Panel from the series "Propaganda", by Lucia Koch, in Inhotim. Photo: Courtesy Inhotim

En a Saturday in November 2019, alongside hundreds of visitors strolling through the gardens and pavilions of Inhotim, the report of arte!brasileiros followed what the institution he considered it to be a celebration – the end of a troubled period and the revival of the largest open-air museum in the world. With the opening of a major exhibition, the reopening to the public of celebrated works by Matthew Barney, Tunga and Yayoi Kusama and the opening of new permanent works by Robert Irwin and Claudia Andujar, Inhotim put an end to a period that included legal battles of its creator, Bernardo Paz, in 2017; an outbreak of yellow fever in the region in 2018; and the tragic collapse of the Vale mining dam in January 2019, which flooded large areas of Brumadinho and left more than 250 dead. It was hard to imagine that something worse would happen. However, just four months later, Inhotim, like all cultural institutions in the country, had to close its doors because of the Covid-19 pandemic – and its especially tragic consequences in Brazil. 

It was, therefore, in the search for better times, that the Minas Gerais “museum park” opened, at the end of last August, major commissioned works by Lucia Koch and Rommulo Vieira Conceição and an exhibition by Polish artist Aleksandra Mir. If the public, with masks on their faces, was much less numerous than the one seen in 2019 due to health protocols, it was not unremarkable once again an atmosphere of celebration – or at least relief – among visitors, employees, artists and curators present. “We need the vaccine in the arm, but here we also take care of people's heads. I think we should work with this idea that Inhotim can be a vaccine for the soul”, says the director-president of the institute, Antonio Grassi.

“We came from experiences that affected us a lot and, when we thought we had overcome these stages, the pandemic came, the worst of situations”, says Grassi about the severity of the current situation. On the other hand, he points out: “It is not that we have specialized in facing crises, but we have certainly learned a lot about this 'survival mode' that we were forced to have in these periods”. The “survival mode” in the pandemic went in different directions. In the relationship with the public, the virtual presence was intensified – with online exhibitions, postings on the networks of images and texts about the collection, unpublished videos made with artists and musical performances, among others. “We know that it would never be possible for Inhotim to exist without the face-to-face experience, but today I believe that we can no longer give up the virtual experience. That stays,” says Grassi.

Billboard from the series “Propaganda”, by Lucia Koch, in Brumadinho. Photo: Courtesy Inhotim

In times without box office revenue – even now, the public allowed is 5 people a day, compared to 400 in pre-pandemic times – the institute continued with relative financial stability thanks to its current multi-annual plan, which already had guaranteed resources from sponsors. such as Vale, Itaú and Barbosa Mello Construtora. At the beginning of the pandemic, some staff cuts were made – there are about 80 direct contractors and a few hundred more outsourced workers – but, according to Grassi, with the gradual resumption of operations, the number is already approaching what it used to be. “And at that point, we prioritized reformulating the boards, cutting 'at the top' to preserve the jobs of those who needed it most, especially the people of Brumadinho”. As 40% of its workers live in the city – located in the metropolitan region of Belo Horizonte and which has around XNUMX thousand inhabitants -, Inhotim is one of the main pillars of the local economy.

The institute never stopped, however, from also depending on the contributions of Bernardo Paz to close the accounts – which vary between R$ 36 and R$ 39 million a year. Away from the presidency since 2017, Paz is still present in the museum's daily life. In this sense, Grassi tells of current efforts to increase funding, not only through Brazilian companies and the circle of patrons, but also through international funds that support culture and the environment. Categorized as a civil society organization of public interest (OSCIP), Inhotim was recognized in 2010 as a Botanical Garden, in addition to a museum, and brings together more than 4,3 native Brazilian and exotic species. According to Grassi, if the total costs for maintenance are covered by sponsorship and support, the resources coming from Bernardo Paz can only be used for new projects at the institute. 

Grassi has a clear perception, however, that the current situation in the country is not the most favorable for those who work with culture, environment and education – the museum's educational sector involves a broad training program and music school. “Even if the current political situation has not directly affected us, in the sense that we have an approved plan, with well-established supporters and sponsors, it is inevitable to see that we are in a scenario where artistic and cultural institutions, art and culture in general, has skated to survive. And although this had already been announced since the electoral campaign – with the talk of the 'suckers of the Rouanet Law' - it was thought that the exercise of power would bring some more diplomatic adaptation. And, tragically, we haven't had that, we're seeing a worsening escalation. This is very serious.” As for the environment of censorship of the arts that emerges again in the country, Grassi adds: “We never had a specific case in Inhotim, but living in a context in which we know it exists already contaminates us, it affects us”.   

Work from the series “Propaganda”, by Lucia Koch. Photo: Ana Luiza Albuquerque/ Publicity

new works

From Inhotim's relationship with Brumadinho comes the commissioned work by Lucia Koch, which occupies both areas of the museum and billboards on the city's streets. Koch actually claims that Propaganda arises in the city and ends up in the institute, not the other way around. Invited to think about a work in 2019, the artist from Rio Grande do Sul, based in São Paulo, found an atypical situation in the region after the Córrego do Feijão dam collapsed: “The city, in mourning, turned over by mud and ore, begins to receive huge indemnities [from Vale], a situation that leads to an explosion in the market for imported cars and luxury condominiums. This is revealed in the images spread throughout the city, in the number of billboards there”. Intrigued by that paradoxical situation, Koch continued a research that spanned nearly three decades in which she photographed the interiors of empty packaging and printed them in large dimensions.

This time, the packages chosen were a bag of Arco-Íris charcoal – a common brand in the markets of Brumadinho -, a cheese maker used in the region and a cardboard box. Without making it completely clear what the photos record, which end up resembling a type of cave or some architectural structure, the images began to occupy billboards in the city. “The idea that these panels will not have, for a year, advertising for cars, condominiums, insurance sales or computer courses and, at the same time, will be replaced by images that do not understand much about what they are doing there… of disturbance is what I was interested in putting in that place”, says the artist. In addition, she concludes: “Empty packaging has to do with the after things, which is something that we and Brumadinho have to deal with.”

“Physical space can be a complex, abstract place under construction”, by Rommulo Vieira Conceição. Photo: Courtesy Inhotim

It is also from the relationship with the place, physical and cultural, that the work was conceived site specific by Rommulo Vieira Conceição, entitled Physical space can be an abstract, complex and under construction place.. With strong colors and shapes that refer both to religious elements – such as Christian, Jewish and Muslim temples – and to a children's playground, the artist proposes a reflection on knowledge and coexistence. “The work leads the visitor's gaze to different points of view, accentuating the disorientation of this space under construction”, explains the artist. According to the Bahian, who has lived in Porto Alegre for over 20 years, “by shuffling architectural elements from different religions, with which the public can identify, I sought to create a kind of harmony, albeit labyrinthine; allow for a strange coexistence”. Finally, he refers to the importance of this debate in the context of increasing religious extremism and fundamentalist discourses in Brazil.

The third opening in Inhotim, the exhibition between lands, brings together four large-scale drawings by Polish artist, based in England, Aleksandra Mir. part of the series Mediterranean (2007), the works were produced during a period spent by the artist in Sicily, when attention was paid to the importance of the Mediterranean Sea as a political territory, marked by migratory flows and power struggles. With the appearance of maps, mixed with representations of small people, flowers, crosses and written in stylized letters, “the work draws attention to the cultural manifestations carried by those waters over millennia, as agents of exchange between societies and in the displacement of individuals”, as stated by the institute's curator, Douglas de Freitas.

Work from the series “Mediterranean”, by Aleksandra Mir. Photo: Leo Fontes/ Publicity

Like the works by Lucia and Rommulo, Mir’s exhibition is part of the program entitled Território Especifico, a research axis that guides Inhotim’s program for the 2021/2022 biennium. After the dam collapse, the transformations in Brumadinho and the crisis generated by a global pandemic, the search of the Minas Gerais museum to intensify its relations with the city and, at the same time, reflect on the social and territorial conflicts that advance in different regions of the world.

*The journalist traveled at the invitation of Instituto Inhotim

*After the publication of this article, Instituto Inhotim announced that it will have a new management and will give more importance to the ecological agenda from January 2022. Lucas Pessôa will occupy the position of CEO in place of Antonio Grassi, who will play the role of international consultant, from Lisbon. Paula Azevedo will be vice-president director and Julieta González will be in charge of artistic direction.


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