Inhotim. in Brazil. Photo: Rubens Alarcon/ Alamy
In my life, I have been to many museums and art galleries and gardens all over the world. But none of them compare to one particular art installation, deep in the Brazilian interior. It’s called Inhotim, and it’s a Brazilian Taj Mahal, created by a local mining emperor as a monument for his fifth wife.
In 2006, Bernardo Paz opened Inhotim on a 5,000-acre farm in Minas Gerais. It has art in 23 huge galleries and installations by over a hundred of the greatest contemporary artists from 30 nations, and 140 hectares of woods and gardens designed by Roberto Burle Marx, the greatest landscape architect of the twentieth century. I visited in 2011.
Inhotim consists of a series of experience rooms. In the Jane Cardoff pavilion, a Brazilian worker in a baseball cap sits alone in the middle of a circle of speakers, each recreating parts of a 16th-century choral piece, sung by rosy-cheeked English schoolboys in the Salisbury Cathedral. His head is in his hands, preoccupied with some private reflection. His son comes skipping up to him, and he gives him a hug with one arm. Then the son leaves, and the man is alone once again, in this space where grief can be dealt with. Outside, through the vertical windows, can be seen many varieties of tropical trees. Inhotim has 1,300 different kinds of palm trees alone—over a quarter of all the palm tree species on Earth. Here, art is nature, nature art.
The art curation in Inhotim works because it is an individual’s taste, not a committee’s. Bernardo Paz made his money in mining and buying politicians who allowed him to launder it into art and flowers. In 2017, he was convicted of money-laundering and sentenced to nine years in prison. Behind every great museum is a great crime. Mark Twain observed that American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s money was twice tainted: “’Tain’t yours and ‘tain’t mine.”
Inhotim has 900 employees, 500 of them under the age of 25. At the museum restaurant where food is sold by the kilo, we sit at a table by the ornamental pond, and an 18-year-old waiter stands at a distance throughout our meal, darting over every time our glasses need refilling. My friend Marina talks to him in Portuguese. I ask for a cooler for the red wine. “We can get it for you if you want, but this is the right temperature for this wine. Normally we don’t chill red wine, but if you want, I can bring a cooler.” He is perfect, slightly intimidating the customers. At the end of the meal, he knows to ask, “Would you care for some dessert wine?” When I order a bottle of Salentein Malbec, he asks with eagerness, “How much does a case cost in New York?”
The boy was originally working in the parking lot at Inhotim, and his friends were in the restaurant. They brought him over to wait on tables, and the management soon discovered that the tables he waited on bought a lot of wine. Marina asks him about his favourite wine.
“I don’t drink.”
“Why not? You know so much about wine.”
“I don’t like drinking.”
He’s never tasted any of the wines he knows so much about. He just asks lots of questions of the customers when they drink the wine, and stores the information for later use. He is the accidental sommelier. But he doesn’t know much else about the museum. We ask him who designed the beautiful, elegant modernist restaurant where we are. “Tomaz!” he says. Thomaz Regatos and Maria Paz, the plaque says. Every structure in Inhotim is worthy of consideration, not just a shell meant to protect the art from the elements.
At the Doug Aitken sonic pavilion, there’s a long tube that’s been dug 200 metres deep into the bowels of the earth, from which set-up microphones monitor the sounds of the moving and shifting interior of the planet, and bring it up the surface for our ears. I notice a young guard standing there, the only other person in this room reverberating with the digestive rumblings of the earth. All day long, every day, he stands here. He must hear the sound in his dreams.