BRUMADINHO, Brazil – About an hour by car from Belo Horizonte, there is a building shaped like an igloo. Strange as that may sound, the igloo is located within an outdoor 5,000-acre contemporary art complex. Strange as that may sound, inside of the igloo there is a both a fountain and a strobe light, and that is the experience; water running, lights flashing, like some sort of silent igloo rave.
Actually, the phrase “contemporary art complex” fails to capture Inhotim, same as most any description of this place in southeastern Brazil that a 60-something iron magnate built. Inhotim is a modern arts center. And a museum. And a botanical garden. And a research center. And a sanctuary. And a nature reserve. It is all of that, spread under one wide beautiful umbrella of insanity, all of which meets The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Even here, visitors cannot escape the soccer, this being Brazil about halfway through the 2014 World Cup. Tourists come dressed in Germany shirts and so many of Neymar’s yellow No. 10 jerseys. One exhibit featured a soccer ball; another, a row of pictures that showcased sharp teeth – the Luis Suarez wing.
Then there is the red room. Shoes must be removed at the entrance. Inside, there is red — red computer, red television, red vase, red records, red pillows, red fish in the red fish tank, red fan, red iPod mini, red typewriter, red paintings, red bookshelf, all leading back to a faucet inside a dark room with red water flowing from the tap.
Even a red card.
The man who founded Inhotim happens to still live there. His name is Bernardo Paz. He is known as an eccentric, known to wear white linen and long hair and walk around barefoot. He can often be found inside one of several restaurants on the grounds.
On Wednesday, though, Paz was traveling and unavailable. His complex employee in administration, Sylvia Loyola, filled in the basic history. She stood outside of the kind of sumptuous buffet that makes you throw away your scales.
“There are many stories about how this started, but one of them says that Inhotim was named after a guy called Timothy,” she said. “He was a farm owner here. He was foreign — Mr. Tim.”
Paz worked in various businesses but made his fortune mining iron, peddling ore to the Chinese. As his bank accounts swelled, he bought land around his farmhouse, enough land to construct a soccer stadium, if he were so inclined. Eventually, he converted much of that land into a botanical garden, and then in the late 1990s, a friend and artist named Tunga donated Paz some art.
That was it, one building dedicated to a single artist. It’s still there, labeled Galeria True Rouge by the sign out front. The building is painted white, the front dominated by large columns. Inside, it’s like a Valentine’s Day tree exhibit, with mesh bags hanging from wood planks hanging from the ceiling, the bags filled with beakers and vases and loofas, everything white and red.
One art pavilion became two art pavilions that became 21 art pavilions. Roberto Burle Marx, the famous Brazilian landscape artist, designed the garden. At first, Paz showed off the grounds to friends, enjoyed it with his family and hosted small groups. Then, Loyola said, “He realized he couldn’t keep the beauty to himself.” In 2006, Inhotim opened to the public.
“Inhotim is not going to last for my lifetime,” Paz told The Wall Street Journal in 2013. “It’s going to last forever, for 1,000 years!”
It might take that long to get through all of it. Inhotim features more than 100 artists from more than 30 nations. It’s so big that visitors can rent golf carts to shuttle them around. Between pavilions, there are emerald lagoons and forests so thick, lush and green they look animated and giant palms and benches carved out of tree trunks, some of which run more than 100 feet.
Our journey there started Wednesday morning. The crew consisted of Chris Hunt, esteemed Sports Illustrated senior editor and regular visitor to Belo Horizonte; Chico França, his friend and our driver/resident historian; and Simon Bruty, the photographer/bodyguard.
França sped away from Belo, into the countryside, into Minas Gerais mine country, all the hillsides scarred so that iron could be extracted by the truckload. The car passed a dead horse that lay on the side of the road. It passed small villages and farms and two guards that stood by the entrance to Inhotim.
Then França drove inside — into a different world, into an art complex the size of a college campus.
One room looked like a bunker from the outside, and inside, polyester threads dipped in metal hung from the ceiling, intertwining and disconnecting — to highlight the comings and goings of life, according to the guide. Speaking of comings and goings, hipsters entered the various exhibits clad in backwards hats and vintage T-shirts, beards trimmed just so. But there were also families, rich ones, poor ones, locals, and foreigners, a real mix.
It’s difficult to describe the various pavilions, because you can see them, and you can write notes, and you can talk to any of the 1,000-plus employees, but you can’t describe the way they feel. Like another room, the one filled with 38 speakers. Each speaker played a different voice, and because of the way they were spaced, in a circle around a wide space with thick walls, and the way the voices harmonized, it sounded like a symphony from the center of the room, like a single voice close to any one speaker and like a choir in between. It was awesome. “F**kin’ cool,” Hunt whispered, forever an editor, which is to say, to the point and brief.
Inside another room, various objects lay on the floor, including a soccer ball, underneath a steel mesh sheet. The sheet made it seem like the objects were moving underneath.
Inside another room, visitors walked over broken glass. A giant ball of plastic sat in the middle, and between that and the room’s edge, there were curtains, prison bars, wood, a fish tank filled with glass fish you could actually see through, all manner of fences and barriers, barbed wire and velvet rope. The ball was the prize, what you wanted; everything else, the obstacles in the way.
Some exhibits were more out there. Like the dark rooms that ran projection screens and flashed pictures of deaf children and naked women and torsos all slashed up. Or the wall painted white and left blank except for the picture of the clock that hung up near the ceiling, the minute hand moving ever so slightly back and forth. Or the chair bridge that looked like an upside down smile. Or the picture montage on one wall: salt and pepper shakers tipped sideways with a butter knife on top, water glasses lined up on a table, coffee cups aligned so their handles kissed. It was enough to wonder if acid was involved, either in creation or slipped into the morning coffee.
One pavilion even came with a warning: graphic images inside. It felt very Clockwork-orange-y. Two dark rooms with projector screens showed images: soldiers in uniforms, children in poverty, homeless sleeping on the ground. Sounds beeped in the darkness. Symphonies played. “Very sexual,” the employee for this particular pavilion said, and she pointed to picture of a peach and an index finger, and, well, it’s not likely that anyone would want any further explanation. Anyway, I’ll sleep with the light on tonight.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Paz said the World Cup, held only an hour back toward civilization, served only to benefit the larger cities. He noted all the new roads and new stadiums and how everyone would sit in traffic to watch soccer games. The writer asked him about the World Cup in relation to Inhotim. “The World Cup won’t make any difference,” he said.
He had a point. For three weeks, in six cities all over Brazil, soccer was ubiquitous, inescapable, what connected the jungle in Manaus to the beaches in the northeast to cosmopolitan Rio and Sao Paulo. This was still Brazil, Inhotim, in that it was beautiful and exotic, everything green, everything bold, the jungle and the culture and the spirit. But it felt less like a World Cup tourist destination and more like Mars.
Just when the immersion appeared complete, though, an employee named Horatio approached. He wanted to know about the Seattle Seahawks, the Super Bowl champions, about NFL football and how it compared to soccer. He was clearly a sports fanatic who happened to work inside the Taj Mahal of art complexes.
Just then another man walked past. He wore a yellow Brazil soccer jersey. Number 10.
This is the 16th piece in a series throughout the opening weeks of the World Cup in which SI senior writer Greg Bishop and photographer Simon Bruty chronicle their travel to offer a taste of the cultural side of Brazil.