Tonico Lemos Auad and the redemptive power of effort

One of the joys of visiting art galleries is the way that they can stimulate you to think about the world in different ways. Sometimes an exhibition can lead to completely unexpected avenues of thought. So it was with the exhibition by the Brazilian artist Tonico Lemos Auad which has just opened at the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill. Since my visit, I have been pondering on the nature of tin cans, synchronicity and whether effort alone is sufficient to make an artwork interesting.

I will explain: the impact of work Auad’s work creeps upon you. It is not flamboyant or particularly visually compelling but it does enter your mind. The visitor is confronted at the beginning by a set of hanging sculptures that look like vertically assembled curtain poles. Look closer and you see that they are elaborately covered in linen. Lumps of sea chalk which seem untouched from a stone mason’s yard turn out to have delicate designs nestling on their surface, so subtle that they are easily missed.

At the far end of the room were the tin cans – lots of them. On first sight it looked as though it might have been assembled by an art student with good connections to their local recycling centre. ‘So we have tin cans – arranged,’ you think.


“They are like a landscape,” says the invigilator.

“Hmm,” you say, non-committally, not adding, ‘or like a lot of tin cans.’ ”Oh, there is a design painted on each of them.”

“No, not painted on,” says the helpful invigilator, “left behind.”DSC02605

So it turned out. Someone, I would guess some hapless assistant rather than the artist himself, had painstakingly scraped away all the original design leaving a grey surface, polished by liberal use of WD40 and decorated by the small remaining emblem – a flame, a tomato, a polar bear, a face. I was  both surprised and horrified- what effort, and to what end? Yet there seemed to be a point; if they had just been stencilled or transferred, the visual effect would have been virtually identical but the installation would have been pointless and somewhat naff. It was the hidden effort which made it rather magnificent.

I might have gone home and experimented with a tin can of my own just to gauge how time-consuming it would have been until I reflected that there were none suitable; these days most tin cans have paper labels rather than a printed design on the metal, hence the large number of drink canisters and sardine tins Auad had used. Not only are these particular cans a product of hours of work, the creation might not even be possible for many more years as printed cans give way to paper labels, plastic and carton.


This was not the only example of Auad’s belief in the redemptive power of effort. On the walls were a number of black abstract pictures, inscribed with small triangular marks. They were pleasing enough but not striking. Look at them closely and you realise that these are not painted; instead threads have been painstakingly picked away from the linen, so the designs are effectively carved out.  How long would this have taken?  Far longer than you would have expected at first sight. How often did they go wrong, requiring the whole exercise to be started anew?


The one place where effort was less obvious was in the garden; this work was supposed to be about our relationship with nature and comprised eight little plots, seven of which held medicinal plants and one of which was awaiting members of the public to plant something, in which case they were welcome to take a plant in exchange. This may become more interesting in time. At the moment rather than getting me to reflect on the environment I was more struck by the fact that this was the third artist created indoor garden that I had seen this winter; (the other two were Empty Lot in the Tate Tubine Hall and Raze Bloom at Hales Galley.) I cannot recollect having seen one before. You could put it down to synchronicity and the collective unconscious; I think it is just another manifestation of Sod’s law; however original you consider your idea to be, at least two other people will independently do something similar at about the same time.

Auad’s work is showing at the De La Warr Pavilion, Marina, Bexhill, East Sussex, TN401DP  until 10 April


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