Picture one thousand people crowding a dilapidated country road in the midst of a record-shattering tropical storm and you will have some idea of the mise-en-scène for last weekend’s celebrations at Brazil’s Inhotim Contemporary Art Center. There are no shortage of reasons to fly to Belo Horizonte, the sadly overgrown capital of Minas Gerais, one of the country’s twenty-six states, and then spend another hour driving to Bernardo Paz’s eighty-seven-square-acre Shangri-la, but this was an occasion more special than most: the introduction of two new pavilions to the park’s already impressive repertoire, one dedicated to the work of Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo, the other to that of the Brazilian painter Adriana Varejão.
If you’re throwing a party for the Brazilian elite, here is how, as a seasoned event planner explained to me, you estimate your congregation. Take the number of people who bother to RSVP, then throw in another half so you can stock the right amount of caipirinha ingredients. Brazilians are notoriously commitment-phobic, so you can only count on them coming once they’ve shown up.
And show up they did. As the epic storm rocked the procession of hired taxis, buses, and minivans, the guests—dressed down to communicate affluent ease with scientific sartorial precision—were treated to the natural performance of falling trees and overflowing rivers. On reaching Inhotim’s entrance, most resigned themselves to donning the white hooded rain ponchos being distributed by park employees. First stop, the elegantly designed restroom—yes, even the restrooms were eye-catching. Inside, a young woman stared at the lineup of uniformly dressed women reflected in the mirror and exclaimed, in casual Portuguese, “We look like the Ku Klux Klan!” Here, some four thousand miles south of where such a reference might ruin an evening—or at least ruffle a feather—the remark went unnoticed.
Left: Artist Doris Salcedo. (Photo: Bruno Magalhães) Right: Inhotim Park artistic director Jochen Volz. (Photo: Lúcia Guimarães)
How do you spot VIPs when everyone’s dressed in white plastic bags with holes? The cross-dresser Patrício Bisso, an Argentine-born actor who made his career in Brazil, once survived a challenging television assignment. Told to scout for Rio de Janeiro celebrities during a carnival parade, Bisso, an outsider, proceeded to stick the microphone in people’s faces, asking point-blank, “Are you somebody?” Not even Bisso would dare be so cheeky with Salcedo, who at that moment looked prepped for an appointment with her dentist. The famously press-shy Colombian grimaced through the opening of her pavilion—an austere edifice that houses her lyric steel and plasterboard installation, Neither, itself a reference to the architecture of concentration camps, seen once before at London’s White Cube gallery—then quickly retired.
Varejão, far more congenial, bore the brunt of the celebration, playing host to an unwieldy hodgepodge of dealers, curators, journalists, and friends from three continents. Varejão’s pavilion houses three new works, including Celacanto Provoca Maremoto (Coelacanth Provokes a Tidal Wave), which evokes the manner in which tiles are replaced in old baroque panels. Thus far, thanks to its artful marriage of architecture, landscaping, and painting, her pavilion is the most breathtaking of Inhotim’s many shrines to contemporary art. Varejão is married to Paz, Inhotim’s soft-spoken bwana, though to obviate suspicions of curatorial nepotism, it should be noted that they met when both were married to other people and Paz invited the talented young artist to survey the park for her site-specific works. The result of that first meeting, their sunny, gorgeous two-year-old Catarina, was also present.
Left: Collector Gilberto Chateaubriand and artist Adriana Varejão. (Photo: Bruno Magalhães) Right: A view of Adriana Varejão's pavilion at Inhotim. (Photo: Vicente Mello)
Having amassed an impressive collection of post-1960s works by artists such as Matthew Barney, Hélio Oiticica, Cildo Meireles, and Tunga, Paz has planted them in gardens laid by famed landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx, far from the madding crowds of the art world’s nervous centers. The park’s proprietor, whose passions are financed by a fortune made in mining and metallurgy, doesn’t want to be called a collector, “because it reminds me of accumulation.” How does he want to be remembered, now that Inhotim has attracted more than 140,000 visitors in its third year, evolving into a nonprofit foundation with ambitions ranging from biological research to education to tourism and the performing arts? “Can you call me a conceiver?” That would be like calling Peggy Guggenheim a socialite with taste. As he continues to lavish commissions on artists like Doug Aitken, Janet Cardiff, and Pipilotti Rist, it’s easy to understand that Bernardo, as he prefers to be called, enjoys, for the moment anyway, being the primary curator of his reputation.
Left: Artist Cildo Meireles with dealer Luisa Strina. (Photo: Bruno Magalhães) Right: Artist Ernesto Neto with Bernardo Paz. (Photo: Lúcia Guimarães)