The road to Inhotim passes through mining country: mountains that run deep with scars that bear witness to the partial evisceration of thick forests by industrial excavation. I can only assume that the locals are built of sturdier stuff than me, as my stomach somersaults while the car I’m in lurches from one pothole to another, sliding around the neverending twists and turns that seem a feature of the roads in the state of Minas Gerais. These locals – miners I later see slouched in the plastic chairs of roadside bars – travel along the red-dust lanes every day on their way to dig out the natural reserves of iron ore.
As we nudge into the second hour of the trip from Belo Horizonte, the main city in this Brazilian state, I begin to question whether my destination will be worth the continuous waves of nausea. But the moment we swing into the entrance road, see the rich vegetation and profusion of floral colour, and hear the endless cacophony of bird noise, it immediately becomes obvious that it is.
The 3,000-acre site is what Jurassic Park’s John Hammond would have built if he had been interested in art and plants rather than dinosaurs.
The 3,000-acre site is what Jurassic Park’s John Hammond would have built if he had been interested in art and plants rather than dinosaurs; and at Inhotim Institute of Contemporary Art and Botanical Garden, Bernardo Paz, who sold his mining company to a Chinese investor in 2010 for $1.2 billion, plays the Richard Attenborough character. Paz, originally a collector of modern art, became interested in contemporary art through his friendship with the Brazilian artist Tunga, whose work is situated in a white geometric pavilion, its rectangular frame reflected in one of Inhotim’s five lakes.
This was the first structure to be built, in 1997; since then a further 17 have been completed, with an additional two due to open in September. Most are sizeable spaces; all are pristinely realised. The pavilions, predominantly built by two young Belo Horizonte-based architecture practices, Rizoma Arquitetura and Arquitetos Associados, are dedicated either to work by a single artist or a curated collection focused on the work of two or three. Some house temporary exhibitions drawn from the ever-expanding permanent collection, keeping the six-strong curatorial team busy between commissions.
What really strikes the visitor, however, is not so much the works themselves as the relationship set up among them, the architecture and the planting schemes in the gardens surrounding the pavilions. As I near the site of each commissioned project, I am introduced to and immersed in the environmental aesthetics of the work long before laying eyes on the formal art object. Take the area of the garden that frames Matthew Barney’s De Lama Lamina (2004–9), a dark- red grit path cut through a thick planting of native trees and bushes: walking along it is a slightly foreboding experience, the ending obscured until the last moment by myriad bends and the dense foliage. A sudden twist, however, leads me into a face-to-face confrontation with my own mirror image. The pavilion takes the form of two conjoined geodesic domes, constructed from triangular panes of one-way mirror.
It is only once I am inside that Barney’s installation, which the artist spent four years intermittently onsite developing, can be seen. (Conversely, when I look out at the gardens through the tinted mirror glass, they look even darker and more threatening than they did on the way in.) A fearsome gigantic tractor, rearing up on jacks at an angle, its underside half- caked in the same red dirt as the path, holds a ghostly white plaster cast of a tree in its claws, the trunk speared with a rifle and various industrial tools. Perhaps the work is a tad overwrought and unsubtle in its commentary on the local industry (which financed the work); but the point is that the ominous buildup, the futuristic, utopia-referencing enclosure and the violent payoff are all expertly plotted, leaving the visitor in a state of unease.
This experiential, all-over site-specificity is present again in the landscaping and architecture of the Doug Aitken pavilion. A small boulder-strewn mound, moonscape-like in appearance, leads up to a pavilion reminiscent of a scientific observatory – circular, with the external wall constructed entirely of glass, and capped by a white domed roof. The interior is empty of objects (its only feature a small glass- covered hole in the middle of the concrete floor), but filled with a constantly fluctuating aural booming. Titled Sonic Pavilion (2009), Aitken’s project transmits the sound of the earth, live from a 202-metre hole bored beneath the building.
The result is a quiet melancholic mumbling on my visit, but depending on the mining detonations in the forests and mountains that stretch beyond Inhotim’s walls, it can be a lot louder and angrier. Elsewhere there are pavilions dedicated to Cildo Meireles (housing Através, 1983–9, his visceral, violent, barrier-strewn installation, the floor of which is littered with broken glass that crunches underfoot; and Desvio para o Vermelho I: Impregnação, II: Entorno, III: Desvio (1967–84), initially more humorous but actually equally disquieting, in which a room entirely furnished with red domestic objects is coupled with a second pitch-black space in which a spotlit sink constantly fills with red liquid); two spatial, narrative soundworks by Janet Cardiff (one co-produced with George Bures Miller); Adriana Varejão’s deceptively decorative, recurring use of tiles (including a set of benches on the canopy- level roof of her dedicated gallery, Panacea Phantastica, 2003– 8, clad in intricate ornithological silkscreen drawings); and a five-room slate-grey boxlike space housing the truly incredible, disorientating environmental combinations of sound, film, objects and performative activity (visitors can lie in hammocks or swim in a luminescent pool, for example) of Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida’s 1970s Cosmococa series.
It’s this combination of local ecosystem, conceptual planting and the semiotics of architecture that truly makes Inhotim’s artwork site-specific.
The monumental artworks within Paz’s collection – including those outside pavilions, installed in the open air of the gardens – are well suited to their context. Yet many institutions house good, big works, by good, big artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Paul McCarthy and Chris Burden (whose work here, Beam Drop, 1984/2009, 70 rust-red girders protruding messily upright from high ground overlooking a soaring vista, is particularly affecting). What really makes Inhotim worth that protracted journey, then, is its intoxicating curatorial rhapsody of reception theory: that is, the idea that an artwork’s nucleus lies in whatever relationship is formed between viewer and object.
Here the environmental ephemera surrounding the objects and the nature of much of the work collected or commissioned almost universally catalyse a variety of distinct, emotive, reactions. It’s this combination of local ecosystem, conceptual planting and the semiotics of architecture that truly makes Inhotim’s artwork site-specific. The ideas floated among the flora of the gardens, as personally affecting as they are, could not have been released anywhere other than this constructed situation.
One could easily spread a visit out over three days, and as I sped back through the hills, I wished I could spend more time immersing myself deeper within Inhotim’s environment, allowing it to engulf me like the motion sickness that dogged the journey there. While that intrusion of the environment onto one’s physical state was an unwelcome one, the intrusion of the artworks at Inhotim into one’s mental state makes for a pretty exhilarating ride.
This article was first published in the Brazil Supplement with the September 2012 issue