Excerpt: Jac Leirner in conversation with Adele NelsonTuesday, May 28, 2019
The following text is an excerpt from the book Jac Leirner in conversation with Adele Nelson, published by Fundación Cisneros/Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in 2011. Jac Leirner (born 1961) emerged in the early 1990s at the forefront of a new, transnational generation of artists looking to the art of the 1960s and 1970s as a point of departure. Her meticulously constructed works carve out a place for commonplace objects, from cigarette packs and plastic shopping bags to cutlery and currency.
Adele Nelson (AN): You exhibited Nomes, a series of works composed of stuffed and sewn plastic bags, in a solo exhibition in 1989 at Galeria Millan in São Paulo, a few years after you showed Os cem and Pulmão. As you mentioned earlier, you began to collect the plastic bags for Nomes around 1985 at the same time as you were collecting banknotes and cigarette packs. How did you select this seemingly quite banal material?
Jac Leirner (JL): Like the cigarette packs and cruzeiro bills, the first bag just jumped out at me before I could make a choice. There was nothing special about it—a flowery print in uninteresting colors, without a logo, name, or words, thrown in a corner at home. But there it was, and I stared at it and thought, Wow, a bag!, as if it were the belle of the ball. And so I found myself at a new beginning. Again, it was another long, slow process, bag after bag after bag, meanwhile searching for technical solutions. A sewing machine, its operator—my dear Lucinha, Maria Lucia de Souza Suganuma—and polyester foam and buckram were perfect. I had sewn banknotes and laminated paper, and once again plastic bags were being sewn, in order to avoid glue or tape. I gave each bag a little body—some volume—using thick polyester. That was when I started to put them together. As I had articulated the banknotes with graffiti, I began to sort the bags based on color, name, design, logo; this included museum bags, which were doubly valuable. I was doing art, and the museum plus art meant two times art—art squared. I guarded these bags as if they were treasures.
AN: In addition to plastic bags from museum shops, you also used a large number of shopping bags of other types.
JL: Bags for rice, pillows, and even coffee. Bags from the post office. Any plastic package—even Bom Bril, which is the Brazilian equivalent of the Brillo pad, down to the most absurd of the absurd.
AN: And the title, Nomes?
JL: It refers to the quantity of commercial brands that are reduced to names. I’m not fond of it.
AN: You created many different forms with the plastic bags. There are sculptures placed on the floor, mounted to the wall, and suspended from the ceiling, as well as room-size installations where the walls and floor are completely covered.
JL: They are articulations. I deal with multiple factors at once—the material, its size, and what it offers for development. Each piece was the result of a different problem, and each material or each group of bags defined its own development. So, for example, I had many duty-free bags from the São Paulo airport. It took technically complex exercises to figure out how to sew many of these works. In some cases the resulting forms were like machines, mechanisms, or wheels, and they were complicated to create. In other cases, no. One piece simply presented an explicit color arrangement—just two bags, placed together because of their similar tonality, one sewn over the other.
AN: Do the works composed of a limited palette of bags, such as Azuis [Blues] , as well as those made up of red and pink bags and a white bag, have to do with the history of the monochrome and abstract painting?
JL: Certainly. They are the consequence of painting and of artists’ procedures, and they reflect thinking about color: Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White [1918, The Museum of Modern Art, New York]—a square within another square. The blue curve reminds me of Ellsworth Kelly’s shapes.
AN: In your earliest watercolors you juxtaposed precisely rendered colors, but in Nomes this juxtaposition occurs on a much larger scale, as in the room-size installations, and the color is inherent in the materials, rather than being mixed by hand.
JL: Hip-Hop  proves that all colors are perfect, and so does Nomes. No colors could be better. Their intensities are unique. Here I should stop and clarify my argument for colors. This is my thesis, if I have one: all colors are perfect and correct, and each has its specificities. Those two groups of works express this idea very clearly with their massive arrangements of multiple colors in one place. Just as I believe O livro (dos cem) is a piece to be both read and seen, Nomes is also extremely pictorial, but at the same time packed with text. It contains both conditions. Each bag carries provenance and references, including intimations of its former contents.
AN: You have installed the sculpture Idênticos [Identicals]  in various configurations and orientations. In one case, you placed the two components one on top of the other, and at the 1990 Venice Biennale you placed the elements in such a way that they look like insects or animals confronting one another.
JL: They do have an animalistic, organic feeling. It’s fun placing them as if they were relating to one another—maybe even dating. It’s the first piece where I deliberately repeated the same element twice, making both parts identically, using identical bags. It led me to more work shown as pairs of identicals, as in the four works in Corpus delicti .
Although, I guess prior to this Os cem already had two identical parts.
AN: Why do you create these identical works?
JL: I try to investigate the originality of things and ask, what is original? What is repetition? Although the work comments on originality, it also consists of a presence. Which comes first? One part derives its identity through the other, in a closed circuit.
AN: Aside from referencing your own field, visual art, what are the specific stakes of the works composed of plastic bags from museums, Nomes (arte) [Names (Art)] and Nomes (museus) [Names (Museums)]?
JL: The idea that bags leave museums on the verge of becoming trash moves me. They are reduced to their function as containers and then turned into museum detritus. Their lives are brief—but not the lives of the ones I rescued; those return to museums as parts of sculptural pieces. The bag’s tortuous path, between leaving the museum as trash and returning transformed into art, imprints time on the work and is the result of circulation, the basis of the circuit. The bag’s previous life before turning into material for sculpture remains part of its little story: “I was born here, I left, I was stuffed with polyester foam and sewn, and now I’m back, placed on the wall specifically to be looked at.” In silent ways materials tell their stories. They reverberate processes in different stages. They belong to networks and systems where they assume new positions, including, finally, that of an artwork placed in a museum. In the end, what I do in all the works is to create a place for things that don’t have one…
 Jac Leirner (São Paulo: Galeria Millan, 1989).