Arranged at ninety degrees to the huge exposed pine joists on the upper floor of CAMPLE LINE, a mill building-turned-art gallery in remote Dumfriesshire, Tonico Lemos Auad’s huge, suspended wooden beams seem to be swimming in air, or drifting gently downriver like canoes. At the artist’s insistence, one of the most prominently positioned of these contains a blocky insert standing proud and jutting forwards from it like a ship’s figurehead. Eight timber slabs are positioned across the room as a whole, four raised up and perpendicular to the joists on which they rest, while thin bronze rods hang down like swinging ropes from either end of each piece to support the others.
Each pairing of higher and lower beam makes up an enigmatically titled work: God of a thousand arms; Weight of the oceans, Neither land nor sea, Jibóia arco-iris (the last named after an Amazonian boa constrictor). At the lower level – roughly waist height – we can make out more of the abstract interventions into the surface and volume of the wood: mottled chisel-work; wooden pegs beaten down through recessed spaces; a slither-like wedge of lighter timber hammered into an exposed crack. Squashy coils of rope with webbed, embroidered surfaces are hung and discarded in suggestive coils and loops, implying some obsolete mechanical or transportational purpose.
It’s hard not to fall into unleavened physical description on encountering this show. So much appears to be of significance, yet symbolic value remains a fleeting or ghostly aura around the material. The exhibition notes assert that the artist is interested in “physical manifestations of belief.” More specifically, as José Augusto Ribeiro outlines in a 2018 essay, the cultures and religions of Auad’s home region of north-eastern Brazil are a significant touchstone, particularly evident in the “recurrence of maritime images, related to the beach, fishing, and the figureheads found on vessels” (his home town of Belem is a port). “Despite their materialistic roots,” Ribeiro adds, Auad’s works “deal with the representation of religious images and symbols, superstitious objects and vows.”
These two aspects of the Brazilian’s practice were brought into alignment when he showed a series of works called Carrancas, named after the figureheads used to protect sailors from evil spirits in Afro-Brazilian tradition, at Folkestone Triennial in 2011. The practices associated with that tradition also involved shore-bound processions of found objects which, through a metonymic relationship with a larger entity – such as a brick for a house – were assumed to protect the larger form from harm. Something of the bricolage spirit of these talismans found its way into Auad’s sculptures, which took the guise of a brick fist, heads, human forms in chalk and wood, and other quasi-anthropomorphic or bestial entities positioned along the harbour bed, to be submerged and revealed with the tides, in a gesture possessing multiple ritual connotations.
The found object clearly remains a potent force for the artist ten years later, but its magical and spiritual connotations seem to have faded to some extent—notwithstanding those thread-carrying allusions to boats and boating. It’s the functional artistry of these objects that seems to take centre stage at CAMPLE LINE: from the simple decorative carvings found towards the top of a door jamb – given new creative life through its placement on its side – to the elementary geometric pattern created through the huge notches cut into its side for attaching hinges. The artist’s early architectural training perhaps provided an appreciation for this form of making, as well as a formative technical grammar.
Oak, Douglas fir and Baltic pine have been sourced from a range of structures, from Somerset House in London to Croatia, most from sites scheduled for demolition or undergoing renovation. The specific history of each piece is perhaps less important than its general and archetypal quality of madeness: its inscription and alteration through a range of inadvertently or only secondarily creative gestures which the artist frames and offsets through his own, complimentary interventions, rendering them explicitly artistic. As he notes in a video accompanying the show, it’s sometimes hard – intentionally so – to work out how much the artist has altered these pieces and what was already done to them when he took receipt of them. In a sense, these are collaborative works with an array of anonymous craftspeople stretching back to the nineteenth century—one of the artist’s supplying sites, St Crispin’s Hospital in Northampton, was formerly a Victorian asylum.
Importantly, though, the otherworldly resonance of the objects – the suggestion that they have a mysterious significance extending beyond their abstract beauty – has not faded entirely. Downstairs is a collection of upright beams with jazzy diagonal cuttings – presumably meant to facilitate adjoining pieces – from which the show takes its name, Unknown to the world. This arrangement has a strongly totemic quality, owing something to the artist’s visits to Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, where the late filmmaker installed a collection of similarly auratic driftwood sculptures. It’s an open question as to whether Afro-Brazilian ritual should also inflect our interpretation here. Of all the pieces on display, these works most conspicuously occupy that threshold between symbolic gesture and bare material presence where the mind wanders, and wonders how much is implied by the artist and how much meaning it is creating for itself.
That same quality is carried through the series of textile works which line the walls, created from a mixture of sourced and newly created fabrics, variously suggestive of nocturnal landscapes, architectonic motifs, modernist mark-making in the tradition of Anni Albers, and even grid-based pictography. The viaduct-like pattern of Hippocampus, one of several pieces framed with purple-heart wood from the Amazon, suggests the kind of spare dialogue with the surrounding landscape of the site – overlooked by the brick arches of Cample Viaduct – that Auad has made his own. (It’s worth noting that this whole set of works was conceived for CAMPLE LINE.)
More could be said on the relationship between textiles and architecture that the artist asks us to consider. Indeed, in this context, his swimming beams form a jumbo warp-and-weft pattern with the roof joists. But what feels equally significant as an overarching idea or mood is the modesty and subtlety of Auad’s work, qualities that bely the bombastic scale of his central props, and bestow on all conceptual and sensual content an air of understatement. Unknown to the world is a show that might only take on full imaginative scope for the visitor in retrospect, on reflection.