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Works by Brazilian artist Tunga at Inhotim’s Galeria Psicoativa.
Works by Brazilian artist Tunga at Inhotim’s Galeria Psicoativa.

‘The best place you’ve never heard of’: a look inside Brazil’s hidden wonderland Add to ...

In Valeska Soares’s Folly, a ghostly young woman waltzes, arms held gracefully aloft, on a small square dance floor, while Burt Bacharach sings about The Look of Love. A progression of men dance into her realm: an older, elegant one; a young, slick one. She waltzes near but not with them, then spins away. She never meets their eyes, or yours. All this plays out on a video screen in a dark, cool room – the interior of a 10-sided mirror-walled bandstand, a trickster twist on the one you might find in any colonial plaza
Folly by Valeska Soares/Pedro Motta

The work, an installation by the Brazilian video artist and sculptor, sits nestled in a tranquil garden in the heart of Inhotim. Not long after I moved to Rio de Janeiro last year, a fellow foreign correspondent said I must, at the first opportunity, visit Inhotim. What, or where, I asked, is that? “It’s the best place you’ve never heard of,” she replied.

She was right. I spent three days there not long ago. And in the weeks since my visit, as I have been extolling the wonders of the Inhotim Centre for Contemporary Art to anyone I meet, I have learned that I was not alone in my ignorance: neither many Brazilians nor foreigners, even hard core art lovers, have heard of it.

Which is odd, because Inhotim is big: in size (it sprawls more than 2,000 hectares) and in ambition. It is one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary art, a giant botanical garden and a collection of architectural jewels. But somehow, its location, a few hundred kilometres from the nearest city in the middle of Brazil, seems to be enough to keep Inhotim cloaked in obscurity.

Works by Tunga

The centre is the creation of Bernardo Paz, a Brazilian mining tycoon. With white hair that flips over his collars and walnut-coloured skin, the much-married Mr. Paz, 64, is a polarizing figure in Brazil’s art world. He sometimes claims limited interest in art, and at other times to buy what he likes. (Or, catty Brazilian gallery owners say, what someone told him might increase in value.) Critics have called it a huge exercise in ego, an allegation he does little to counter when he sweeps out an arm and informs visitors, “All of this is mine!”

Whatever the motive, in 2006 he turned his private collection into a public destination. He commissioned architects to design dedicated pavilions to hold more than 500 works, and he hired renowned landscape architects to create a giant garden around it all, full of giant cycads, rare tropical flowers and more than 1,000 species of palm trees.

Tunga’s a la Lumière des Deux Mondes/Daniela Paoliello

Every sensibility is represented here. There is delicate work, such as Ahora juguemos a desaparecer (II) (Now we play to disappear), by Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa. It’s an installation in a restored stable on a hilltop, consisting of a large table holding a city – actually many cities, fused together, for you can spot the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State building – built of wax. They are alight, slowly collapsing into puddles, each at their own rate, while their flickering disappearance is projected in real-time video on the wall behind.

It’s hypnotic to watch the city melt, and SoaresFolly is similarly arresting. It is intriguing to be inside the piece – to watch others approach the mirrored walls, or encounter the screen. Some visitors sink to the floor, mesmerized; some begin to dance in a sort of tandem with the on-screen figures; some sing and some weep.

Cosmococas 1-5 by Neville D’Almeida and Helio Oiticica/Eugenio Savio

Other works – Mr. Paz has said he plans to add as many as 2,000 more – include two different sound installations by Canadian Janet Cardiff, and works by the Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor and the American artist Matthew Barney. Two pavilions are devoted to giant installations by the Brazilian artist Tunga – huge both in the size of the sculptural pieces and their emotional wallop.

If you bring children, this may be the most pleasurable art experience you ever have en famille. Take the installation Cosmococas 1-5, a 1973 work by the Brazilian artists Neville D’Almeida and Helio Oiticica, the pioneer of “environmental art.” It’s a complicated piece with things to say about cocaine, pop culture and isolation, among other topics, that features a pool where visitors can swim while the avant garde music of John Cage thunders, a room full of criss-crossed hammocks and another piled with pillows intended for whomping, while images flash on the walls above. “This guy is the best artist ever,” my damp, fluff-coated seven-year-old enthused when we emerged in the daylight.

Elevazione by Giuseppe Penone/Luiz Ribeiro/Rex Features

In terms of visitor experience, Inhotim is a Brazilian novelty, in which everything not only looks shiny and functional, but really is. Visitors can avail themselves of an army of congenial young staff, golf carts for when works are too far to walk, gorgeous gnarled-tree-branch benches nestled in the forest and – for when you feel a bit too hot or a touch overwhelmed – a shaded patio over a lagoon where you can enjoy an espresso, a glass of wine or a lime Popsicle.

The only drawback, really, is getting here. Inhotim – the name is pronounced In-yo-tcheem – is a two-hour drive from Belo Horizonte, the capital of Brazil’s mining industry, and if you follow Google Maps, the route will take you down dirt roads where cows amble out through tumbledown fences. Belo Horizonte, in turn, is a seven-hour drive, or an hour-long flight, from Rio or Sao Paulo. The nearest town to Inhotim is Brumadinho, the destination for which the adjective “podunk” was created, and there is a paucity of good hotel options. The dining choices are worse; the two lovely restaurants on the Inhotim property close at 5 p.m., so that isn’t going to help you much past lunchtime.

Tunga’s True Rouge/Eduardo Eckenfels

But no matter. Arrive early, follow the meandering paths through the forest, and be enchanted. We spent three full days and would have been glad to stay longer. There is much to digest, and the loveliest of places in which to do it. You no longer have the excuse of never having heard of Inhotim; now you simply need to go, and feed your soul.

If you go

Fly to Belo Horizonte and rent a car, or take Inhotim’s dedicated bus (but then you will need to rely on erratic taxis in the area for getting around).

The centre is open Tuesday to Friday 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday and holidays 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is about $10 for adults, $15 on weekends, free on Tuesdays. It’s an additional $10 to buy access to the golf-cart internal transport, which is good for people with disabilities or children.

Where to stay

Plan to stay at least two nights in the area.

The Pousada Estelagem da Villa is about $140 for a fairly spare double room, but has a nice rock pool and friendly hosts. pousadaestalagemdavilla.com.br

Nossa Fazendinha (Our Little Farm) has oddly shaped but comfortable enough cabins, and lots of space for kids to run. About $170 a night to sleep four. nossafazendinha.com.br/novo

For more information

The centre has a good website with a reasonable English version (rare for Brazil). Visit inhotim.org.br or e-mail info@inhotim.org.br.

Editor's note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified the location. It is Brumadinho, Brazil.

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