Suddenly, the asphalt feels softer under the wheels, the road seems much better, and the annoying lombadas have disappeared (“speed bumps” in Brazilian Portuguese). Suddenly, there are no more half-built, half-derelict houses, no more chaotic city plans and anarchic urban design, no more posters for fortune tellers or Evangelical churches, no more kids running everywhere. Suddenly –once you pass the armed guards at the entrance–, you find yourself in another Brazil, without chaos, poverty, disorder or corruption (well, almost). Like in Baudelaire’s poem, in this rich, calm, serene Brazil –the opposite of the actual Brazil, of everyday Brazil–, it is nothing but “ordre et beauté, luxe, calme et volupté.” Welcome to Inhotim! First and foremost a huge garden of 2000ha in the middle of Brazil (the French daily Libération titled its review “Collection d’hectares contemporains”, a play on “art contemporain”), Inhotim is the largest open-air museum of the American continent, if not the world, with several buildings harboring artworks and plenty of outdoor sculptures and installations. It is also the realization of Bernardo Paz’s megalomaniac dream; the infamous self-taught straight-talking businessman, who earned his fortune through the intensive exploitation of the region’s mines, has declared, however: “I have no passion for art, but I love gardens,” and “I do not understand art, I do not understand Picasso.”
Besides the enormous size of the site, what amazes is the possibility to see large-scale installations, which are usually dismantled and put in storage after having been exhibited. Precisely, some of these oversized artworks have been produced especially for Inhotim. Disseminated –and staged– throughout the fazenda, 22 large-scale outdoor sculptures, 17 “solo show” galleries and 6 “group show” ones require at least two days of visiting to see it all (*), and even more if the 1400 different species of palm trees and other botanical profusions are of interest to you. And let’s not forget the 1000 employees –locals, for the most part–, that is to say nearly one employee per daily visitor. What emerges from this ensemble? A quite disparate contemporary collection, half-Brazilian, half-foreign. Great names only, with few exceptions, and therefore not much risk-taking or boldness. Tellingly, despite the fact that Inhotim’s director is also curating the current Venice Biennale, I could not find any artist featured in both: consecration here, innovation there… And of the 80+ artists in the catalogue, only 4 are under 40 years old (including Dominik Lang, 36, one of the rare but important discoveries I made here).
The next review will focus on the most impressive artworks, but first I would like to address how, in this secluded, preserved environment, the country’s complexity still manages to burst through and bring us back to earth, thanks to the artists. The image featured at the top of the post is the far end of Cildo Meireles’s intallation, Desvio para o vermelho: Impregnação & Entorno (I had seen it before), in which everything is red: for a small bottle placed at the end releases an immense red flow on the ground, evoking the blood of victims or mining pollution, while a faucet leaks out in the dark. The image featured above is another installation by Cildo Meireles, Atraves, about which I wrote in 2009: “Atraves or Through is a huge installation that has to be described in three stages. First, under our feet lays some broken glass that we are crushing noisily with each step, destroying ever more the artwork in a way that is, I have to admit, quite enjoyable (though, at first, alone in the room, I did not dare to do so, and so I asked the guard for permission). The danger can be felt, a taboo is transgressed, and constraints are broken. Then, transparent barriers appear in front of us, shaped in six homothetic squares, blocking the way but not the view. These barriers are made of screens, beaded curtains, blinds, metal meshes, shower curtains, barbwire, glass panels, and aquariums in which even the fishes are transparent. The visitor tries to make his/her way through this fake labyrinth, dodging or getting around the obstacles, navigating them all the while joyfully crushing the glass. Finally, in the center of the artwork, under harsh light, stands a huge ball of wrinkled cellophane, at least a meter in radius, that has become opaque because of its density. One can only imagine the squeals its wrinkling produced, the symphony playing along its fabrication. It stands as the idol in its holy of holies, the sacred ark that the visitor was trying to reach, without being able to get any closer to this white sun –a metaphor of the universe. This was an experience of the allowed and the forbidden, between the ‘yes’ from the guard and the ‘no’ of the barriers, an experience of the gap between vision, free, and touch, constrained, an experience that leaves us with an elusive and mystical truth.”
Matthew Barney’s De Lama Lâmina (second image featured above) is similarly unsettling. In a geodesic pavilion lost in the forest, a huge tractor –used to rip the earth in mining operations–holds an uprooted tree between its fangs. Even if the allusion to the orixás is not that obvious, it is also an echo of the owner’s mining background. Other works show similar critical engagement, such as the installation Jungle Jam by the brazen trio Chelpa Ferro (a nice discovery for me), in which common supermarket plastic bags act out a symphony of sorts by swelling up, squealing, snapping, exhaling and bursting, in a consumerist counterpoint to Janet Cardiff’s work.
Chaos catches up with us again with Beam Drop Inhotim, a sculpture by Chris Burden (whose performances are documented in a room elsewhere) on Inhotim’s high ground, the trace of 12-hour long performance in which the artist dropped 71 iron beams in a hole filled with liquid cement from a 45m-high crane. The beams penetrated the cement in various depths and angles, creating a perfectly chaotic ensemble, imbued with controlled violence. The neighboring city is visible in the distance, and the artwork resonates with it, recalling Brazil’s disorders, impossible to ignore completely even when kept at bay. Further up the hill, Burden has installed a bunker/watchtower made of cement bags, deceitful named “beehive”, even though no bee could produce honey in this surveillance and repression tool hovering over the city of beams.
Even if several architectural firms shared the workload in Inhotim (most of the visitor’s guide focuses on them), similar features can be found across the site, especially in the pavilions’ design. Each of them is beautiful in its own right, but they all resemble bunkers, they seem closed off, obtuse, without openings; the visitor enters them through dark corridors burrowing into the earth or the building, then, after a chicane or narrow bend, discovers suddenly the artwork in all its glory, as in a holy of holies where the idol’s shine must trigger adoration. Only Tunga’s pavilions, opening up on the outside and the forest, and Doug Aitken’s one, conceived by the artist himself and not by an architect, elude this streamlined scenography staging an amazing discovery. Be that as it may, a couple artists criticize this limited, sanitized architecture: Carlos Garaicoa who, in an old and dark barn, destroys with fire buildings made of wax, slowly evolving towards ruins –a despaired outlook on architecture (Ahora juguemos a desaparecer).
Cristina Iglesias challenges the norm as well, with her pavilion Vegetation Room Inhotim, lost in the forest at the end of a path: its walls are mirrors reflecting the trees around it, which renders the building almost invisible, as a simple echo of its environment. Three opening puncture the walls, allowing the visitor to enter an artificial indoor forest made of resin and fiberglass, its green color sickly and sad. It makes for a superb opposition between nature and culture, model and imitation, truth and representation, the criticism of art and the art of criticism. These artworks are causes for rejoicing in an universe often too consensual.
(*) For the sake of being precise: I could not see three of these galleries (Doris Salcedo’s was closed, and time lacked for Valeska Soares’ and Claudia Andujar’s).
Photos Meireles, Iglesias and Burden by Lunettes rouges
Original publication date by Lunettes rouges: September 30, 2016.
Translation by Lucas Faugère