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Tonico Lemos Auad: Scratch and snicker

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
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Tonico Lemos Auad made his first visit to Aspen early last September, spending four days soaking up the local sights and culture. Auad returned this past week, to get a look at an Aspen covered in snow and, to his surprise, quite warm.

The two trips are hardly enough time for Auad to get a grasp on the intricacies of Aspen, in all its cultural glory, scenic beauty, colorful past and contemporary quirks and issues. So Auad declines to take a literal approach to the Aspen-inspired installation he is creating at the Aspen Art Museum, preferring instead ideas and materials more loosely connected to the local landscape. Still, Aspen made and continues to make a strong impact on the 38-year-old Auad (pronounced ah-WAH-zhee), so much so that he is already looking ahead to what he hopes will be his second Aspen installation.

If things go well enough, future riders of the Silver Queen gondola will have an audio component to the ride up Aspen Mountain (rest assured, it is not someone chatting on a cell phone that Auad has in mind). Auad is thinking of borrowing from a project he did in 2004, in a gallery in São Paulo, Brazil, of an actor whistling a tune ” and whistling, and whistling, and whistling, for a total of an hour, until he has reached the limits of his breath.

“For a while, he whistled very well,” said Auad of the piece, “Desafinado,” which translates to “out of tune.” “But at the end, he was totally breathless, stopping a lot. I thought that would be a quite perfect piece for the gondola.”

Auad, who speaks in accents that alternately suggest Brazil (where he was born and raised, and to which he returns frequently) and London (where he earned his M.A. degree and has lived for eight years), was reflecting on his own Aspen experience. The difference between the atmosphere at the bottom of the gondola, and at the top of Aspen Mountain, was palpable. And the hiking he did from the summit made a further impact.

“I got a little dizzy, a little out of breath, a funny air pressure, altitude difference,” he said. “Doing the trails, you get very breathless.”

The last three minutes of “Desafinado,” when the whistler has hit the wall, and the tune is wobbly and slightly off-pitch, is intended to reflect the sensation a visiting gondola rider would experience. And the music itself ” a Brazilian bossa nova, inspired by bossa nova pioneer João Gilberto ” would carry the link back to the artist’s origins.

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The gondola project is tentative and requires overcoming technical hurdles and receiving approval from the Aspen Skiing Company. But the installation that opens this week, in the upper gallery of the Aspen Art Museum, similarly connects Auad’s initial impressions of Aspen and the artist’s past work.

Visitors to the exhibition (which opens with a reception Thursday, Feb. 15, from 6-8 p.m., and runs through April 15) will notice that the gallery itself has been altered. The ceiling is dropped, which Auad said was merely to give viewers the feeling that they have entered into something. But the first thought I had (apart from a flashback to the scenes in “Being John Malkovich” with the compressed floors of the office building) was that Auad had approximated the experience of being a miner, squeezing into a tight mine shaft.

Which would be appropriate, given the main attraction in the installation. The entire far wall is being covered with the silvery material familiar to those who play scratch-off lottery cards. Viewers are invited to use their fingers to scratch away the soft coating; eventually an image ” Auad won’t reveal the specifics, other than to say it is a photo collage he has made that includes his own drawings ” will be revealed underneath.

For Auad, the project began with Aspen’s mining past. The silver reflects the most notable metal to come out of the town’s mines. The notion of people entering a somewhat enclosed space to sort of dig to find something hidden and treasured recalls the mining activity that gave Aspen its start. The notion of the lottery, and the anticipation of wealth and the adrenaline rush that comes with it, connect in Auad’s mind to both 19th-century Aspen, and the 21st-century gold mine it has become, thanks not to what is below the ground but the ground itself. (Auad considered having visitors walk through sand to get to the scratch-off wall. He was at a loss to explain the sand, other than to say that it would take people further out of their normal surroundings.)

“Every time you say ‘Aspen’ to someone not from here, people relate to the idea of wealth. The skiing, the houses,” said Auad, standing on the bridge that leads from the Aspen Art Museum toward downtown. “I wanted to play with that, not in a critical way or judgmental way ” but a humorous comment.

“A lottery card is the popular way of obtaining wealth. There’s that few minutes of excitement, to see if you get lucky. And that connects to the miner looking for silver. There’s that kind of adrenaline involved. There’s also a lot of frustration in that idea of obtaining wealth.”

Auad’s project unintentionally also connects to recent Aspen Art Museum history. Last year, in one of the first big events staged by the museum under executive director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, artist Yutaka Sone made an enormous pair of dice and rolled them down the Buttermilk Mountain halfpipe ” another example of a visiting artist using the Aspen environs to address the issue of luck.

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Just as the whistling of an out-of-tune bossa nova connects Auad to his past, so does the Art Museum project, in numerous ways.

Auad is particularly fond of drawing, finding something favorable in the immediacy of it. Envisioning what visitors to the installation will do ” scratch their names in the silver, even make their own elaborate sketches ” makes him think of drawing.

Auad often uses unusual media to draw with. One of his signature methods in the past has been to use gold chains, laying out the chain in particular designs. Among his works is “Bocadeouer” (mouth of gold), based on a Brazilian urban myth. Using gold ” or silver, or the gemstones he also works with ” gives an instant sense of wealth, but Auad ” perhaps feeling the Aspen vibe better than he knows ” also intends to hint at the underbelly of riches.

“It’s very loaded; there’s a lot of layers,” he said about jewelry, referring specifically to Brazil. “There’s a religious aspect; jewelry is given at specific points of time in life. There’s also a kitchiness.

“And there’s a middle-class guilt about the way gold is explored in the north. Wherever you start the whole activity, you’re going to have a dark side. The way people are exploited, all the side businesses. It’s the seductive part and the exploitation.”

Auad has always favored tactile media over paintings and other two-dimensional objects. He has made several animal figures out of carpet lint; he has employed bananas and grapes, crabs, string, wishbones and more. That angle, he said, is typical of a Brazilian artist.

“There’s a sensuality with the way we work,” said Auad, who has exhibited his work in New York City, upstate New York and Miami. “So we use sensual materials. It’s not only about gathering materials; there’s a conceptual element. It’s a culture immersed in smells, colors, textiles. Everything is very rich to the touch. The work I do, people want to touch them, feel them.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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