Folly in the forest
An unlikely collection of art in the backwaters of Brazil is starting to draw crowds
THE idea that a Brazilian mining billionaire has set up a vast garden of art in a remote forest in South America sounds like the premise of a surrealist novel.
So it should come as no surprise that a journey to Inhotim Institute, two hours southwest of the city of Belo Horizonte, is not your typical cultural pilgrimage. In fact, it sometimes has the air of a wilderness survival course.
On my recent visit, a tropical downpour has enveloped the lush Atlantic forest, turning the dirt roads into rivers of mud. Trucks weighed down with iron ore skid around tight corners, threatening to overturn. The sense of being in an out-take of Jurassic Park only gets stronger in the area’s only township, Broumadinho, a lonely outpost where the bars catering to miners are encrusted in ferrous grime.
But as I finally approach the gates to Inhotim (pronounced in-yo-cheem), the rustic backwater is instantly transformed into an enclave of impeccable taste. This 2000ha cultural Eden, created over the past decade by 62-year-old iron ore magnate Bernardo Paz, has emerged as one of the world’s most exciting and ambitious adventures in contemporary art. It’s been heralded as Brazil’s futuristic answer to Storm King in New York and Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona, mixing art and nature in a provocative new way.
Armed guards wave me down a smooth curving driveway to an elegant, open-air entrance vestibule where young Brazilian staff in colour-coded T-shirts bustle back PICTURES: ALAMY; EDUARDO ECKENFELS; CAROL REIS
One artist, Doug Aitken, has sunk a hole 200m into the earth and placed microphones at the base; the sound, conveyed into a circular Sonic Pavilion of frosted glass, resembles groaning, as if the earth were alive. In another gallery, visitors must walk across a floor covered with broken glass. There are video installations, mirrors, strobe lights and acoustic effects.
The pavilion devoted to Adriana Varejao, Paz’s fifth wife (he is now on his sixth), is a monolithic block of concrete hovering over a reflective blue pool. A catwalk takes you inside, where sculpted broken walls seem to ooze human entrails.
Some 110 grandiose works are on display, by artists from 30 nations, including Chris Burden, Matthew Barney, Steve McQueen, Helio Oiticica and Anish Kapoor; about 500 more pieces are in the ever-expanding permanent collection.
One artwork is an outdoor swimming pool, complete with change rooms and lifeguards. (On my visit there are no Brazilian art lovers lounging in thong swimwear, but surely it’s only a matter of time.)
Becoming lost in the tropical foliage is a central part of the experience. ‘‘Senhor Paz loves art, but he’s passionate about the garden,’’ says Inhotim’s chief horticulturalist, Juliano Borin.
There are 4500 plant species, including 1300 types of palms, apparently the world’s largest collection. On the trails between pavilions, visitors hear wildlife rustling in the bushes or exotic bird calls. Vividly coloured butterflies flutter by. Then one might catch the distant strains of a Renaissance chorus or wistful bossanova.
‘‘The garden gives you time to reflect and refresh before the next installation,’’ adds Borin.
Paz is waiting for me in what was his former farmhouse, now converted into an elegant restaurant. Torrents of rainwater pour down the branches and spray gently off the giant leaves. Thunder rolls in the distance. It reminds of how one Brazilian artist I’d met in Rio de Janeiro described Paz: ‘‘Think of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.’’
Paz is in much better shape than the late Brando, at least. Tall and trim, with shoulder-length silver hair and a thick white beard, he seems to cultivate a messianic appearance. In fact, if Jesus Christ had lived to late middle age, he might have looked just like Paz.
‘‘I am building Inhotim for people who have never had access to art and culture. You have to open their minds. That’s the future,’’ he declares.
‘‘Inhotim is not going to last just for my lifetime,’’ Paz assures me. ‘‘It’s going to last forever, for 1000 years.’’
For the next 90 minutes, he makes oracular pronouncements about technology in our new ‘ ‘ postcontemporary society’’.
Inhotim received 293,000 visitors last year despite its isolation, he tells me. This year the number will reach 400,000, and it will soon increase, he predicts, to a million a year. ‘‘There will be a new theatre at Inhotim. A convention centre. Technological companies. Research stations. Greenhouses. Scientists. Teachers. Educators. Our curators come from Brazil, Germany, South Korea, the US and Portugal. ‘‘We have the best team in the world.’’ It’s hard to tell whether Paz is a new Maecenas or a latter-day Fitzcarraldo.
‘‘I used to think he was crazy,’’ one of his employees later confesses. ‘‘But I look at what he’s achieved at Inhotim. And now I believe whatever he says.’’
Clockwise from above, Galeria Adriana Varejao was named for Bernardo Paz’s fifth wife;
by Helio Oiticica; and metal artwork by Chris Burden