I am on a parched hilltop some 60 miles from Belo Horizonte, south-east Brazil. Steep hills roll out before me. Those in the distance are ochre, fawn and rust-coloured from unseasonable dryness. Some have great chunks sliced from them – scars from mining. By contrast, the folds of the hills closer to me hold palms and trees of deep, tropical verdancy. Occasionally, in the distance, there’s the rumble of a freight train, but for the most part everything is quiet.
Seventy-one steel construction beams jut from the top of the hilltop, a thicket of metal rooted in a small square concrete patio. They stand at all angles, clustered together like arrows from a game of darts played by the gods. The beams are rusted and some have developed a mossy green-and-yellow patina. They connect in my mind to the trains and mined hills over on the horizon. Leaning on one of the beams, enjoying the quiet, I notice a circular, glass structure perched on an adjacent hill a few hundred metres away. It looks like a ufo, or the surface-level observation deck of an underground city complex. I decide to stroll back down the hill. Not far from the steel copse, next to an old outhouse, a sign declares: ‘Warning: During heavy rain, please keep distance from the Beam Drop sculpture. The material is a strong conductor of electricity.’ Just as I am wondering whether lightning grove might be more accurate than lightning field, a white golf buggy rounds the corner of the outhouse and pulls up by the sign. A wealthy-looking elderly couple step out and walk off in the direction of the beams. The teenager driving the buggy asks if I want a lift back down the hill. I get in, she pulls a tight U-turn, and the electric cart doubles back the way it came. As we trundle along the dusty path from the exposed hilltop into the shade of the trees further down, I explain that I don’t speak Portuguese, and ask if she could tell me the correct way to pronounce the name of the place we’re in. ‘Ing-ho-tcheem’ she says. ‘It means “Mr Tim”.’
‘Mr Tim’ (‘Ino–’ is local dialect for ‘señor’) was the nickname given to the man who used to farm the land that now comprises the 240-hectare art park and botanical garden, Instituto Inhotim. Founded by collector and pig-iron magnate Bernardo Paz in 2002, and opened to the public in 2006, Inhotim is the kind of place that could only have come into being by virtue of the obstinate pursuit of a singular idealistic vision and mindboggling financial resources. Both a museum and park, it has more than 500 contemporary art works in its collection, displayed in 17 specially designed pavilions spread across the site, some housing temporary exhibitions, others specially designed for work of a particular artist, along with 20 site-specific outdoor works. The park was created with advice from renowned Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle-Marx; Inhotim also holds a vast botanical collection, including 1,500 species or varieties of palms (with more than 20,000 individual examples, it is reputedly the largest collection of palms in the world), 600 examples of Araceae (phildendrons, anthuriums and calla lilies), and around 420 orchids in 334 species. Visiting Inhotim is quite unlike any other art experience I have had; there is a walking trail through paradisical gardens, where, hidden in palm groves or sitting serenely by the side of a lake, the visitor can find Modernist-style pavilions housing works by Brazilian artists – from the historically important, such as Cildo Meireles, Hélio Oiticica and Neville d’Almeida, and Tunga, to younger artists including Alexandre da Cunha, Ernesto Neto, Rivane Neuenschwander and Adriana Varejão – and high-profile international names: Doug Aitken, Matthew Barney, Chris Burden, Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Dan Graham, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Doris Salcedo, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Yayoi Kusama, among others. Two restaurants, a bar and five snack bars dot the site. Paz has plans to take the number of pavilions up to 40 in the next five years, along with more restaurants, a luxury hotel and cheaper hostel accommodation aimed at students. Grafted onto the international exclusivity that comes with its relative geographical remoteness is a local-minded sense of inclusivity. According to their own figures, more than 160,000 people visited Inhotim in 2010, and the institute boasts of around 3,000 visitors each weekend, and up to 4,000 a day in high season – a popular place for people from the surrounding region to come for a day out, if not to look at art, then just for a stroll through the gardens.
Inhotim sits just outside the town of Brumadinho in the Minas Gerais mining region. Driving through its outskirts – through the mining-scarred hills that can be seen from the hilltop on which Burden’s Beam Drop (1984/2008) sits – makes for a stark contrast as the industrialized Brumadinho starts give way to the lush greenery at the perimeter of Inhotim. The institute seems aware of the uneasy contrast between the park, with its multimillion-dollar art works and serene gardens, and its neighbouring mining town, and is at pains to highlight its commitment to the local municipality. Inhotim employs between 500 and 600 people from the Brumadinho area. In June 2007, it established its own Inclusion and Citizenship Department, and it boasts a sizeable and impressively dedicated outreach and education team, offering both art and environmental education. Inhotim also has its own small orchestra and choir, made up of young locals. Tempting though it is to dismiss some of this as statistics and spin – and there’s a very faint but disquieting whiff of the feudal about Paz’s relationship to the local town – it’s plain for anyone to see that the gallery invigilators and guides are all teenagers and young adults from Brumadinho, and easy though it is to find peace and quiet at Inhotim, you frequently run into gaggles of excited schoolchildren being guided around the park.
Inhotim is seductively beautiful. Swans and ducks swim on the lakes. There are huge benches carved from tree trunks where you can sit quietly for hours in the shade of Tambaril trees. You are free to wander at your leisure (apart from, that is, down the guarded paths marked ‘restricted access’), and there are electric buggies to ferry visitors to the more out-of-the-way exhibits. There is something unmistakably science-fiction-like about Inhotim. Pavilions such as that which houses work by influential Brazilian photographer Miguel Rio Branco, or the geodesic structure sheltering Matthew Barney’s jacked-up, Vaseline-smeared bulldozer, look like crash-landed spacecraft or abandoned Buckminster Fuller domes. The peaceful but controlled tranquillity of the place – and, let’s be honest, the whole idea of a billionaire’s collection of vastly expensive art works housed in a remote Brazilian location – could be straight out of a James Bond film. Wandering past the building housing Janet Cardiff’s 40 Part Motet (2001), the strains of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium (1570) can be heard drifting through the palms and araceas: this juxtaposition of tropical plant life and Renaissance music, not to mention the nature of Inhotim as a project, puts me in mind of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) – the tale of a rubber baron who wants to build an opera house in the remote Peruvian city of Iquitos. (I’ve never quite been able to understand 40 Part Motet as much more than a glorified home stereo demonstration – it’s not as if Cardiff wrote Spem in Alium, which really would be impressive – but somehow, here in deepest Minas Gerais, it works perfectly.)
Paz first started collecting contemporary work at the suggestion of his friend, the artist Tunga, whose work is also represented at Inhotim. Today, he is directly involved in the choice of artists shown at the institute, but in close consultation with chief curator Allan Schwartzman, and curators Rodrigo Moura and Jochen Volz (a contributing editor of frieze), with the assistance of Júlia Rebouças. The first pavilions built at Inhotim are all in an elegantly generic modern style by the Brazilian architects Arquitetos Associados. These mostly house works from the permanent collection, shown on rotation, rather than permanent installations. In recent years, artists have started to become involved in designing their own pavilions. One of the first was the glass ufo I could see from Burden’s Beam Drop. Doug Aitken’s Sonic Pavilion (2009) was built using frosted glass that changes opacity as you walk around it –perhaps an allusion to Brumadinho’s name, which translates as ‘Little Misty’. In the centre of the room is a hole drilled 600 metres into the ground, in which are placed geological microphones that feed the sound of the earth into the pavilion. On my visit, I could hear a low rumble. Across a small valley from the Sonic Pavilion, near the Beam Drop (steel girders dropped from a height of 40 metres into a pool of wet concrete, and only made once before, in mid-1980s New York) is Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Palm Pavilion (2008): an airily elegant open-walled structure based on Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale, devoted to relics and cultural detritus relating to palms. Next to this is Piscina (2009), a swimming pool designed like an address book – the steps down into it are like alphabetical tabs along the side of a diary – by Jorge Macchi, and which reminds me of a Madelon Vriesendorp’s drawing made real.
A short buggy ride from Burden, Macchi and Tiravanija, is Gonzalez-Foerster’s installation Desert Park (2010): four concrete bus shelters are set across a large patch of white sand, a stunning and stark lunar contrast to the surrounding lush foliage. Based on bus shelters on the roads between Brumadinho and Belo Horizonte, Desert Park is designed for people to rest in and read. Their reading matter underlines the sci-fi atmosphere of Inhotim, amongst them: Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (1950); J.G. Ballard, The Crystal World (1966); La Invención de Morel (The Invention of Morel, 1940), by Adolfo Bioy Casares.
Inaugurated last year is a new building containing all five of Oiticica and D’Almeida’s ‘Cosmococas’ installations (1973–4) – the first time they’ve ever been shown permanently together. The rooms feature blasting Jimi Hendrix tracks, a pool in which visitors can swim, hammocks, bouncy foam mattresses and slide projections. Another Oiticica piece, Invenção da cor, Penetrável Magic Square # 5, De Luxe (The Invention of the Colour Penetrável No. 5 – Deluxe, 1977), sits by one of the lakesides. Its brightly painted walls are arranged according to intense shades of colour that sing against the contrasting green, as ducks amble in and around it. Nearby, Simon Starling has brought a British sailing boat made from South American mahogany, and ‘planted’ it upside down in the gardens like a tree (The Mahogany Pavilion, Mobile Architecture No. 1, 2004); Kusama’s silver spheres drift across the pond on the roof of the Roberto Burle-Marx learning centre and auditorium (Narcissus Garden Inhotim, 2009), while Neuenschwander has converted the roof of one of the old farm buildings to show illuminated silhouettes of dust drifting around (Continent/Cloud, 2007). Adriana Varejão’s tranquil pavilion sits in a water garden of its own, and contains a number of installations involving painted blue ceramic tiles – some depicting waves or clouds, painted with controlled flourish, others featuring botanical illustrations.
With so many new museums and biennials now spread across the world – so many opportunities to see art, for better or for worse – Inhotim ramps destination art tourism up to a new level, and, with its projected new hotels and restaurants, tourism is most definitely helping drive the institute’s agenda. The effort it takes to get there pays back ten-fold, as Inhotim does not show you work you can see at any old biennial or art fair, yet it’s nothing if not a garden of contrasts and contradictions. As the art world expands here and contracts there, the park may be the advance guard of a new model of institutional or private operation; for local people, it’s a day out, or somewhere that can provide work, but for the international art world elites in the northern hemisphere, its location simultaneously creates a new tier of privilege and access. Stood on that hilltop, next to Beam Drop, overlooking the valley below, I couldn’t help but turn over in my mind the corny and misquoted line from Field of Dreams (1989); ‘If you build it, they will come.’
Dan Fox is the US Editor at Large of frieze magazine and is based in New York. The author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016), his latest book, Limbo (2018), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
First published in Issue 137