Puzzles with No Boundaries: An Interview with Jac Leirner
The Brazilian artist coaxes elegant forms from the “flotsam of contemporary mass-produced objects.”
Jac Leirner, Madeline Murphy Turner, Elise Chagas
Jul 22, 2022
Since the 1980s, Jac Leirner has made artworks from the stuff of daily life. Cash, business cards, plastic bags, cigarette packs, and stickers are just some of the materials she has used in her sculptures and installations. The elegant forms Leirner coaxes from this flotsam of contemporary mass-produced objects evoke consumption and desire even as they reference histories of abstract sculpture.
We spoke to the artist, who lives and works in São Paulo, about three works in MoMA’s collection. In Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer) (1997), Leirner arranged 20 business cards—a small selection from the artist’s vast personal and professional network—in a horizontal line and mounted them behind plexiglass. Lung (Pulmão) (1987) is the title of two sculptures from the same family of works, both made from packs of the Marlboro cigarettes that Leirner smoked in the mid-1980s. Leirner spoke to us with characteristic depth and conviction about her processes of collection, categorization, and repetition, as well as the sources and references of her work.
This conversation is part of Giving a Body to Time (Dando cuerpo al tiempo), a series of interviews with Latin American artists whose work became part of MoMA’s collection in 2017 as part of 90 contemporary artworks donated by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. With a title that quotes Leirner, the series focuses on work from the 1980s and 1990s that center the body in experimental and conceptual practices, challenging the parameters of traditional artistic mediums. Giving a Body to Time is the third series of interviews that are part of a long-term investigation into the Cisneros gift to the museum.
Este artículo está disponible en español.
Jac Leirner. Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer) (detail). 1997
Madeline Murphy Turner: Jac, I’d like to begin by asking how you arrived at making Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer). Could you describe the context in which you created the work? I’m also curious about the criteria you used in selecting and organizing the business cards?
Jac Leirner: In the mid-’80s I was teaching at the art school I had graduated from in São Paulo (Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado). I used to cast a spell on the young students during our first encounter by saying, “I hope you will not become a professional artist.” Artists are amateurs—lovers, not professionals. I still believe this is true and have never made a business card for myself despite the quantity of cards that continue to pop into my hands.
A few series of works, including Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer), debuted around 1985. Along the way the materials for these series suggested their own compositional possibilities. I mean, it was around that time that Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer) came to life, at least in spirit. My move was to wait until a selection of cards could be organized, processed, and placed. It was the same for the banknotes, cigarette packages, plastic bags, airline ashtrays, and museum labels that are the basis of other series from this era. The business cards captured the spirit of the art world, which was a place I had joined for good by the ’90s. It was a hard task to turn these small pieces of printed paper into sculpture, as they possess such limited materiality yet so much meaning. Behind these sculptures is the ghost of an entire network.
Elise Y. Chagas: Much of the stuff you work with is supplementary in nature—things that contain, enclose, and mediate, like bags, envelopes, wrappers, tickets, business cards, currency. These are items that facilitate the travel of more precious and sometimes intangible things. You’ve described your work as giving a “terminal position” to these materials, which are otherwise meant for circulation. Can you expand on your ideas about place and placement?
JL: Everything refers to something else, looks like something else, despite its very own condition. In the case of my work, things seem to appear as equals. In the same way that the work is the result of an ensemble of ideas and references, it is also the sum total of materials from different times and environments. But there they are, side by side, united in an artwork.
MMT: In what ways do you think the meaning of Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer) has transformed over time, particularly as, in some cases, the addresses and phone numbers on the cards are no longer accurate?
JL: At some point, not too far from today, all of us whose names appear on those cards won’t be around to know what happened to the meaning of it. Despite this, each person who approaches Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer) will relate to the work in a unique way regardless of their relationship to the people named on the cards. It’s complicated! But for sure it belongs and relates to a specific moment, one which relates to another specific moment, etc., within the heart of the art scene at the end of the 20th century. The good news is that its presence remains the very same, plus the patina of time.
MMT: Has this series evolved over time?
JL: For 12 years I went through many possible solutions that might solve my business card problem. And I went for the choices that I believed were the best. Each card would have its own pair of plexiglass plates with exact measurements and the cards would be organized according to their formal qualities: typeface, logo, size, color, position, style. I organized the cards mostly into horizontal lines. I also hung them like strings or chains in the space and finally placed them in blocks of precious wood. Between the wood blocks, the mobiles, and the wall pieces, I made no more than 30 sets, including the first sketches. Recently I have added two new Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer) into the family: one with institutional cards and the other with artists’ cards.
Jac Leirner. Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer) (vertical). 1997
Jac Leirner. Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer) (Crossing Artists). 2019
MMT: To what extent do you feel this work functions as commentary or critique of the increasingly professionalized, increasingly global art world in which you were working (and in which you continue to work)?
JL: I don’t believe the work comments or criticizes anything. It is actually the situation itself. I was blessed to have “the art world” paying attention to my work. I followed its pace and continue to, especially if we are talking about institutions with priceless collections and great programs. That’s where I feel at home and nourished. That’s where I want the work to be.
MMT: You have said that your aim has always been to create “an art that refers to other art.”1 Which practices or precedents were you thinking about when you made this work? Were there any Brazilian artists that you were specifically looking at?
JL: Minimalism and Conceptual art are enchanting to me, and so are Dada, Pop, [Arte] Povera, constructive art, Abstract Expressionism, and, of course, so are my incredible contemporaries scattered around the world. It’s quite a long list of artists that took part in shaping my story. My friends have been endless sources of illumination for my experience. They absolutely make me and my work.
Cigarette packages and business cards belong to a whole civilization that exists everywhere and affects everyone and at the same time. So there is a common ground where the work belongs to all of us.
EYC: Could you tell us about the two works that share the name Lung (Pulmão) (1987)? How did they come to be?
JL: Lung (Pulmão) was happening every day. I took care of it day after day by carefully folding the paper packages of the cigarettes I smoked over the course of three years, stacking the foil inner wrappings, keeping the untouched cellophane wrappers inside boxes, observing the price tags changing through inflation. There was no hurry, nor a dead end. It was alive. Meanwhile, I observed the qualities of the materials I was dealing with and searched for possible solutions to present each of them.
MMT: While the final form of a version of Lung (Pulmão) in MoMA’s collection makes an explicit reference to the body, the appearance of Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer) is pristine, minimal, almost bureaucratic. In a sense, a business card reduces the human being to a few lines of information. Can you talk about the tension between the personal and the impersonal in these works?
JL: In a way both works—Lung (Pulmão) and Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer)—are the same: long lines made of specific quantities of “dots.” They come from different domains but intersect at the physical level. After all, I smoked the cigarettes contained inside those packages, and the business cards were handed to me. In another sense, cigarette packages and business cards belong to a whole civilization that exists everywhere and affects everyone and at the same time. So there is a common ground where the work belongs to all of us.
Jac Leirner. Lung (Pulmão) (Vegetal/Mineral). 1987
Jac Leirner. Lung (Pulmão). 1987
Every thing is immediately related to the other. Even exceptions are important parts of a whole mechanism.
EYC: The works in MoMA’s collection share their titles with others made out of the various components of cigarette packs and drawn from your larger collection of business cards. How do you think about individual works in relation to series, and series in relation to your body of work?
JL: What we say or the way we understand things does not necessarily have to do with their realities. I once thought each work should have its own size, format, weight, and so on. So I thought being original had to do with difference. I even worked with this idea by making the same work several times and questioning the idea of originality. But today I think differently. I believe things are part of one unity. Every thing is immediately related to the other. Even exceptions are important parts of a whole mechanism. What I do is to crystallize mechanisms that belong together.
EYC: Your father built an important collection of modern Brazilian art, now housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. You seem to have inherited his collecting impulse, though you’ve mentioned that you seem to attract objects rather than the other way around. Can you describe your approach to collecting?
JL: Both my parents have an urge for beauty and savoir faire, languages, sciences. Their small, precious ensemble of Brazilian constructive art found the most amazing home, where it shines and lives on, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. But you should see their collections of books and records and all other stunning things that have surrounded us all. This urge towards beauty, appreciation for the multiplicity of languages, for design and technique—should I avoid it? It’s not about collecting stuff, it’s about experiencing ideas and their consequences.
EYC: In conversation you’ve described your artistic sensibility as essentially painterly. In both Lung (Pulmão) and Nice to Meet You (Foi um Prazer), there is a sensitivity to line and form, and you’ve said that color is a primary concern as well. Can you talk about the elements of art in your practice?
JL: When it comes to the work I prefer to stay away from metaphors. But on a more personal level, let me suggest that line and form are my bones, color is my blood, and languages build my soul. It’s all about experience in a single living being. We are puzzles with no boundaries.
Jac Leirner. Photo: Andrea Rossetti
Jac Leirner. Corpus Delicti. 1992–2006
EYC: It has often been noted that your work bears a punk sensibility related to your time in the alternative music scene in São Paulo during the ’80s. Corpus Delicti, the series of sculptures made of branded items pilfered from airlines, is perhaps the key example of this subversive current in your art. But even in less apparently delinquent works, your sculptures and installations possess a certain irony. What role does humor play in your work?
JL: Punk had already taken over the modern spirit one hundred years ago. It has to do with anarchy and transgression, age-old tools of airing out the old patterns of experience. By transforming realities, it breaks what seems not to unfold. I believe laughing is a good way to deal with the very complicated and sometimes violent situations we’re forced to live in that are beyond our control. Things are not necessarily beautiful and balanced all the time. Formalities may be broken for fun, even in tiny details. I love experimenting with paradoxes. But there’s no irony or delinquency here, it’s quite the opposite. It took me decades of nonstop work to organically build the idea of “giving a body to time.” I am happy to see you bringing it into your universe within the museum, which is where our paths met. Thank you for naming this series of interviews after my words.
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