Brief notes on the metrics of annotation


Essay for the exhibition Notes on Zeno´s Conscience, Galeria 111, Lisbon, March 2018

Richard Klein’s book Cigarettes are Sublime introduced João Leonardo to the philosophical reflections of Ettore Schmitz, a Trieste bourgeois who during the first quarter of the 20th century wrote Zeno’s Conscience, under the literary pseudonym Italo Svevo. Richard Klein dedicates a whole chapter in his book to the analysis of Svevo’s fictional creation. It is within this context that the Apontamentos sobre a Consciência de Zeno [Notes on Zeno’s Conscience] exhibition develops as the mapping-out and construction of a system of images and texts, comprising various types of drawings, photographs, print-outs, lists and indexes, historic pictures, characters, manuscripts and transcriptions from Svevo’s book done by the artist himself. This wavering between two literary works, between fiction and reflection, plays an especially important role in João Leonardo’s working process and is connected to a cumulative need to elaborate indexes of literary or photographic references, and often lists of verbs and words, or also sequences of numbers and dates, that become part of his work in exhibitions or installations or as elements in the composition of certain of his pieces.

The “annotations” displayed here include handwritten texts, copied or transcribed by the artist’s own hand, and the fact of that continuous action of writing under a compulsion that is endless, but also controlled and austere, as its disciplined graphic quality shows us, is equally observable in his drawings and collages. That handmade quality brings his studio work to the gallery, both the clippings of texts and pictures and the time spent reading and writing, the latter now as an abstract temporality, or an idea of time that cannot be counted, moving away from the domain of measuring and bringing us into a historical metrics framed by the orthogonal grid of the compositions, presented in two different formats, one larger than the other. These compositions are pictures, in the most didactic sense of the term, but they are also, in their most cryptic, disruptive assumption, self-referential mappings of the paradoxes and tensions they reveal to us, confronting us with their resistance and resilience, and for that reason paradoxical in their tension between desire and doubt, pleasure and death. In this respect, the images and drawings invite us to revisit various classification and communication systems, such as a leaf of a plant from which tobacco is extracted, drawn in graphite on watercolour paper in the artist’s studio and part of the work Apontamentos sobre a Consciência de Zeno #1 - “Escreva!”

That plant, a Nicotiana tabacum, was drawn from life and is part of the same kind of visual references as another member of its family, also present here; however, that other image is an inkjet print, also done in the artist’s studio. We are confronted with a play on varying scales of valuation of the images and their references, which examines such concepts as authorship and appropriation. But there also abstract, gestural elements, such as drippings or printed circular shapes that resemble similar motifs in drawings by the artist.

However, the act of smoking is a central theme in his work; while I believe that João Leonardo does not focus his work on smoking as a social and mundane protocol, it is true that he cultivates a political and social awareness of the communication systems that have created the icons used to attribute and enhance a status of masculinity and virility, as displayed in commercials for such tobacco brands as Lucky Strike or Marlboro, among others. These icons also include historic figures, such as Albert Camus or Humphrey Bogart, who can be seen on A Global History of Smoking* amidst other images that take us to a variety of historical times and social contexts, such as, for instance, the picture of a smiling father who enjoys a cigarette while looking at his son, who is having his hair cut, which can be seen in Apontamentos sobre a Consciência de Zeno #14 - “Filho”. A passage from Klein’s book tells us the following: “Except in times of great scarcity, when they become a form of money – a universal token of exchange – cigarettes are normally exceptions to the regime of private property and are subject to the more expansive transactions of the gift. Even now, in many countries, just as formerly in America, anyone of whatever class can ask anyone for a light, and a request for a cigarette is never refused” (p. 86)**. This levelling of social hierarchy by the acknowledgement of the act of smoking as a transversal, concessionary right is echoed in the conceptual structure of the installation Leonardo created for the gallery’s elliptical space. There is also the fact that the sequences of images are connected by a handwritten chronology in which the artist’s self-referential condition is expressed as a time-line that includes his own life. It is as if this chronology, of which no event is known to us, was also a serial atlas, to which the personality and work of Aby Warburg is no stranger, but only used here as the cumulative reason for a system of images/texts developed by João Leonardo, which generates a plurality of meanings, sometimes dystopian and asynchronous, sometimes political, but always paradoxical.

João Silvério

Curator & writer


*GILMAN, Sander L. and XUN, Zhou (ed.), Global History of Smoking, Reaktion Books, London, 2004, p. 340

**KLEIN, Richard, Cigarettes are Sublime, Duke University Press, 1993