When I landed at Tancredo Neves International Airport in Belo Horizonte in April 2014, preparations there for the World Cup in Brazil that year had passed the point of last minute and were bordering on the absurd. In the middle of the concourse near a busy check-in counter, workers jackhammered at a gaping hole. The racket was deafening. Airline staffers shouted instructions in vain to queued passengers covering their ears in agony.
On the drive into town, there was more evidence of frantic upgrading—freeways, overpasses, public transit. From the driver’s seat of his tiny Ford hatchback, my guide, Henrique, mused, “These are things we should have built along many years, but we decided to do everything now, just before the World Cup. It’s the Brazilian way of doing things. It’s not very good, but it is.” Like many of his countrymen, he seemed resigned to the looming possibility of a fiasco but still hoped for the best.
Belo Horizonte, or BH (beagá) for short, is the capital of Minas Gerais, a state in the mining region of southeastern Brazil. I’ve heard it described as the Chicago of Brazil because of its heartland vibe. Folks there still love their rodeos and country fairs.
In the past two decades Belo Horizonte has sprawled, transforming itself from regional hub into bona fide metropolis. BH is now the country’s third-largest metro area, although it still feels a bit provincial. As global tourist destination, it’s way off the radar, but that’s changing, in part because of one very rich man and what he has been building in the nearby countryside.
Over the past decade, iron magnate Bernardo Paz has converted his vast rural estate into a mind-bending outdoor art complex and botanical garden. With seemingly unlimited resources, he has commissioned monumental works by the world’s leading contemporary artists, some in their own expo-like pavilions. In parallel, he has gathered many of Brazil’s endangered plant species, and his park holds one of the world’s largest collections of palm tree species.
Named Inhotim, after a British engineer known to the locals as Nhô Tim (Mr. Tim) who once lived there, the place is Paz’s vision of paradise on earth. It began as Paz’s private property and personal art collection and has evolved into a nonprofit cultural institution open to the public. A kind of highbrow Disneyland, Inhotim drew nearly 400,000 visitors in 2013, according to its press office. Considering the remote location, that’s impressive.
But Inhotim is more than a mod tourist attraction; it’s a splashy philanthropic gesture by an affluent and powerful man in a region of modest means, and that makes some uncomfortable. Brazil is seen by many of its citizens as a two-tier society in which the rich routinely get their way at the expense of the poor. Corruption is rampant. This creates suspicion when a wealthy individual says he’s acting from a place of altruism, and Inhotim has not been exempt from such doubts.
So what is really going on in Paz’s mind? Is Inhotim some kind of centerpiece in a giant real estate ploy? Just another rich man’s folly? Or, as Paz has said publicly, is it the visionary laboratory for a better future society? I was sent by CBC Radio’s documentary program Ideas to see if I could find out.
The two-hour drive from Belo Horizonte was an adventure in itself. It began with choking suburban gridlock, then transitioned into a real-life version of Mario Kart, Brazil edition. The tires on Henrique’s feather-light two-seater squealed and skidded around every curve as he negotiated the busy two-lane highway with no shoulder. I took in the landscape: thick tropical forest, grassy ranchland dotted with spindly palms and red-roofed villages. In the distance, hazy green hills bore the orange scars of mining activity.
Approaching the outskirts of Brumadinho, the closest city to Inhotim, we narrowly dodged a buggy drawn by a horse trotting nonchalantly down the middle of the road. We passed a dozen or more tiny roadside snack bars where locals sipped beer and lounged in the afternoon shade. I suggested we stop for a cold one, but Henrique counseled otherwise. “We call places like that a ‘dirty glass,’” he said, laughing at my attempt to keep it real.
On first encounter, Brumadinho seemed pretty rough around the edges, although it’s hard to know if it was just typical mining-town shabbiness. The city is frequently described as poor by visiting reporters, but because of well-paying resource sector jobs, it actually boasts one of the highest per capita incomes in the region. Noisy and chaotic, it was light-years away from a typical tourist town; cars and trucks roared by, blaring bass-heavy jams from souped-up speaker boxes. The main artery was clogged with concrete trucks, flatbeds, and tour buses headed for Inhotim.
After a long game of stop and start, an institutional brown sign offered relief: Inhotim, next right. We turned. Two miles down a bumpy setted road, wild growth began to be been tamed by careful landscaping. Traffic noise faded, and birdsong was audible. We had reached the oasis.
Entering Inhotim was different from arriving at most mass tourist attractions I’ve visited. There was no being herded through a maze of winding gates. From the parking lot, visitors have to walk a good distance down a wide stone path beneath a canopy of palms. The air was immediately cooler, and we began to chill out and leave the stressful drive behind. Electric golf carts breezed by, piloted by fresh-faced staffers in color-coded T-shirts. Tourists with backpacks, young to old, strolled down the shady lane. Various accents and languages abounded, with Brazilian Portuguese dominating.
At the main entrance, it was the gardens, not the art, that first made an impression. They verged on hallucinatory. Palms, from bright to pale green, exploded like fireworks on backdrops of leafy eucalyptus. Neatly groomed lawns hugged curving ponds replete with gliding swans. A golf-course-green peninsula jutted out into a placid lake like the 17th hole at Sawgrass. Big clumps of foliage hinted at deep, dark jungle. It was impressive to see nature bent to the will of man yet retain its primeval energy.
The gardens were influenced by the design ideals of Brazil’s master landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, who was a friend of Paz’s. “He never did anything in Inhotim, but I think he’s inspired all of us and all landscapers that work here,” said Letícia Aguiar, the manager of Inhotim’s gardens. “You never see straight gardens in Burle Marx gardens. You see curves. The garden never reveals all at the same time. You are walking, and the garden reveals itself [gradually].”
Aguiar explained that the landscape is intended as sensory balm between artworks, some of which can be extreme or disturbing. (A piece by Adriana Varejão, an ex-wife of Paz’s, is a crumbling wall with an interior of mock raw flesh.) The gardens serve as a kind of mental palate cleanser before visitors move on to the next intense art experience.
I spent the afternoon exploring the park and the signature artworks that occupy its 5,000 acres. I could see why an artist would jump at the chance to show there. Each piece is given the space and resources to exist in its own mini-universe.
Site-specific works like Olafur Eliasson’s Viewing Machine, a sort of jumbo mirrored kaleidoscope, are set into custom-designed landscaping. Indoor works like Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s audio narrative The Murder of Crows live alone in purpose-built pavilions. The architecture of these galleries is impressive—art in its own right—running the gamut from faux villas to stark modernist cubes and funky geodesic domes.
The collection is a who’s who of global conceptual superstars (Eliasson, Matthew Barney, Dan Graham, Giuseppe Penone) mixed with influential Brazilians (Tunga, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica). Several works explore the interplay between the man-made and the natural, like Penone’s Elevazione, in which a cast bronze chestnut tree is surrounded by five real trees, which will, in time, absorb it. Others seemed to wryly acknowledge the vanity of the place: Witness Narcissus Garden by Yayoi Kusama, a sea of floating mirror balls that endlessly reflect the viewer’s image. (It’s worth noting that many of these pieces were not created for Inhotim but were selected after the fact by the institution’s curators.)
Who knows what the general public takes away from these strange totems? Paz has said that he values contemporary art because it is experiential rather than cerebral, and I overheard a number of clever interpretations from visitors. On balance, Brazilians seemed more open-minded to far-out art appreciation than we North Americans; even so, it was hard to judge how many were there just to gawk at the strangeness of it all.
To add to the novelty, Inhotim offers many from the surrounding region a rare chance to glimpse foreigners in person. A little girl in a bright orange shirt, in attendance as part of Inhotim’s educational outreach program, went up to Henrique and asked about me, “Why is he so white?”
After two days of commuting from Belo Horizonte—and against the advice of my guide—I decided to spend the night at a modest pousada (bed and breakfast) in Brumadinho. It was pouring rain, the Wi-Fi was out, and I couldn’t sleep. On the other side of the paper-thin walls of my tiny room, dogs barked relentlessly as a house party shifted into high gear. My hostess, who spoke no English, had retired to her house for the night, and I was there alone, staring at the ceiling.
The next morning I would finally get to meet Paz and maybe catch sight of what is truly behind his Inhotim ambitions. I wanted to be well rested. Giving up any attempt at sleep, I switched on the TV. A suave preacher in a cowboy hat crooned in Portuguese about Jesus to the strains of an accordion-laced country tune.
Finally, around 1 a.m., the hubbub died down, and I started to drift off, only to be jolted awake by laughing voices and the low rumble of a car stereo with the bass cranked to 11. A party that broke out in the street felt as if it had moved into my room.
Desperate for shut-eye, I called my hostess, waking her. She showed up with her brother, looking sleepy-eyed and unimpressed. They graciously drove me to the tourist hotel that Henrique recommended for me in the first place, and they watched as the gringo walked through the gates to cushier digs.
Settled into my new quarters, I crawled into bed to salvage what rest I could. But two hours later, I was roused again, this time by a man droning through a megaphone. Voices chanted rhythmically in response. I went to the window and saw a long white procession shuffling by my room. It was Holy Week, and the citizens of Brumadinho were expressing their faith in the streets—at 5 in the morning.
When I arrived at Inhotim, throngs of weekend visitors were waiting to get in. I was fighting fatigue but was pumped to finally interview the man behind it all. Isabela, a press agent, greeted me, and we were off. We found him sitting with guests around an outdoor table at one of Inhotim’s swanky restaurants. Paz rose.
At first, I was a bit starstruck. He was tall and tanned, with a wild cloud of white hair framing his bearded face—sort of a Latin version of Richard Branson. A self-made tycoon, married six times, who has poured his fortune into making a fantasy real, Paz just may be the Most Interesting Man in the World.
As we walked, he spoke in a stream of consciousness, mostly about his plans for Inhotim. Blue eyes flashed a nervous energy. He has been called the Emperor of Inhotim, but employees treated him not so much with deference as with reverence, lacing the conversations they had with me with quotes from Paz. What he has conjured there has obviously created true believers.
As we drove via golf cart to his nearby house, our progress was slowed by masses of sightseers entering the park. He has built it, and now they’ve come. A family was trying to snap a photo of a capybara by the water, and he stopped for a minute to avoid spoiling their shot.
Paz lives in the park, just off the beaten path. Clean and modern, his residence is luxurious but not extravagant. We sat down for an extended interview, during which he chain-smoked Marlboros, skipping from one topic to another, covering everything from Occupy Wall Street to European immigration. He talked about his artist mother and his military father, saying, “You had one side, a woman who lived the dream, and the other side, a man who wants to be a hero,” and about a formative experience in Mexico, where, he said, he became acutely aware of the great barrier between rich and poor.
Talk invariably turned to the future. With Inhotim’s reputation as a world-class art institution and botanical garden secured, he has set his sights on loftier goals. Paz saw dark days ahead for the world’s megacities, which he thought have become unlivable—financial collapse, political disillusionment and violence. Inhotim will be an example of a new village-based way of living, a “post-contemporary society,” which he summed up as “to come back to your grandmother’s house with technology.” This struck me as clever but contradictory. Isn’t being plugged in the very thing that makes us yearn for simpler times?
He said the next step at Inhotim is for visitors to become converts by staying for extended periods. First temporarily (a hotel was under construction), and later permanently. He said he dreamed of a day when interconnected communities would dot the surrounding hills. “I want to build some villages as a sample. And build this world again. But this world will come in this way—to go back to the past with medicine, with science, and with technology.”
I asked him why he thinks this will work when other utopian ideas have failed. “This is not a utopian idea,” he snapped.
As we left, I noticed, near the pool, a golden sculpture of a male figure suspended horizontally, poised to plow head first into a heavy bell. Based on its prominence, I sensed the piece resonated with its owner. Paz has faced his share of resistance, and he certainly has his skeptics.
One of Paz’s toughest critics is Marcos Hill, an art historian and a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Belo Horizonte. “Inhotim is a terrific place for entertainment where you can have some contact with art issues in a very superficial way … I think Inhotim is a marketing, capitalist idea. I don’t see anything utopian over there. Bernardo Paz is a very smart businessman, and he wants power, he wants money, he wants privileges. And nowadays he can hide behind Inhotim.”
Allegations of money laundering have swirled around Inhotim, although nothing has been proved. It was a topic many brought up without my asking, including Paz himself. He said, “Money laundering. Why did this guy who has a lot [build Inhotim]? [The investigators] come through. And in they end, they know it was nothing. But they made me lose six months … Why? Because there was nothing, and they create that. How? They don’t believe.”
Paz said he has poured $4 million to $6 million a month into the project for 14 years—a figure that didn’t seem unfathomable, considering the massive annual expenditures it clearly demands. If Inhotim was just a smokescreen for a capitalist’s shady dealings, it would surely be the most elaborate and expensive one in human history.
Others don’t necessarily see self-interest and public good as incompatible. Diomira Faria teaches the economics of tourism, also at UFMG, and has studied the impact of Inhotim on the surrounding region, “[Paz] is a mining man, and here, near Belo Horizonte, you can visit some high-income condominiums that were part of mining areas,” she said. “So suppose that Bernardo Paz intends to do the same in the Brumadinho area. Inhotim, it’s a seed of a big real estate business.” For Faria, this capitalist vision could offer benefits. “In [Paz’s] mind, he thinks that the beauty can change people, and he thinks also that Inhotim is a kind of present to the people … Inhotim is a business but also a good thing [for] this area that can change people.”
It’s difficult to divine motives, especially those of a wealthy eccentric. It’s much easier to judge results, and the results of Paz’s efforts on some level have dazzled even his harshest critics. Hill acknowledged that despite his cynicism, he has taken his students to Inhotim every year because they can see art there they can’t see anywhere else.
As the sun started its lazy descent into the hills, the park started to empty out. It was last call for Inhotim’s farthest-flung work, widely considered its signature piece, Sonic Pavilion, by Doug Aitken.
On a rocky mound overlooking a vast forested expanse sat a round building made of curved glass. I climbed the steps and entered. Inside it was bare, except for a small hole bored into the center of the floor. Gradually, an intense bassy vibration enveloped the room. Six hundred feet down the shaft, ultra-sensitive microphones pick up the sounds of the earth. Art for a mining king. The sensation was physical, elemental. I sat for a while and listened to the ground move as I took in the panoramic vista of red earth, green trees and blue sky.
I exited the building. The smell of rain was in the air. The woods were looking blacker and denser. The sounds of the bugs and birds seemed amplified as fewer and fewer visitors could be heard in the distance. Waiting for the golf cart that would take me back to the exit gates, I heard a female voice, sweetly singing in Portuguese. It was a young gallery monitor, innocently skipping and humming outside the pavilion door.
Maybe Paz and his devotees are right: A garden filled with beauty and truth can help us regain paradise, if we just have faith. But as Brazilians know well, the devil is always in the details.
Editor’s Note: In 2017, Bernardo Paz was convicted of using Inhotim to launder money, and was sentenced to 9 years in prison.
Originally published Roads & Kingdoms on Feb. 3, 2015.