A certain degree of impurity


Essay published in the the exhibition catalog Decadança, MNAC Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporanea - Museu do Chiado, Lisbon, September 2017

Dieux ! 

Pardonnez nos offenses 

La décadanse 

A bercé 

Nos corps blasés 

Et nos âmes égarées


Serge Gainsbourg, La Décadanse


Between the early years of this century, when he began to exhibit, and the present day, the artistic output of João Leonardo (Odemira, 1974) has met with diverse strategies of completion, but it has remained loyal to a set of premises and themes. 

Looking at it retrospectively, we realise that the politics of the body, social control and identity permeate his work systematically and decisively. An even closer look will reveal a more specific dissection of the themes of addition, behavioural deviation and the idea of decadence. 

The dominant notion of the concept of decadence implies a moral judgement and a kind of tragic inevitability that copies its models from biology and is frequently applied to peoples and history. 

According to its epic narrative, a population (dominant; those who have been dominated do not know decadence) is consolidated, becomes hegemonic, spreads this power and enters into decline as if it were a living organism. This is a cycle that entails a kind of tragic inevitability that is fundamentally a-historic. 

Applied to individuals, the concept also has a moral tinge. Decadent is the person whose values and behaviour place him or her outside the bourgeois moral consensus, of its idea of order and self-preservation and the restrictive codes that sustain it. 

Addiction is, potentially, even more pernicious in that it is, simultaneously, the engine and objective of deviation and decadence. Taken as a psycho-emotional illness, as a physical dependency or, according to the more orthodox moral standards, a natural tendency towards evil, the addict relapses systematically and is thus transformed into a machine for producing disorder. 

Throughout João Leonardo’s artistic career, the compulsion of the repeated gesture and of the accumulation of objects has been shaped into objects and materials of little nobility, such as babies’ dummies, plastic bottle tops and cigarette stubs. This process can be defined as a kind of anti-collectionism, in that, unlike traditional collectionism (that of art, for example), it is aimed not at the exceptional object, but at the banal, not at the diverse, but at the identical. The apogee of this logic surfaces in the systematic use of the cigarettes he smokes abundantly. Acting as a collector of his own waste, making it symptomatic of biographical circumstances or emotional statements [1] ; using it to generate paradoxical images such as a four-metre tall baby made of cigarette filters and stub ends, which he installed in front of the main altar in the chapel of Paço dos Duques in Guimarães [2], or marking out with stubs the silhouette of an injured person on the ground [3], Leonardo creates an aesthetic of waste that is not unprecedented in the history of contemporary art, but which here assumes a particular shape through the play of coincidences/disparities between the material, the social and the psychological. 


Smoke returns in his current exhibition at the Museu do Chiado, but with a presence that is more subtle than ever and which simultaneously illuminates the outlines of his previous path. The show is composed of two pieces that establish a clear dialectic relationship: a video, entitled “Un Portugais, c’est un autre Portugais” and the sculpture that gives the group its name, “Decadance.” In the first, Leonardo recovers a radio interview given by the French writer Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) to Michel Gonzalez and Paula Jacques, on the programme “L’invité du Lundi”, on Les Après-Midi de France Culture, on 5 July 1976 [4]. 

In this work, the artist recovers the verbal content of the interview, but also the original sound. We hear the cigarettes that Duras smokes uninterruptedly, as well as the sound of the ice in the glass of whisky, the depth of the voice, the breathing, traces of the idiosyncratic characteristics recognisable in Duras, but we do not see her or her interviewers at all. If this hiding acts as a first limitation to the full recognition of the character that is evoked, by herself and by others, the entire fragment of the interview points to the impossibility of a self-portrait (physical, psychological, emotional), or at least one that is not deferred, mirrored in the projection of its multiple nuances and paradoxes. 

In the video, Duras’ words are appropriated through a double translation: of the language, as the text is rendered in Portuguese; and of the voice, which is that of the artist himself, as he reads and dramatizes the translation of Duras’ words. They never superimpose. They simply circle around one another, as if, after listening repeatedly and compulsively, Leonardo wanted to move closer in an almost physical way to the writer’s words. 

The only visual reference in the video is the movement of the cigarette smoke as it swirls hypnotically around the room during the time in which it is slowly consumed resting on an ashtray that is out of shot. It is a slow dance without destination, evanescent and intangible, that contrasts with the density of Duras’ words, full of questions and perplexities. In the randomness of its moments, that smoke is also the negation of any evidence of determinism, causality, dialectic or mechanical, of things and perhaps that is why its journey catches our attention. It is the visible face of an imponderability and of an interpretive limit. It is perhaps there that the image meets the words we hear at that moment. The interviewer asks the writer to outline a self-portrait and Duras explains that this is an impossibility: 

Self-portrait, I don’t know what that means. No, I don’t! How do you want me to describe myself? Others can do my portrait. So many people I know, so many portraits of me... they are all valid; but I have nothing to say about myself.

It doesn’t exist, it’s a false question. Deep down, all things considered, it doesn’t exist. The most flawed answers come from these very general questions. You know, knowledge is a difficult thing, it’s something we would have to revise, our knowledge of a person. Asking me “Who are you?” won’t make me respond, or “what is it that makes me write?” won’t make me respond. 

This fragment arguably helps us understand why João Leonardo chose this interview and why, in 2017, it conveys a renewed significance and a powerful capital of interrogation. Looking retrospectively at the Portuguese artist’s career in this light, we realise that it is a diverse but obsessive attempt to fix the cardinal points of a personal condition and to put it in perspective in its human, social and political context, in a way that goes beyond the biographical perimeters, the narcissism of a self-enchanted subject. 

In the age, so we feel, of all things posthumous, demystified and deconstructed, this is perhaps an attempt (necessarily failed) to perceive exactly what it means to be an individual, a subject, a creator and how the state of being a creator always avoids classification – whether of a stylistic nature or related to identity – and the discrepancy between all this and the concrete person formulating the question: Who am I? 


“Decadance,” a title taken from the famous song “La Décadanse” by Serge Gainsbourg, is what can be called a sculpture-image formed of a group of signs that mutually question one another in their historical and ideological resonance. 

On a plinth – the kind that could well accommodate a Brancusi sculpture or a rare butterfly in a natural history museum – we find a glass tank. Inside, two books intertwine in a strange embrace. They are “The Interpretation of Dreams” by Sigmund Freud and “Capital” by Karl Marx, volumes with very different vocations but some common characteristics that few others would share with them: they both base their legitimacy on their scientific condition; both gave rise to systemic and absolute explanatory models with impact in many different areas of human activity; both have inspired genealogies of thought that go far beyond the specific field on which they focus. Combined, they are also the fundamental nourishment of all emancipatory programmes developed in the last century. 

Placing them in an embrace as if they were dancing, Leonardo projects on another level the dance suggested in the video piece, whilst simultaneously creating a powerful image synthesising the intellectual world of the 20th century. But another element is brought to the dance. In the glass tank the books are submerged in... whisky. One the one hand, this immersion is a continuation of the reference to Gainsbourg and Duras, but more than that, it is a reference to a dissonant place (of the individual, the artist, the citizen) that plays in this commentary that must be read in the light of the historical misfortunes of the proposals those books inspired. 

A direct reference to the decadence of the systemic models explaining 20th century reality and their emancipatory aspirations, as well as the artistic ideas associated with them, “Decadance” is not so much an iconoclastic irony as a manifesto for the essential impurity of the artistic gesture, for the possibility of contravention, outwith all classifications and philosophical frameworks. 

Celso Martins 

Almada, August 2017

Celso Martins is an Art Critic and Curator based in Almada, Portugal. He teaches Art History at the Escola Superior de Artes e Design / Instituto Politécnico de Leiria.


[1] - Love, Rape Me, 2013.Permanent ink and liquid nicotine on canvas Diptych 40 x 30 cm (each) 

[2] - Untitled (Boy), 2012, 500 000 cigarette lters, 800 cigarette stubs, extruded polystyrene foam, glue, metal and wood structure, 400 x 275 x 248 cm3

[3] - The Fall, 2013, Found cigarette stubs, glue, acrylic varnish on plywood and linen sheet,  200x62x3 cm 

[4] - Interview published by: Jean-Marc Turine (editor) Marguerite Duras, Le ravissement de la Parole, Cassettes Radio France, Paris, 2003