Vices and virtues


in: L+Arte, October 2006

Winner of the controversial EDP Prize 2005, João Leonardo forces us to experience the cycles of life, the dynamics of physical and emotional dependency, the liberation from oppression. Quoting the entire history of art, he uses the body, video and installation as forms of expression.

"(...) It is from despair that we reach the most ardent pleasures, especially if you feel deeply the quagmire in which we fell. And then, that slap - and how it smashes our consciousness, seeing that crap they did to us. Regardless of what they say, the essence is however, that I'm guilty of it all, and even more humiliating, I'm guilty without sin, so to speak, guilty under the laws of nature, only.  Because, first of all, I am guilty of being smarter than everyone around me."

Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Notes from Underground

In the essay on art beyond 2000, Achille Bonito Oliva highlighted the importance of installation work in the current context, in the sense that they are carriers of a particular artist's intention to submit to contemplation of the receptor, forms that are the result of a creative process and not an anonymous assembly line of social taste. 

The subjective memory will thus gain a fundamental importance - as opposed to the lack of individual memory by the mass media (Achille Bonito Oliva, L'art oltre 2000). 

It is in this encounter between the individual and the collective that the work of João Leonardo breaks ground. Memories, as underlined by the author, purified of any psychological bias and reinforced by the consistency of their own motivations. 

On the road to Maumaus School, where we have seen and reviewed some of his works, the artist João Leonardo decided to interrupt his stride and safe walk to take a blue plastic cap, lying on the ground and keep it. 

In the work Sony Cybershoot (memory stick), 2005, video shown in a sequence of other students of that school, in the exhibition Toxic, we found some stills and shots where they appear in various colors, in different displays, enclosed in other shots of pictures. A work that starts from the idea of a video clip consisting of a dizzying sequence of images taken with a Sony camera. A work that criticize the intolerable abuse of artwork for publicity purposes. In this case, the use of a song that would be associated with that particular product and not its original concept.

To be an artist is? 

In conversation with João Leonardo and after seeing his work, we realize, first, that one of the central issues raised relates to the definition and investigation that the artist makes regarding its role in society. The video Clean, 2003, is the most involved in this problematic. Taking as a reference a work of Bruce Nauman - where it expressed the idea that an artist, as he grew older, is always adding and overlapping masks - João Leonardo contradicts this meaning and cleans, progressively, four layers of paint from his body (black, green, red and white), until he reach the natural skin tone and, therefore, transparency. A process that reveals Leonardo's position on the course and evolution-model or ideal of an artist: as he advances and progresses in his career, he moves towards a liberation, to one original visual language, making his work more his own, without vices or referrals.

Other important aspects that run through most of his videos are ideas and concepts of revelation and liberation - that one can feel in various forms - as well as the notions of time, repetition and cycle, that influence our actions, our vices - emotional and physical - that are part of our learning process.

Bruce Nauman in a work made with neon lights once wrote the phrase "the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths". This statement seems to make sense when we experience the works of João Leonardo. In his work there are plenty of assumed references, in particular related to the 60's and 70's, or earlier, the Dadaist period. 

If we want to simplify, the artist sits in a dialog with all the universal imagery heritage, looking to submit his work to a visual thinking, updating experiences, re-equating assumptions, always combining the contemporary reality and everyday life in all fields that characterize it. Which brings us to highlight the critical considerations of Pierre Francastel, promoter of the term "plastic thinking" and who state the impossibility of "creating a single work of art. There is always a chain of works of a single artist and their competitors. Art is not an isolated activity of a man alone, face to face with the general destiny of mankind. (...) Is a positive bill that uses all the previous achievements and all the contemporary processes "(Francastel, Art and Technique).

In this sense, the artist João Leonardo can be positioned in a line of developments, not only plastic, but especially intellectuals, reflecting on the time and the human condition. A reflection that had an inspiring moment during and after World War II and exploded at around 68, which, given the current situation, gain new impetus and urgency. A work that doubts, questions and answers to these images and the (constructed?) reality given to us as by a great multimedia show on violence - do not forget the Iraqi prisoners, broken in their individuality, masked, tied up, humiliated, watered with urine by a few U.S. military. You can not demand beauty in a time where there are still ugly truths. So João Leonardo addresses the visual culture that goes beyond the decorative and who was and will always be present in thought and human life.

Repeat to learn 

Before winning the EDP Prize in 2005, he had many years of study and several courses that eventually complement and provide the tools he uses in his work. He was born and raised in Odemira and always had intentions of becoming an artist. He came to Lisbon in 1992 and started a degree in art history, at Universidade Nova, which he concluded in 1996. He then travels a lot and, in Australia, takes a course in Graphic Design - a field that become essential for economic survival in subsequent years, and that had put him in touch with the reality of advertising communication - a world that, due to ethical issues, he felt obliged to break out and criticize in his early work as an artist. In 2002 he started to study in Maumaus - School of Visual Arts, directed by Jürgen Bock, an institution were the collective critical thinking assumes particular importance. It was there Leonardo has developed and realized his first ideas, among many that he has imagined and conceptualized. In 2005 he concluded his studies. His first two solo exhibitions will be in the Galeria 111 and Artecontempo, both in September this year.

The one in Galeria 111, titled “As Time Goes By”, which brings us to the familiar music from the movie Casablanca, explores the concept of time and repetition, within a context of an installation. The artist present a set of two calendars, consisting of objects that bear witness to the passage of time: packs of cigarettes and crosswords, which suggest the actions of smoking and writing, vice and virtue. As the artist points out “conceptually the work is related to Kierkgaard's idea of repetition. If man seems to be condemned to do the same mistakes over and over, it is through repetition that its possible to learn, that is: to change”.

In the exhibition at Artecontempo, João Leonardo presents two videos, the already mentioned Clean and The Funeral Party. Quoting the gallery's curators “in both works, the body cleansing alludes to a cultural sanitation, translated in the standardization of modern collective lifestyles, in general, and personal relationships in particular.

In the near future the artist is thinking about taking a residency in Malmö, in Sweden, were he can see his approach under a new perspective, in a completely different context.


Spread around the city, several posters reproduce a tattoo of the number 1974 in one arm, using a font that is formally similar to the Hebrew alphabet - and here one can think of the images of tattooed arms of Jewish prisoners in concentration camps as a visual and conceptual reference. The arm in the posters is of the artist himself and this work represents, straight away, one ending and one beginning. Nurtured by the labor context that he came from, graphic design and advertising, by its techniques, materials and type of media used in it, Leonardo takes the human body as a tool of communication, without passing any other message then the simple image itself, invading the public space with art, in an intrusive process analogous to the seductive logic of advertising. Untitled-974 its a piece from 2003. It initiates a critical reflection about mass communication, that will be developed in others projects - the video One Letter from Sol Le Witt, 2004, and Sony Cybershoot (Memory Stick), 2005, were we find some reminiscences of the Situationist interventions and subsequent critique of the Society of the Spectacle, and addressing issues of narrative, memory and perception at the same time. But João Leonardo's work is also about the concept of time, the duration of life and its cycles. A work with liberating cognitive purposes, starting from aspects of everyday life and concerned with the idea of truth - a truth that will allow the recipients of his work a greater connection with the images created. This effect is achieved, precisely, by the use of the body as a starting point.

In the exhibition of the EDP Prize, in 2005, Leonardo presented two videos which prompted a superficial critique, concerned more with pompous titles and reductive categories. However, even quoting Gianni Vattimo, “Developing the analogy between the Stoss of Heidegger and Benjamin shock is possible to achieve the essential features of the new "essence" of art in late-industrial society, issues that even more acute and radical contemporary aesthetics reflections have (...) let out” (Gianni Vattimo, The Transparent Society), the artist states that he hasn't and he doesn't have the intention to shock, to create controversy. The contrast achieved between the video The hair of the dog, 2004, with the space and concept of the institutional exhibition where the piece was showed, originated readings that went beyond the original intention of the artist. Like in other works, a video that uses the artist own body to then embody the circular nature of a dependency - one reading highlighted by the title. The action taken - to drink urine - causes disgust but can, in particular, confront the viewer, as in other works, with its emotional and physical complexity. It confronts the viewers’ fears, its harnessing and constraints. If there is something truly despicable or abject in these works its not the vision of a man drinking urine but the image of someone who is stuck in an addiction, a self-destructive cycle of consumption. The impact of the work is achieved by the veracity of what we see but also by the resonance it provokes in the evidence of today’s consumption driven society.

In a more ironic format, the other video presented The Message, 2005, searches for the word that sums up the essential truth behind the four main religions of the book, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism: to love. The two works share some formal and compositional elements. The desk is an object that is repeated. "As the desk has become the place where one saw, read and wrote about art, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be included in works of art, whether in the form of photographs or installations. (...) While an adaptable significant of intellectual labor, the secretary put the emphasis on the solitary, yet social, work of the artist, and pointed to the work to be performed by the observer” (David Campany, History of Conceptual Art, or A home for homes for America).

In his next exhibitions we can see other videos combined into installations where the various issues raised are developed. The Funeral Party, 2004, is presented in the exhibition, in Artecontempo, along with Clean, cited above. The suffering of the body causes a confrontation with existence. Addictions, dependencies, cycles. A circuit deconstructed and presented by the artist. In all these works, references and discourses are multiple and not likely to fit in a period style, in a field of research or a simple categorization.

The notion of performance is central in his works. The body and the action have been the predominant tools in most of João Leonardo's works. Actions recorded and amplified in videos, whose future will be, preferably, mounted on a logic of installation, creating environments that involve the viewer.

The titles of the works of João Leonardo are also important source of stimulus for imagination or research. Appropriated from pop songs, they are concerned and reflect the different histories and relationships with cultural issues. They help to expand the work, the image. They open up other readings or confirm its visual sense. Again, we can sense the influence of Dada and their language games. The title, not improving the work is, however, an important area of thought.

In an essay published in the exhibition catalog Circa 1968, which inaugurated the Serralves Museum, Marita Sturken notes that comparing the work that currently address the identity and the body with those created in the 60s and 70s, we see that the former were " clearly more aggressive and experimentally less self-conscious "and that the moment finally overdrive and explore to much these issues, making them well," too self-conscious and gratuitously provocative. João Leonardo has the courage and takes a risk when he steps into these territories. In the future he hopes to achieve the necessary resources for his projects and ideas with the support of grants and galleries. And he will certainly break new ground. Because the work of this artist is ground breaking.

Pedro Faro

Art Historian


CAMPANY, David, “História da Arte Conceptual, ou um lar para lares para a América”, in NICOLAU, Ricardo, Fotografia na Arte. De Ferramenta a Paradigma, Público/Fundação de Serralves, 2006 

DOSTOIÉVSKI, Fiódor, Cadernos do Subterrâneo, Editora Assírio e Alvin, Lisboa, 2007

FRANCASTEL, Pierre, Arte e Técnica, Livros do Brasil, Lisboa, 1963

OLIVA, Achille Bonito, “L’arte oltre 2000” , in ARGAN, Giulio Carlo, L'Arte Moderna, Sansoni Editore, Firenze, 2000

VATTIMO, Gianni, A Sociedade Transparente, Relógio d’Água, Lisboa, 1992

STURKEN, Marita, in, FERNANDES, João e TODOLI, Vicente (dir.) Catálogo - Circa 1968 , Fundação de Serralves, Porto, 1999