Brazil’s Hidden Cultural Treasure

Published: 25 January 2020
Inhotim is the world’s largest open-air art museum

Rio, Iguazu, the Pantanal, the Amazon – fabled names tempt one to Brazil, but there’s also a hidden treasure you shouldn’t miss. It’s a bit of a struggle to get there, but it’s worth the effort.

Inhotim is the world’s largest open-air art museum. It’s Yorkshire Sculpture Park on steroids. That site inhabits 500 acres of rolling English hillside; Inhotim, carved out of a lush forest, is four times its size. Inhotim displays 5,000 floral species, including 1,400 different types of palm trees. As in Yorkshire, free-standing outdoor sculptures dot the landscape. Along a network of paths a surprise springs up around every bend. There are twenty-three pavilions – of breath-taking architectural audacity – housing galleries and installation art. It’s hilly, but a fleet of hop-on-and-off six-passenger electric golf carts driven by obliging youngsters trundle you up and down the steeper inclines.

This cultural oasis in the historic mining state of Minas Gerais in central Brazil opened in 2006 at a cost of $70 million. It’s the creation of a Brazillionaire, Bernardo de Mello Paz, who made his fortune mining gold and precious gems. He is currently in jail, convicted of money laundering in 2017. Inhotim may have been inspired by the fifth of his six wives; she’s one of the Brazilian artists who have a gallery devoted to their endeavours. Today the site operates as a non-profit institution heavily funded by the government. Will it survive Bolsonaro’s environmental callousness?

We spent two days there, and would have enjoyed a third. On Wednesdays entrance is free and school children are bussed in, but the crowds soon disperse into the vastness of the park. There are plans to build hotels in the huge car park, but for now you have to travel each day from the city of Belo Horizonte, 60 kilometres away, or find a hotel somewhere closer. Distance is not a great problem as taxis are cheap. But we booked late and the only accommodation available was in the nearby scruffy and unpronounceable town of Brumadinho. Oh, well, let’s have a go: broom-a-JEEN-yo. (Inhotim, by the way is phonetically een-yo-CHEEN, allegedly a corruption of the name of an Englishman known as Sir Tim who once owned the area.)

Our hotel was a shambles posing as a palace, specifically the Estrada Real Palace. The expensive room had no window and no lock on the patio door opening onto the road. The lighting was dim, the cleaning lady neglected to enter, and – bane of the male traveller – the plastic lid of the toilet seat would not stay up. The manager, the only grump we met in Brazil, snarled that the restaurant was closed. Indefinitely. He told us there were restaurants along the way into town, and so we set out in the rain through a desolate and threatening wasteland dodging puddles on a road without pavements with huge lorries thundering out of the blackness. We encountered no restaurants, but a lighted doorway drew us into a drinking den. The landlady leapt to our service. Through gesture and two inappropriate languages we let her know we were hungry. There was a restaurant – a couple of kilometres in the opposite direction. She collared a customer and he drove us there, refusing any payment. That’s another of Brazil’s treasures: the uninhibited generosity of its people.

” The appropriate response to installation art is to abandon any search for meaning “

I must declare a disinterest. For me, modern art died with Edward Hopper. Installation art – shaky, out-of-focus videos of onanists or scattered objets trouvés sometimes mistakenly carted away by the cleaners – leave me groaning with ennui. As always, I found many of the exhibitions predictable and banal, favouring dark rooms where you blunder about knocking into miscellaneous bits and pieces. Not to be illuminated by gnomic titles such as By Means of a Sudden Intuitive Realization. One of the most celebrated artworks is a room containing 40 loudspeakers playing 40 individually recorded voices singing Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in Alium. Clever? But why? Once you’ve seen one loudspeaker you’ve seen them all.

And yet . . . I was entranced by several of the exhibitions. You take off your shoes to enter a room where all the furnishings are red: the carpets, the cupboards, the shelves, the sofa and chairs, the typewriter, the paintings on the walls, the clothing hanging on the rack, the books, the lamps, the fan, the birdcage, the record player, the records, the telly and what’s on the telly.  Blood-coloured liquid pours into a basin. It’s a jolt.

You enter a geodesic dome housing an earthmover. Some vague protest about environmental catastrophe? But the overlapping reflections are fascinating. A life-size plastercharabanc peopled with caricatures hangs from a wall. There’s a bouncy castle where you can kick cushions around. Fun! On a rooftop pond flotillas of silver spheres stirred by the wind combine and disperse amidst fronds and lilypads in endless, restless motion. Entering a dark, empty gallery the size of an aircraft hangar you are compelled into a bewildering whirlpool of sound and imagery. Eight unsynchronised screens project continuous loops of juddering images of absurdist Russian modernism from Soviet films of the 1920s, accompanied by a raucous, jazzy soundtrack. It’s a paean to the calamitous collapse of the Russian avant-garde taken from a 2010 production of Dmitry Shostakovich’s satirical opera The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The installation has a gnomic title: It’s not me, the horse is not mine. But, it’s actually quite relevant: an expression Russian peasants use to deny culpability. It derives from a transcript of the plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (projected on screen) in which the Bolshevik revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin argued for his political and physical life. Unsuccessfully.

I began to realise that the appropriate response to installation art is to abandon any search for meaning and savour the sensory experience – sight and sound and, sometimes, touch. Let it all wash over you. And, in this spirit I must admit I was transfixed by a shaky, fuzzy video about favela life featuring a woman wanking. To a throbbing samba beat.