One of the most spectacular buildings in Inhotim: the art gallery run by Brazilian avant-garde artist Adriana Varejao
© Malte Jaeger/laif

Art in the Garden of Eden

  • TEXT ANDRZEJ RYBAK

Inhotim is a place of pilgrimage for art lovers from all around the world. At the heart of the jungle, mining magnate Bernardo Paz has created an incredible art-studded wonderland which provides the perfect setting and working conditions for high-carat artists from all over the world.

A striking building juts out of the tropical vegetation. Its stark geometric shape is reflected in a rectangular pond; a narrow walkway leads up to the glass entrance. In the lobby there is a white tiled wall, a large section of which has collapsed. Unlike most walls, this particular one is not made of bricks, but consists of flesh and organs – painted, but very realistically so. The work is entitled “Linda do Rosario” and was named after a brothel in Rio de Janeiro which collapsed, killing several people.

The gallery run by the Brazilian avant-garde artist Adriana Varejao is one of the most spectacular buildings in Inhotim, a 1200 hectare park south of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Here, the Brazilian iron ore magnate Bernardo Paz has transformed an old mine site into a luxuriant botanic garden, and in the middle of the wild vegetation has created one of the world’s most thrilling museums of contemporary art. Around 20 artists present their works in these lush surroundings, some out in the open, others in the eighteen modern pavilions that have been discerningly set into the landscape.

Kaleidoscopic jungle reflections in Olafur Eliasson’s Viewing Machine

Kaleidoscopic jungle reflections in Olafur Eliasson’s Viewing Machine

© Anita Back/laif
We have Bernardo Paz to thank for the existence of Inhotim: Instead of sitting on a huge pile of cash, he decided to fullfill a dream

We have Bernardo Paz to thank for the existence of Inhotim: Instead of sitting on a huge pile of cash, he decided to fullfill a dream

© Malte Jaeger/laif
A walk in „Narcissus garden“ by Yayoi Kusama

A walk in „Narcissus garden“ by Yayoi Kusama

© Malte Jaeger/laif
Visitors can get right up close to the artworks, as here in the Penetrável Magic Square #5 by Hélio Oiticica of Brazil

Visitors can get right up close to the artworks, as here in the Penetrável Magic Square #5 by Hélio Oiticica of Brazil

© Nidin Sanches/Nitro/laif
Bernardo Paz turns artists’ dreams into reality

Bernardo Paz turns artists’ dreams into reality – as here with Cildo Meireles’ minutely detailed “Desvio para o vermelho” (Red Shift)

© Malte Jäger/laif
„Rodoviaria de Brumadinho“ by John Ahearn und Rigoberto Torres

„Rodoviaria de Brumadinho“ by John Ahearn und Rigoberto Torres

© Malte Jaeger/laif
VW Beetles are still quite a common sight in Brazil – but not usually such a colorful one as in this installation by Jarbas Lopes

VW Beetles are still quite a common sight in Brazil – but not usually such a colorful one as in this installation by Jarbas Lopes

© Anita Back/laif

 The list of artists here reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary art: Doug Aitken, Chris Burden, Matthew Barney, Paul McCarthy, Olafur Eliasson and Dan Graham. Seminal Brazilian artists are also represented, like Cildo Meirelles, Tunga, Hélio Oiticica, Miguel Rio Branco  and Adriana Varejao. Many are regular guests at biennales in Venice and other international exhibitions. “You have probably heard of some of these legendary works,“ wrote the New York Times about the collection. “In Inhotim they are permanently on display.”

The remote Brazilian park is situated a long way off the beaten art path and the traditional centers of modern art. The center shows mainly large, complex installations which ordinary museums would struggle to find the space for. Around 500 pieces are currently on show in Inhotim, and that number is constantly rising: So far, only 10 percent of the available parkland has been developed. Paz only very rarely gets involved in choosing the art: “I don’t know all that much about art,” says the billionaire disingenuously. “I am much more interested in the garden.” For eight years, the collection was curated and shaped by Jochen Volz, the German-born artistic director of Inhotim, who moved to London in 2012.

Paz made his fortune with iron ore; in the 1990s, he set up and expanded the mining corporation Itaminas, which produced around 3 million tons of iron ore annually. After suffering a stroke, he withdrew almost entirely from the business and decided to devote his time to art. He created a private collection which he then opened to the public in Inhotim in 2006. There was speculation in the Brazilian media that he was using the project to launder dirty money made from mining, an allegation which Paz rebuts: “Completely absurd, all lies. But then nobody is “completely transparent,” he says, adding that the newspapers were never able prove any of their allegations.

The unique charm of Inhotim lies in the rich symbiosis between the extravagant natural surroundings and the thought-provoking modern art. The exhibits challenge and cross-fertilize each other – and are perfect companions. There are a number of highly unusual installations in the park. For example, the New York artist Doug Aitken dug a deep well into one of the hills and built the dome-shaped “Sonic Pavilion over it. Visitors can listen to the sound of the earth breathing, transmitted by highly sensitive microphones installed at a depth of 200 meters.

Listen to the earth breathe: Inside Doug Aitken’s Sonic Pavilion, you can

Listen to the earth breathe: Inside Doug Aitken’s Sonic Pavilion, you can

© Luiz Maximiano/laif

 Tunga’s installation “True Rouge”, consisting of a multitude of red objects and glass containers half-filled with a red liquid, is displayed in a charming pavilion by the lakeside. The color red is also the topic of a piece by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles.  His “Desvio para o vermelho” (Diversion over Red) shows a living room with a kitchenette, a sofa and shelves – all in red. All the objects in the room are blood-red: the books, the television set and the food on the table. The source of the discoloration is concealed in the next room: red paint appears to drip out of a tap over a squint basin, spreading over the floor and lapping into the next room.

In Inhotim visitors can engage with art at very close quarters, can touch and feel it. Children play hide-and-seek between the colored walls of the “Penetrável Magic Square # 5” by the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, a piece that looks slightly like a miniature Stonehenge. Between a cluster of yellow, red and blue VW Beetles – a piece by Jarbas Lopes – one feels transported into the surreal world of Willy Wonka.

Inhotim has already made a name for itself in the global art world, alongside established locations such as London, New York and Bilbao. The curators invite artists to work in residence and create new works of art. Many come, because in Inhotim they can create projects that would be too expensive or too complex anywhere else. “There are no boundaries here,” promises Paz. “Everything is possible.”

Over a quarter of a million people visited the vast park in the last year alone, and visitor numbers continue to rise. At weekends the vast grounds are usually full. Golf carts laden with visitors whizz along the asphalt paths, as the distances between the pavilions are too far to walk comfortably. In future, Paz intends to build several hotels in Inhotim, as it is already impossible to see all the exhibits in a single day.

The billionaire also wants to contribute to the social development of his native state and is setting up collaborations with primary schools and universities in the region; each week, groups of school children from Belo Horizonte are driven to the art park. Inhotim has become a key factor in the local economy. Half of the 900 staff here – gardeners, guides and visitor assistants – come from the local town of Brumadinho.