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Jac Leirner, Junkie art show at White Cube London, 2016
"Brasil Heart", 2016, Solvent UV inkjet print to 9mm plywood 4 3/16 x 5 7/8 in. (10.7 x 15 cm)© Jac Leirner. Courtesy White Cube

The artist who turned her coke binges into sculptures

Brazilian artist Jac Leirner carved sculptures out of cocaine during a series of binges in 2010

Waking up after a booze or drug binge, the most you're likely to have to show for it is some new friends on Facebook (who you probably never want to see again) and a sore head – not the makings of an art show. However, Brazilian artist Jac Leirner has pieced together (well, carved) just that.

While the ephemera itself was gathered and considered over three decades (cigarette papers, packets, razors, bank notes), the artist created small sculptures out of cocaine over four separate binges that took place in 2010, and photographing them earlier this year in the “worst quality possible” – a series of small images which are published in a new 600-page art book by Leirner.

Working across the mediums of sculpture, photography, painting, installation and works on paper, Leirner’s art tends to revolve around her everyday surroundings, often incorporating what appear to be meaningless objects – cigarette ends, stickers, and plastic bags – into her work. Currently in the midst of her show Junkie – where her coke and ephemera sculptures, as well as photographs, are on show until 17 May at White Cube’s Mason Yard – we caught up with her to talk about the relationship between art, catharsis and addiction.

Do you think you use art in a way that is cathartic? Particularly in relation to your drug use.

Jac Leirner: I believe so. At least until a few months ago when I finished a series called “Métrica Mínima” in which I utilise Sudoku games that I solved during the last years. These small repeated gestures and trivial things always caught my attention. This includes buds, ends of joints, rizla papers, cocaine rocks to be carved before snorted, small filters, price tags from cigarette packs, cellophane wrappings from these packs and their inner foil wrappings and ashtrays from airplanes. All these objects are related somehow to mine and everybody’s addictions. So, in the mid-80s, when I would fold my cigarette packs for three years before punching holes in them to attach them to the structure that would turn these packs into a sculpture, I guess I was using art in a cathartic way…

Was it easy to be so open about this aspect of your life?

Jac Leirner: I started smoking cigarettes I was 11 years old, when I was 15 I guess I smoked one pack a day. And I started with drugs when I was 14. As soon as I left my parents’ home I started smoking pot full time. From morning to bed time. And this continued until 2010. My life was unfolding with the use of THC. All other drugs, with a few exceptions, would play a part in my experience on a much smaller scale. I always hated cocaine. But at some point, I was caught by it. This drug is a trap. Addicted people don’t use drugs in a social situation. They share experiences until a certain point. They use it by themselves, at home. And if they get to the point when they are at the bottom of the well or living a real hell, life and death become explicit.

Could you tell us more about your decision to turn ephemera and cocaine into art? Was it a conscious decision to make them, instinctive even?

Jac Leirner: They were (made over) four binges. One for each little sculpture piece: One head, one heart, one cone, and the sphere with a wheel. Each piece had been a perfect cylinder of three to five grams of cocaine. One piece for each night and hundreds and hundreds of really bad photographs. Most of them out of focus, (the) worst quality possible, although I tried to make interesting areas of light and shadow, making use of whatever I had at hand. That whole situation had to make some sense. In my mind were Helio Oiticica and Neville d’Almeida with their amazing “Cosmococa” – which are endless fat lines of cocaine over the cover of the record War Heroes by Jimi Hendrix or an iconic picture of Marilyn Monroe. These works were made in the early 70s when they were in New York. Using sculpture tools to make tiny sculptures out of cocaine rocks made me really excited. I knew the material would turn into something special despite my difficulty dealing with photographic images in terms of my art. I prefer to work with real presences, things. But I made all these images and finally the wall sculptures out of them. It took me years to solve the situation but I finally came to an end.

“I like to believe that not only us, but also things, including small ridiculous things, are potent. Or have a potential” – Jac Leirner

What's behind your decision to juxtapose the drug ephemera with everyday objects from your house?

Jac Leirner: I took whatever I had at hand to relate those tiny presences of cocaine to other presences in terms of size, weight, measure, colour, material, shape, surface, function, craft, and technique, scale, everything might work to bring meaning to the movement I was into. I was hunting things at home.

You’re interested in the banality of certain objects – why is it important for you to highlight these everyday things?

Jac Leirner: I like to believe that not only us, but also things, including small ridiculous things, are potent. Or have a potential. Or a plastic potential. The same way I can say all colours are absolutely perfect.

Have you shown this body of work before?

Jac Leirner: These works were never shown before. They are brand new although some of them I’ve been thinking over for 27 years. In the end, these materials are so ridiculous, these minuscule pieces of burnt paper, how to make a (good) sculpture out of them? It took me decades to find a solution… Why am I so slow?

One of the works is given the title “Gay” – how did you come up with the titles?

Jac Leirner: The names of the works are really subjective. I was working on the computer with a wonderful designer, George Lewin, who put the sequences of images together, and that’s when I named each piece. We laughed a lot, you can see that many of the titles are full of humor. In this case, you can’t say if the face on the Brazilian coin is the one of a boy or of a girl. And the heart looks like a perfect butt… For this reason the name “Gay”: perfect butt, girly guy…

Junkie is on show at London’s White Cube Mason’s Yard until 14 May, 2016