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The Mahogany Pavillion (Mobile Architecture No.1), 2004, Simon StarlingThe Mahogany Pavillion (Mobile Architecture No.1), 2004, Simon Starling

Inhotim: Orchids and Contemporary Art



Built from the collection of a mining magnate and surrounded by more than 1,500 different types of plants, Inhotim is an alluring place, rife with contradictions.


Inhotim is located in central Brazil, hundreds of miles away from the major coastal cities. To get there, you have to fly in to the Belo Horizonte airport and then take a bus from the central station. Either that, or rent a car with GPS to lead you along the reddish dirt roads to the remote town of Brumadinho. On the outskirts, a few women stand waiting in front of the deserted bus station; the trains here cater only to the mining industry. A handful of farm workers sit in plastic chairs drinking pinga under an asbestos roof. A few mangy dogs roam the unpaved streets. The hope that the park will serve as an economic motor by attracting tourists has yet to become a reality.


Inhotim is like something out of science fiction. There are no traces of the reddish soil that stains the houses and clothing of the habitants in this region, Minas Gerais. After long hours of car travel through dusty towns, past tractors and through field after field, we arrive at a tropical oasis, where we find a full parking lot and a footpath lined with tropical plants. Uniformed employees welcome us from atop golf carts. It feels like walking into Dr. No’s lair.


Inhotim’s history began in the 1980s when Bernardo Paz (a businessman who made his fortune selling iron to China) used a portion of his wealth to buy nearly 600 acres of land. He wanted to build a country house where he could keep his collection of contemporary art. With the help of a friend, renowned landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, he slowly transformed the plot into an enormous botanical garden where he installed a number of pavilions to house the pieces in his collection. Encouraged by his connections among the intelligentsia of the Brazilian art world, in 2004 Bernardo Paz opened his collection to a group of professionals for the first time as the Inhotim Contemporary Art Center. A new team took over in 2006 and the Inhotim Cultural Institute was constituted as a new legal and administrative entity. The name comes from the previous owner of the land, Mr. Tim (Inho, is a diminutive of the word senhor, “mister” in Portuguese). The collection currently includes more than 500 works of art.


The complex is spectacular; no artwork could ever seem tedious in such a powerful setting. National artists like Cildo Meireles, Helio Oiticica and Tunga are given a privileged position, with pieces that might be difficult to accommodate elsewhere because of their size – like Desvio para o vermelho or the Cosmococas– along with Brazilian artists from subsequent generations like Ernesto Neto, Rivane Neuenschwander, Adriana Varejão and Iran do Espírito Santo. As far as international artists are concerned, nearly all of the heavyweights from the contemporary art scene are represented, such as Albert Oehlen, Olafur Eliasson, Zan Huang, Paul McCarthy, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Pipilotti Rist and Doris Salcedo, among many others. Anish Kapoor is working on a new installation in the woodlands.


Pieces that can’t be housed in museums – because of their size or due to budgetary or political concerns – can find a home at Inhotim. The collection includes pieces that are housed in the different pavilions as well as open air sculptures. In this setting, it stands to reason that some of the artists whose work is exhibited are outshined by nature’s abundance, which silences some of the most interesting discourse usually associated with their work. Some of the pieces that are particularly suited to these surroundings include Beam drop (Chris Burden, 1984), a sculpture made out of 40-foot recycled steel beams that are an homage to the mining region where the park is located. The artist uses discarded railroad materials which, aside from taking on a near ancestral presence, are placed on a small hummock and act as lightning rods. Bisected Triangle, Interior Curve (a version of one of Dan Graham’s legendary pavilions, 2002), standing outside the museum hall, draws attention not only to the viewer, but to the idyllic surrounding landscape, which takes on new meaning.


Other artists, like Simon Starling or Dominique Gonzalez Foester explore concepts related to the Brazilian sociopolitical context. Rirkrit Tiravanija recreates a Maison Tropicale, the prototype for prefabricated housing built in 1951 by the French architect Jean Prouvé for administrative workers and traders in the African colonies. In the interior we find documents and research on the palm tree, a plant that has been transformed into a cultural reference associated with the idea of the tropics.


The cement buildings are hidden amid the brush or along the shore of one of three idyllic lakes, like hideouts from a James Bond movie. They have housed mainly photographic work and videos from the collection, by artists such as Eugenio Dittborn, Luisa Lambri, Franz Ackermann, Steve McQueen and Tobias Rehberger.


All of this is surrounded by a botanical garden containing more than 4,200 plant species, which is also home to a scientific laboratory dedicated to the study of biodiversity and the promotion of public awareness through research courses. There is an interest in fomenting the scientific ventures undertaken at Inhotim in parallel with the efforts to promote contemporary art, in order to put it on the map as one of the largest botanical research centers in Latin America. There is a unique relationship between the landscape and the pieces on exhibition here; nature becomes part of the experience of the artwork, as paths wind between rolling hills, through woods and labyrinths. These elements meld together into one giant work of art, called Inhotim.



Another Brazilian Utopia


“Tell me about your dream. I want to bring it to life.” Bernardo Paz spoke these words to Allan Swartzman, one of Inhotim’s curators, as he recounts in the essay he wrote for inclusion in the collection catalog. When we consider that this is the same country where architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, with the help of dictator Juscelino Kubitschek, built an entire capital city out of thin air, Paz’s intentions are not surprising. Inhotim can be read as the evolution of unique constructions like the MAC in Niterói (1996), built by Oscar Niemeyer as a 360 degree observatory over Guanabara Bay where the landscape seen through the windows becomes the museum’s best piece. Lina Bo Bardi also has outstanding constructions like the MAM in Salvador de Bahia (1963), literally suspended over the beach, or São Paulo’s Modern Art Museum (1959), which sits in the middle of Ibirapuera Park.


Contrary as it is happening in the Middle East, where the institutions look for franchises of main European and American museums, Inhotim makes a statement drawing both visually and conceptually directly from Brazilian Modernism and maintaining a strong connection with the landscape. The park stands as a symbol of the country’s current economic position, which does not depend on ‘first world’ histories. A prove of that is last year’s São Paulo Biennial, beautifully titled The Imminence of Poetics. Curated by Luis Enrique Pérez Oramas, curator of Latin American art at MoMA and a poet himself, showed how it is possible to create a joyful, young and genuinely Latin American biennial. But it is not only this event that leads the country art scene, São Paulo might be a grey metropolis but it has proudly created its autonomy and leadership in the southern hemisphere with major galleries and foundations.


Coming from southern Europe, where a series of public art institutions where built in the nineties and now they are closing down due to deplorable political management, and the atmosphere of precariousness and pessimism is causing a massive diaspora in the younger generation; and then visiting places like Inhotim, makes you rethink the future of the institution and the emergence of a new paradigm. Perhaps our prejudiced eyes are not able to read a new and different language of seduction, exuberance and optimism that brings the opportunity to artists to create works of art never thought elsewhere?


Going back off the beaten path, it is hard not to think about the numbers and about the wealth of contradictions that such an enticing scenario as Inhotim inspires. Despite the fact that the employees are hired locally and that the center runs educational programs for schools and universities in the region, the real value of each of the commissions is something that does not go unnoticed. A large part of Inhotim’s audience comes from the cosmopolitan upper middle class in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Recently, e-flux has been announcing an international course for curators and there are rumors about the construction of a luxury hotel nearby. The park is becoming a prestigious destination which provides entertainment for domestic visitors and exclusivity for tourists in the art world.


As soon as we leave the grounds, though, I can’t help but think back on the words I’ve just seen in a photograph of a piece by the Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans, taken from a song by Caetano Veloso: “Aqui tudo parece que ainda é construção e já é ruína.” (Here everything looks like it is still being built, but it is already a ruin).

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Published in CoCAin magazine, Poland – March 2013