Brazilian jungle hides arresting art

Anthony Bourdain visits Inhotim Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown”

CNN  — 

It began with a hum.

On a September night in the Brazilian countryside, a chorus of low voices floated through the palm trees, followed by a dozen or so performers wading across a lake; one by one, they emerged from the water and entered a glass-walled gallery, and proceeded, completely naked, to pour vats of translucent red goo into glass vessels hanging from the ceiling.

This was the 10th anniversary celebration of Inhotim, a tamed 5,000-acre jungle where extraordinary art takes place.

It was a decade ago that Brazilian magnate Bernardo Paz decided to convert his land and iron-mining fortune into a sprawling public contemporary art park.

“I don’t know anything about art,” the white-haired, softspoken millionaire says with a laugh, sipping a box of coconut water – although this 1,300-piece collection says otherwise.

"True Rouge," a work by late Brazilian performance artist Tunga, was recently recreated at Inhotim.

In the spectacular landscape of Minas Gerais, the Brazilian state where Paz was born, art by the likes of Olafur Eliasson and Hélio Oiticica lives largely outside, alongside a luscious physical environment: reflective green ponds, 5,000 different plant species and a landscape design by the late Roberto Burle Marx.

A trip to Inhotim can last several days, and the experience completely overturns the typical museum model; rather than simply viewing works, visitors encounter them.

Down a narrow trail, you can come upon a glass geodesic dome in which Matthew Barney’s monolithic “De Lama Lâmina,” a rusty tractor holding a whitewashed tree, roots and all, resides.

You can also open a door and step into the seductive mirrored dance floor of Valeska Soares’ “Folly,” or climb a hill to peer through Olafur Eliasson’s “Viewing Machine,” an epic, stainless steel kaleidoscope that shatters and distorts the panoramic view of the park below.

A work by Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica is displayed at the Inhotim Centre for Contemporary Art in Brumadinho, some 60 km from Belo Horizonte, southeastern Brazil, on August 11, 2015. Considered the world largest center for contemporary open air art with over 20 galleries housing the work of 85 artists of 26 different nationalities, the Inhotim Institute also has one of the greatest botanical collections in the country. AFP PHOTO / Nelson ALMEIDA        (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)
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“We had the capacity and responsibility to create a different kind of experience,” says chief curator and creative director Allan Schwartzman, who seeks out works that make the best use of Inhotim’s unique situation.

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This means cultivating the kind of art that would be impossible or impractical to house in an ordinary museum.

Before Inhotim was open to the public, he made first commission in 2003, when he invited American artist Doug Aitken to come and develop a permanent installation.

“When my taxi arrived, a man with a white beard drinking coconut water hugged me and said that I should look around, and if I had a vision, we would make that vision happen,” Aitken recalls. “It was an incredibly liberating scenario.”

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Ultimately, the environment inspired “Sonic Pavilion,” a circular glass building where viewers ascend a spiraling wooden ramp that leads to a hole in which microphones embedded 700 feet into the ground relay the ongoing reverberations of the Earth.

“I don’t know any other institution that would have done that,” says Aitken. “It’s an amazing scenario in which to make art, and as a result, artists have created a radical spectrum of works.”

Throughout Inhotim, Paz has also built galleries for works that need to be experienced indoors – photography, films, immersive environments – devoted to single artists.

Many of them are lesser-known installations made more compelling by their unfamiliarity. (In Cildo Meireles’ gallery, a trickle of red paint leads visitors down a dark corridor to one sinister surprise.)

The very first gallery was built out of necessity, before Paz had even conceived of opening his land to the public; “True Rouge,” a hanging sculpture of glass vessels by the late avant-garde Brazilian multimedia performance artist Tunga, was simply too big for his home.

Tunga encouraged Paz to build a new space to house it, and a gallery was born.

Tunga inaugurated the space with a performance that involved the pouring of translucent red goo onto both the statue and a choreographed group of naked bodies, a performance which, on its 10th anniversary, Inhotim restaged in his memory.

Lush gardens envelop outdoor installations and standalone galleries at Inhotim.

Now in its 11th year, Inhotim shows no signs of slowing; Paz, who pours about $70 million of his own money into Inhotim’s operations, has his eyes on expansion.

His ultimate vision is for his tropical wonderland to include a high street of shops and hotels, one of which is already under construction.

And as for the art, he leaves that to Schwartzman, who says he has 12 to 15 new projects under way: an installation by Robert Irwin, an Infinity Room by Yayoi Kusama, three new projects by Anish Kapoor and a “major” new piece by Doris Salcedo.

“Along Inhotim’s paths are different experiences that accumulate in their own unique ways,” Schwartzman says. “Right now, they can’t be fully visited in a day, and soon, a visit will probably take three or four.”

Janelle Zara is a Los Angeles-based architecture, art and design writer.