The Contemporary Art Whirl

As the curator of contemporary art, I try to see as much current art as I possibly can–visiting artists’ studios, going to gallery and museum shows, attending art fairs, looking at art magazines and auction catalogues, and reading online journals and blogs. I am always looking for ideas for potential acquisitions for the Museum’s permanent collection and ideas for exhibitions and artists’ projects. The contemporary art world is huge and virtually impossible to keep up with without traveling. I try to go to New York several times a year, occasionally get to Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami, and have often wished I could go to some of the international art fairs and exhibitions.
 Inhotim sculpture park in Brazil

Thanks to generous funding provided for curatorial travel and research by a Mellon Foundation Bridge Grant, I traveled to Brazil in September for the first time.

The purpose of the trip was to attend the opening of the Bienal de S£o Paulo (a gigantic international contemporary art exhibition), to see a new sculpture park (Inhotim in Belo Horizonte), and to visit museums, galleries, and artists’ studios in S£o Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The contemporary art world has become increasingly global over the past decade, and the who’s who in the art world (artists, gallery dealers, collectors) are contemporary nomads who circle the globe, going to one art fair after another, trying to keep up with the next new thing–S£o Paulo in September, Frieze Art Fair in London in October, Istanbul Biennial in October, Art Basel Miami Beach in December, the Armory Show in New York in March, Art Basel in Switzerland in June, Venice Biennale in June . . . and on it goes.

In its 60th year, the Bienal de S£o Paulo featured 161 artists from all over the world and filled a three-story convention center. During the two days in S£o Paulo, I also went to several contemporary galleries, the state art museum, and the studios of several artists, including the painter Caetano de Almeida. In Rio de Janeiro, I visited an incredible private collection of contemporary Brazilian art (in a penthouse overlooking Copacabana Beach) and went to several galleries and museums, including Museu © o Mundo, which had an amazing H©lio Oiticica show, and the Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Niteroi, which was designed by the world-renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. It is a fantastic space-age building that looks as if it belongs in a Jetsons cartoon.

The highlight of the trip was a visit to Inhotim, a new sculpture park in Brumadinho, which felt like the middle of nowhere after an hour and a half bus ride from Belo Horizonte. This 3,000-acre sculpture park and botanical garden is filled with thousands of unusual plants (including one of the world’s largest collections of palm trees–over 1,300 species!) and over 500 works of art by international contemporary artists. As you wander through the park, on foot or by golf cart, you come across outdoor sculptures by artists including Dan Graham, Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy, Olafur Eliasson, and Yayoi Kusama, among many others. You can also wander in and out of mini galleries or pavilions that are scattered throughout the park and feature highly ambitious and complicated artworks by current contemporary art “stars” including Janet Cardiff, Doug Aitken, and Matthew Barney.  The Brazilian collector who built the park, Bernardo Paz, invites artists to make their “dream project” at Inhotim, and it appears that the sky is the limit. Chris Burden’s immense Beam Drop consists of 71 steel beams dropped by crane into a cement foundation. Matthew Barney’s project includes a massive mirrored double dome housing an installation with a gigantic dirt-encrusted backhoe and a separate gallery that features a video filmed during Carnival.

Doug Aitken’s Sonic Pavilion is a round, transparent glass pavilion perched on top of a hill. You enter an empty room with a 360-degree view of the landscape that is filled with an ambient sound that is constantly changing–rumbling, whispering, groaning, creaking. The sound comes from a live microphone that has been placed at the bottom of a 600-foot-deep hole in the middle of the pavilion and amplified in the space so that you are listening to the inside of the earth in real time.

My two favorites were Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s sound installation, 40 Part Motet, which consists of a room filled with 40 freestanding speakers playing the Salisbury Cathedral Choir performing a 16th-century motet, and Yayoi Kusama’s floating garden installation, Narcissus Garden, made up of 500 stainless steel spheres that float in a rooftop water garden, constantly moving and re-forming, and reflecting you back to yourself, like Narcissus, hundreds of times over.

The NCMA’s Museum Park seems tiny in comparison to Inhotim, but I came back full of ideas and plans for future park projects. Next stop, Miami in December.

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