subverted a common everyday object and fill it with strangeness and ambiguity. Or even further away and arrive at Dada and Duchamp and how any object, with or without the hand of the artist, can be seen as art. Only depends on were its presented and who is looking. Theres also the selection of what one decides to collect and the simple fact that what is collected also reveals a lot about the collector himself. Some artist have worked about this, like Penalva with "The Ormsson Collection" at Museu da Cidade in Lisbon in 1997, or the installation "The Collectors", that Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset presented at the Venice Biennial in 2009.

E.F. – You have been out of the country for several years. One of your recent works addresses the diferences between north and south in a very eloquent manner. Im referring, as you may have less, to the piece Polar Shift, showed at Museu de Portimão. Would you like to talk about it. What sense you make of such a piece?
J.L. – Its a relevant question and im happy you mention this work because here you have a good example of how my training in History not only informed but also instigated the piece itself. The work was triggered by the memory of a History of Medieval Culture and Mentalities class with the brilliant professor Luís Krus (who died so young), in which he has said that the greatest diference between the people from the South and North of Europe is in the products we use to cook and drink: whine and olive oil in the south, beer and lard in the north. This statement, I don't know why, maybe because im interested in food and cooking, has always stayed with me and when I had an invitation to do a work that involved art and gastronomy this was the idea I wanted to explore. The way I did it was to use a kind of minimalist display, with straight geometric forms, that would contain the materials inside. I was interested that the observer would concentrate in the colours and textures of these materials - who have a great chromatic beauty, specially the wine and olive oil. For me the materials have this essencial presence, a resonance, an ability to seduce by themselves, in a abstract almost sublime way. Still the conceptual work must be activated by the viewer and there each one can "enter" the work or not, depending on his experience, culture or the will to let himself be seduced. With the title I give a key to enter the work. Whoever wants, can enter. And then on can also make other less obvious associations, like the fact that fermented alcoholic beverages in the Middle Ages were synonymous of good health because drinking water was non existent. Or that olive oil up until the 70s in Sweden was a very rare product that people could only buy in Farmacies... today the world is much different and yet the opposition north / south still exists. And its curious because this applies on a planetary level but also individually in each country. The question of cultural identity is something interesting to see and experience. To be Portuguese in Sweden or Australia, for me personally, was never a motive for discrimination. Maybe because in the art world these questions of national frontiers is healthily non-existent. But of course there are diferences mostly on the level of mentalities, which are long therm structures. Still today its quite obvious for me here in Malmo to see such a such great number of parents, meaning man, walking their children in baby carriages. The discrepancy in gender equality and women's rights in Portugal, compared with Sweden, is still present.

E.F. – In the text you wrote for the exhibition Making Sense, regarding your piece "The fall", you said you would like to cause some concern in the public; and simultaneously some empathy and repulsion. Do you want to elaborate the reasons for this tension?
J.L. – Dichotomies were the key concept in the exhibition where this piece was initially shown in Gallery 111 in 2013, especially the allegorical idea of flight and fall. Much of my work is concerned with trying to establish a balance between these tensions, between empathy and repulsion. I think the best works I did are precisely the ones that contain some inner contradictions. For example the monumental scale of the baby covered with white cigarette filters ["Untitled (Baby)" 2012]cor the contradiction between the simplicity and elegance of a minimalist cube and the vision of its visceral content, like frozen human semen ["White Cube", 2007], or the contradiction of seeing a good looking, well dressed character performing an abject action like drinking his own urine ["The hair of the dog", 2004]. The art I love doesn't make me indifferent, I touches in the most deep of my self. I think, for example, in all paintings of Francis Bacon, the way he manage to unify these contradictions, looking at himself and the people he loved with no decorative concessions. Or in a video like "Clown Torture" by Bruce Nauman. Or in an installation by Louise Bourgeois. Or Picasso's "Guernica". Or even back in Odemira, in my childhood, one of the first indirect contacts I had with art was by seeing a Gulbenkian poster with the reproduction of a painting by Paula Rego "Manifesto (For a Lost Cause)" [1965]; or "Salazar Vomiting the Homeland"[1960] again by Paula Rego... the strength of this image and the disquietness it created and still echoes on me is the reference for what im interested in creating.

E.F. – When you create do you think about questions communication? If so what do you want to communicate with your work? That is, whats the meaning you would like it to have for the ones who see it?
J.L. – Its important that the object or action seduce and don't become a simple illustration of an idea. Of course I think about questions of communication especially when we conceive a series of works for a coherent exhibition. But there must be some ambiguity and space for interpretation or mystery, the unspeakable. I know this may sound a bit metaphysical but thats how I feel. And on the solitary side of creation, when one is alone working in the studio, there's a marvellous space  of freedom and research, were everything is allowed, all the monsters, images or concepts can be explored, created, destroyed and reconstructed. What one decides to show or not its a selection. We create our narrative or the discourse associated with the work, bu the sense of the work its always subjective and depends on the observer. What its written about work changes over time, with new perspectives and points of view, not only about the work but also about art history in itself, so in, in this sense I think the discourse goes but the work stays.

Emília Ferreira, Almada, May of 2017

Emilia Ferreira is an Art Historian, Lecturer, Curator, Art Educator, programmer, organiser of scientific events and fiction Author. She is currently the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art - Museu do Chiado.
Born in Lisbon in 1963, holds a Bachelour of Honours Degree in Philosophy by the Faculdade de Letras de Lisboa, and a MA and PHD in Contemporary Art History by the Faculdade de Ciencias Sociais e Humanas (UNL). Her PHD dissertation was published as a book in 2017.