Where dreams come true
Deep in the Brazilian jungle, Inhotim’s founder Bernardo Paz offers artists a place to realise their most ambitious projects
By Cristina Ruiz. Features, Issue 218, November 2010
Published online: 22 November 2010
There is a place in the Brazilian jungle where artists are told to make their dreams come true. This is a place where the usual institutional limitations do not apply: where there is endless space to realise projects, no time limit in which to make them, and plenty of money to pay for them. This place is Inhotim, a remote exhibition centre in rural Brazil set up by the mining magnate Bernardo Paz, which is arguably the most ambitious contemporary art museum ever conceived.
Allan Schwartzman, the New-York based adviser who serves as chief curator, tells the story of one project at Inhotim, a pavilion lost in the jungle containing a single work by Matthew Barney. “When Barney had the idea for this piece he said: ‘I want to put it in a geodesic dome but it should be in a eucalyptus forest.’ How many places can say: ‘we have a Eucalyptus forest?’ Here we can say that.”
A geodesic dome designed by Paula Zasnicoff Cardoso of the Brazilian architectural practice Arquitetos Associados, was duly constructed and now contains De Lama Lâmina [From Mud, a Blade], 2004-08, which shows a vehicle uprooting a tree. “The piece is about Ogun, the god of war and iron [in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion]”, explains Schwartzman. “Ogun creates the implements which destroy the forest. Eucalyptus is the tree of reforestation so you see in the piece the tree that’s been uprooted surrounded by a world of its own regeneration. This has profound meaning for Barney.”
Like Barney, other artists have been encouraged to realise their visions at Inhotim. “Doug Aitken is a perfect example,” continues Schwartzman. “Our conversation began six years ago. At that time all his work in technology was video and I said: ‘Video doesn’t really make sense in this landscape. Have you ever thought of working with technology but not in video?’ He said: ‘Ah yes, I have this idea of a project I’d love to do one day.’” The project, Sonic Pavilion, 2009, was realised at Inhotim last year. It consists of a circular building on top of a hill which contains a well. This goes down 200m into the ground and at its bottom microphones capture the sounds of the earth which are then amplified and played live in the gallery above.
Projects such as these inspire other artists who visit. Although Inhotim already contains two modestly-sized works by Olafur Eliasson, the Danish artist is now realising another two, much larger projects. “Eliasson came and he saw the pavilion by Barney and he said: ‘Forget what I already did for you, I will do it again,’” recounts Paz. “And he made two huge pieces which we have to construct now. Artists from all over the world come here, and they always want to do something. We have bought one very large piece by Anish Kapoor. Probably when he comes to visit, he will do more for us,” says Paz.
Art in the jungle
Paz is a hard man to interview. At a small press conference held at Inhotim in September, he tries to walk out after answering just one question as his communications team look on in consternation. Eventually he is persuaded to stay. Declaring himself “tired” he tells journalists he has recently divorced his latest wife, the artist Adriana Varejão, who is now his sixth ex-wife. “I have one child with each of my exes. Why not, I can pay for them?” he declares before telling us he is sure his next wife is “coming soon” so he gets up early every morning to “work out”. As revealing as he is about his personal life, he declines to answer questions he does not like about Inhotim or his business interests. He is silent, for example, when asked how much money he has spent at Inhotim. Later I put the same question to his executive director who declares that he “does not know”. And indeed, the scale of the project and the ambition of its owner means that this is possibly true. One person, who did not want to be named, described Paz as “a cross between William Randolph Hearst and Fitzcarraldo”.
What we do know is that Paz, 59, was born in Belo Horizonte, the third largest city in Brazil, which is 37 miles and almost two hours’ drive away from Inhotim. He has lived there his entire life and today presides over the iron mining company Itaminas. He tells me he started to buy land in the area around eight years ago. “I first bought an iron mine and there was a farm which came with the mine.” As the land surrounding his was threatened with development, Paz began to buy contiguous farms, forests and mountains and eventually amassed 3,000 acres of which only around a tenth has been developed. The size of his property “enabled him to conceive of a legacy: a cultural fantasy where great art could be experienced in relation to extraordinary gardens and the lush natural landscape,” says Schwartzman.
It was through friendships with artists and art dealers that Paz started to hone his cultural ambitions. In the beginning, he knew nothing about art and had terrible taste according to one dealer who asked not to be named. “When he started to really be interested in contemporary art it was mostly because of the dialogue he had with some of the artists who are his contemporaries and were his friends, for example, the Brazilian artists Tunga, Cildo Meireles and Miguel Rio Branco and later the American Paul McCarthy,” explains Jochen Volz, co-curator of the last Venice Biennale, and artistic director at Inhotim since 2004. All of these Brazilian artists are now strongly represented in the Paz collection.
Dealer Marian Goodman’s encouragement was crucial, says Paz. It was Goodman who advised Paz to hire Schwartzman. Six years ago Paz assembled a team of curators—as well as Schwartzman and Volz, he hired the Brazilian Rodrigo Moura—and started to think big. “We really tried to understand the potential of Inhotim and asked ourselves: ‘What can we do that other museums can’t do?’” explains Volz.
The site first opened to the public in 2006. Since then it has grown exponentially with new buildings and installations being added every year. The numbers are staggering. There are currently 17 galleries over 300 acres. Twelve are devoted to displays of work by a single artist. Five larger galleries house temporary exhibitions drawn from the growing permanent collection which now consists of around 500 works.
Many of the gallery buildings are clustered together around a series of artificial lakes which have been created in the landscape. The landscaping, inspired by another friend of Paz, the late painter and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, is beautiful. Other pavilions, such as the Barney and Aitken pavilions, have been placed in the middle of the jungle in “exquisite isolation” in Schwartzman’s words. To reach them you must hike up hills and along paths through the trees or catch a ride in one of the electric cars driven around the vast site by Inhotim’s youthful employees.
Together these buildings contain around 6,500 sq. m of display space. This will be increased further with the opening of Inhotim’s Great Gallery, which is currently under construction and will be finished in the next two years. Consisting of four interconnected pavilions, it will contain another 4,000 sq. m to show art and will feature major works by Chris Burden, Robert Irwin, Do Ho Suh and Hélio Oiticica, among many others.
Then there are the open-air installations, currently around 20, ranging from small sculptures to vast pieces of architecture dotted around the landscape. These include Burden’s Beam Drop, a work first made in 1984 as a temporary installation for a park in upstate New York. It is installed by having a crane lift 60 steel beams into the air and then drop them into a pool of wet concrete below. Where the beams land, they remain.
According to Paz, in the next few years Inhotim will continue to expand at breathtaking speed until it contains around 45 separate galleries or pavilions. “It will happen fast,” he says. As well as the two major pavilions containing work by Eliasson, there are also plans for a “major” work by the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, a new cycle of paintings by Carroll Dunham, installations by Lawrence Weiner and Mario Merz among many, many other projects.
As well as the art, Paz is building a convention centre and a theatre for 1,600 people. There will be film and performing arts festivals and Paz says he intends to collaborate with companies in New York and London such as the Tribeca Film Festival.
Although Paz and his staff resolutely refuse to discuss his mining interests, in March he reportedly agreed the sale of one of the Itaminas mines to a Chinese state company for $1.22bn. Some of the money from the transaction will doubtless be spent on Inhotim, not least in the form of tax relief. According to Inhotim’s executive director Hugo Vocurca Teixeira, under Brazilian law, 6% of corporate tax payable to the state and region can be diverted into cultural projects. Given the scale of Paz’s vision for the place, it needs all the money it can get.
In 2009 around 133,000 people travelled to Inhotim. Paz predicts a huge increase in numbers once his vision is realised. He intends to turn Inhotim into a major “cultural destination” which will attract visitors from around the world. “Probably you won’t come from London to Brazil, you will come from London to Inhotim,” he says. To accommodate tourists, Paz is building a range of hotels on the site. There will be a “six-star” luxury hotel “with a wonderful spa like in Switzerland” which will open within two years. There will also be a less expensive hotel and cheap accommodation “for students”.
Although the plan is for the place eventually to be self-funding, at the moment it is largely financed by Paz. Inhotim costs $10m to run a year and about 15% of this comes from ticket receipts, the rest from Paz. “We can rely on his money for some time to come,” says Teixeira.
“We’re very different from an urban museum,” says Schwartzman. “We build these museums which we think of as ideal environments for art. While we have ideal conditions for displaying art in the sense of the white box, at the same time it can be a harsh experience because it’s so focused on the art. After an hour and a half, two hours maximum, museum fatigue sets in, you can’t look, your brain is full. But here it’s the opposite. People can wander around, there’s a fusion of art and landscape and so your senses are constantly being refreshed and rested and tuned up for the next thing you see.”
Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who has been visiting Inhotim for the last seven years, agrees that the setting is what makes the place unique. “The jungle gives you time to think about what you’ve just looked at as you walk from place to place.”
Just as he collects art, Paz also collects plants and has turned Inhotim into a living library of species with a focus on palm trees and orchids—there are around 1,200 species of the former and 200 of the latter. As he has landscaped Inhotim, he has developed his vision for a botanical garden and science centre to run alongside the museum. He employs around 70 scientists whose research is focused on biodiversity. As the research develops, Inhotim will work with other botanical gardens around the world says Rodrigo Portugal, the director of the botanical garden, and increase its collaborations with universities.
For visitors who have come to look at the art, the landscape provides an extraordinary backdrop which sets Inhotim apart from every other art museum or biennial in the world. The sheer size of the place also gives curators the freedom to install huge works which city museums would struggle to display permanently.
“Urban museums end up being the most expensive buildings on the most expensive land and so every square foot needs to be justified,” says Schwartzman. “We’re able to collect and to house and to present art that’s just not possible in other environments.” One example is a pavilion designed by Paula Zasnicoff Cardoso and completed in 2008 which contains Neither, 2004, by Doris Salcedo, an installation first shown at White Cube in London. Inspired by the artist’s visit to Auschwitz, it consists of a room where the walls have been pierced by a metal grate and is composed of thousands of individually-painted diamond-shaped forms.
“When I first bought this work,” says Schwartzman, “Nick Serota [the director of Tate] said to me: ‘Congratulations on buying it, it’s an amazing work. We’d love to be able to own a work like this but we can’t.’ If a major museum owned this piece they could display it maybe once every ten years and by the second time of dismantling it, you would have destroyed the piece. We can inexpensively give it a home compared to what it would cost in most museums. Not only can we house it permanently, we can situate it in the landscape so that your experience of it amplifies the context of the work. The artist came here and she said: ‘You’ve fulfilled a dream. I never imagined I would be able to display [the work] this way.’”
Another thing that makes Inhotim unique is its “interest in connecting audiences to the art on show,” says Tiravanija. “Public institutions are not so comfortable in doing that. There tends to be a fear of the audience, of people touching, of people falling over.”
Everywhere at Inhotim, visitors are encouraged to interact with the art in ways that would be impossible elsewhere. One installation by Meireles consists of a field of broken glass punctuated by rolls of barbed wire; most western museums would doubtless cordon it off for health and safety reasons. Not Inhotim. Here, provided you are not wearing open shoes, you can crunch your way through the installation. In the pavilion devoted to five “Cosmococas”, a group of environments with slide projections and sound tracks devised in the 1970s by Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida, there are hammocks to swing on and even a swimming pool in a psychedelic nightclub setting. On the day I visited, the place is over-run with children.
Paz is glad to hear it. “Children can’t learn between four walls,” he says. “Sometimes museums only want to buy very intellectual pieces of art but people want to see things that spur their curiosity and interact with everything.”
Commitment to community
Reaching out to children is one of the key aims of the centre. There are collaborations with local schools and universities and around 40,000 children visit in the course of one year. Inhotim also creates work for communities that would otherwise struggle to find employment. In the next few years, 2,000 additional staff will be hired according to Teixeira. Indeed, the name Inhotim derives from the name of a small village nearby and was chosen to emphasise commitment to the local community.
As Inhotim develops, it will mean many things to many people. To international art tourists, it will be a stunning place to look at contemporary art. It will provide a viewing experience that is vastly superior to those offered by the endless round of biennials and art fairs. To the young people who find work there, it is a place where they can not only earn a wage but also continue their education through the various initiatives set up for employees. “Before this place opened, I would have had to leave the region to go find work,” explained one enthusiastic worker. “Now I don’t have to leave. I can work here forever.”
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