Minas Gerais, Brazil – With the newest McGuggenheims popping up in increasingly far-flung corners of the world, art museums have long outgrown their Western urban origins. Just the same, travelling into the mata (dense forest) of Minas Gerais state in southeastern Brazil to visit a museum called the Inhotim Contemporary Art Center feels like it’s way out of the way.
Don’t expect to find Inhotim in guidebooks about Brazil. It’s not aggressively advertised and it’s hard to reach. Located near the small village of Brumadinho, Inhotim is one and a half hours from Belo Horizonte, a modest-?sized city that’s more a stopover than a tourist destination. But any artist in Brazil will tell you the museum is a must-see.
In a café in front of one of Belo Horizonte’s numerous bookstores, my friend Aura Belém, a globally exhibiting artist and a city native, introduces me to Rodrigo Moura, Inhotim’s innovative curator. Over chopps (Brazil’s ubiquitous draft beer), we plan how we’ll get to its remote setting without a car.
The solution is leaving regrettably early in the morning, 7:30, on a staff shuttle bus. Downing a complimentary cup of oil-thick espresso to jolt me to sightseeing consciousness, I soon spot a warehouse building with a huge sign reading Canada, actually a landmark telling us we’re leaving the city.
We drive through low, cloud-?topped mountains with cattle grazing below. Between dense thickets of palm trees, we catch glimpses of sheer cliffs with rapids running below. In a clearing a lone man cuts sugar cane.
Soon, we’re in Brumadinho’s outskirts, passing multicoloured shacks and driving down a stately, palm-lined road to the visitors’ centre. Like the seven galleries on site, it’s classic Brazilian Modernist in design – glimmering white, clean lines with ample windows. I look out at the 87 ?acres of tropical gardens landscaped by renowned Brazilian architect Roberto Burle Marx, responsible for Brasilia’s environmental design. His gardens form the centre of a 1,000-?acre ecological preserve.
As I enter these impeccably kept grounds, walking to the nearest of three ornamental ponds, curious geese follow me. I quietly watch the comparatively coy hummingbirds, one of many bird species nesting amidst a marvellous array of palm and fruit trees. Brilliant scarlet flowers highlight this green backdrop along paths leading to the museum’s galleries and sculpture park, which display over 400 works by important Brazilian and international artists.
The best gallery exhibits are life-?sized, all-?immersive installations like Desvio Para O Vermelho, by Cildo Meireles, a practising artist during Brazil’s brutal dictatorship from the 60s to the 80s. Recounting the murder of a prominent journalist by police, the installation begins innocently as a groovy, 60s-?nostalgia room with entirely red retro furnishings. As a large, heart-?shaped wall sculpture implies, red here means love.
However, as I reach the exhibition’s disturbing climax in the next room – a large pool of red seeping across the floor – its symbolism changes to blood.
Many works at Inhotim engage contemporary art aficionados and novices alike. Popular with the tour group behind me is the surreal dressing room, Novos Costumes, by Brazilian artist Laura Lima. I watch them try on her futuristic transparent vinyl costumes and transform themselves into living sculptures or souvenir photo subjects.
But what moves me most in Inhotim’s collection is an audio installation by a Canadian artist, Janet Cardiff, titled Forty-Part Motet, whose surround-sound plays Tallis’s 16th-century choral piece Spem In Alium. Exiting the gallery, hearing the haunting, fading sounds of the chorus, walking past sweeping palm leaves to a still pond intermittently disturbed by diving ducks and swans, I experience a sensory, indeed, a sensual overload.
No other art museum I’ve visited offers this poetic a marriage of art and life.