Glass discovers a secret tropical garden of majestic proportions in Brazil
When I was a child – and, indeed, until the day that my grandparents sold their home – nothing would make me happier than spending time in my grandparents’ garden. The garden, which to this day still forms the backdrop to many of my dreams, was set into the arid stepped hillside of a sleepy village in Provence. Sprawled over five or six levels, each “restanque” (a shelf of land cut into the hillside) was connected by a concrete staircase – each of which my grandfather had lovingly covered with a different mosaic, formed of old broken tiles or bits of old bike light. There was a bird staircase and a mask staircase – a staircase in hues of blue and a staircase in rich ochres and reds.
Also around the garden - amongst my grandmothers’ blooming hydrangea, her scented lavender and singing pink geraniums – were examples of my grandfather’s other, somewhat random, artistic endeavours: A giant concrete fish tank, also covered in mosaic, which would occasionally be converted into a makeshift swimming pool; a soap dish, cemented into a crack in a wall above a pretty greying sink; a pair of garden sheds “La cabane basse” and “la cabane d'en hau” painted with enormous flowers and against which my brothers and I would build our dens using odd planks of wood and tree branches; and finally – the piece de resistance – a dead tree, painted Matisse-blue, for no apparent reason.
Each time I came to visit, something would have changed. A new flower had been coaxed from the dry ground by my “Mamie” or a pebble had been painted with a butterfly and left at the foot of a tree. These little discoveries – human interventions into a wild landscape – afforded me endless pleasure and set my imagination running. When entering Inhotim for the first time, this pleasure was reignited.
Inhotim is situated – for want of a better phrase – in the middle of nowhere. From the frenetic urban sprawl of Sao Paulo, I caught a plane to Belo Horizonte, the capital of Brazil’s third largest state, Minas Gerais – located in the southeast of the country. From here, Inhotim is an hour or so bus ride through dusty sleepy towns and villages which do not look to have changed very much in the last 30 years.
On approaching Inhotim’s entrance I was hit by the excitement of discovery: for the fresh contemporary entrance pavilion was as unexpected in the landscape as my grandfather’s blue tree. Inhotim Institute of Contemporary Art was conceived in the 1980’s by entrepreneur and philanthropist Bernardo Paz, together with landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx. One of Brazil’s wealthiest men, Paz used land and money from his pig iron business to create this extraordinary collection of contemporary art housed in a 5000 acre botanical garden. The centre has four strands – Contemporary Art, including one of the most varied and valuable collections in the world; Botanical Gardens, home to a collection of plants and a research centre which focuses on native and endangered species; An Inclusion and Citizenship programme, which encourages and facilitates the local population; and Education, inviting hundreds of school children each year to partake in a programme focusing on art and botany.
Hidden amongst Inhotim’s luscious, landscaped oasis is a series of breathtaking pavilion art galleries and more than 70 strikingly modern sculptures – architectural insertions which delight and offer shelter from the sweltering South American heat. The centre offers its visitors a buggy, driven by one of its army of more than 1000 staff – Oompa Lumpa-like in their sudden apparition and disappearance – with which to traverse the grounds. My companion and I, however, chose to wander the winding pathways and trails on foot - strolling through delicious and colourful vegetation, happening upon a pavilion here, or a sculpture there.
Each pavilion gallery showcases works of contemporary art – some permanent, some temporary. In comparison to the quiet serenity of the natural landscape outside the pavilions which house them, many of these pieces are shocking in their modernity – both in terms of form and subject matter. I will admit that not all appealed to me, with some seemingly so set on being scandalous that their effect was the opposite, but many capture the natural beauty of their context wonderfully.
In one pavilion, for example, 40 speakers hang from the ceiling in a ring around a group of chairs. Here, the artist Janet Cardiff invites you to sit and listen while each speaker sings a different part to Thomas Tallis’ Cantada Pedro. The effect is haunting, spiritual and beautiful.
Valeska Soare’s piece, Folly, also plays with the audio visual. On entering a hexagonal pavilion, one is immediately disorientated by a series of mirrors which line the tiny space. One wall is filled with an old film of a couple dancing the waltz – the sequence bouncing off the mirrors giving the effect of hundreds of couples dancing to the loud, engulfing sounds of The Look of Love. Charmed as I was with my Brazilian companion’s company, I found myself yearning to find myself alone in here with a loved one so that we might seize the opportunity for a romantic dance.
Sculptures in the open air also offer simple delight, this time in the aesthetic sense. A giant kaleidoscope – Viewing Machine by Olafur Eliasson – offers visitors the chance to view the dramatic landscape in a new way; while Hélio Oiticica's sculpture – Invention of Color, Magic Penetrable Square # 5, De Luxe – is a series of coloured walls which are cut and painted to form an open pavilion which, as the light changes through the day, has subtle shifts in colour and shape
Paz promises that, in order for Inhotim to be self-sustaining, he will build a series of hotels in the area to house its visitors. And whilst this makes sound financial sense, I am slightly saddened by the idea that this peaceful and secret garden may be invaded by tourists en masse. For now, it remains a pleasure which can only be faithfully described in clichéd terms – a tropical haven, a voyage of discovery, a wonderland, a romantic paradise.