Mining and Art

Tuesday we took an early Uber to the airport, and flew up to Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais. And general mining is in fact what happens there. In fact, just days before, a mine dam had broken and wiped out a village just up the road from where we were to stay. But this was not presented to the tourists. We picked up our wimpy little Fiat Way, and headed to Ouro Preto, where we had what turned out to be a wonderful airbnb: an entire house, with no one else staying in it. We put the car in the garage and it stayed there until we left two days later.

Ouro Preto, which means “black gold”, not to be confused with the kind on the Beverly Hillbillies, is a famous home of revolutionaries in the late 18th century advocating for Brazil’s independence from Portugal. It didn’t happen then, and they were all executed, but people still remember them with museums. The town square, Praca de Tiradentes, “Tooth Puller Plaza”, is named after the nickname of the most famous of them. Ouro Preto was once the capital of Minas Gerais, but it was relocated to Belo Horizonte, which may have been an important cause of a freeze in development there: there are no buildings which look like they were built in the 20th century. They have a strong Architectural Standards Review Board or something which prevents anything the disturb the preservation. The roads are quite steep, and are frequently paved with somewhat sharp rocks that provide excellent traction as you walk or drive up or down. Or they are paved with flat bricks. Once you get in town, you see no smooth asphalt, or even concrete sidewalks: those are made out of big flat stones.

In our two full days there, we visited several churches. They were all different, of course, but there was a basic layout they all shared which we haven’t seen anywhere else. They were all fairly small; the nave was generally surrounded by six little altars, each generally containing several statues. The main altar in the chancel looked like a wedding cake, with seven levels or so, and a large statue of the person for whom the church was named standing on the top. Jesus on the cross might have been mounted on a pole far below, in front of the altar. There was often but not always elaborate decoration on the sides of the chancel, and on both ceilings. One sculptor, Antonio Francisco Lisboa, known as Aleijadinho, was responsible for making or inspiring much of the sculpture in all these churches, and is a town hero for that. (As with many town heroes, there is doubt that he existed, or executed all the works attributed to him, or became the victim of leprosy or syphilis and worked till the end of his life with brushes and chisels strapped to the stumps of his hands.)

We went to the historical museum, and also the Museu do Oratorios, which housed an interesting collection of little shrine boxes people had. The bottom floor contained oratorios carried by travelers, many in the shape of a cylinder, which swung open to reveal the saints and angels inside. The middle floor showed oratorios that would be at normal people’s homes; the most interesting of those were the Afro-Brazilian ones which combined items from everyday life with the spiritual icons. The upper floor had elaborate artistic oratorios kept by members of the upper class. We walked through a cute park, Vale do Cantos, with a long trail. It does a good job of hiding the town even though it goes directly through the center of it.

On Friday we drove through Congonhas, a bleak mining town with a small seminary containing a the most famous set of statues made by Aleijadinho, sort of his Burghers of Calais. I am sorry to say that Google Maps does not do a good job of guiding through Congonhas. We walked the last 200 meters because the road had turned to 4WD boulders in a bleak neighborhood. Upon arrival there, it looked as if another road could have got us there without difficulty, but we had to go back the way we came.

Then we headed directly to Inhotim, an amazing art park next to Brumadinho, another mining town. Inhotim is impeccably landscaped, and would function well as a botanic garden even if there were no art at all: they have the largest collection of palm trees in the world, for example, and there were plenty of birds to watch. But there was plenty of art, all of it of the “large” variety. Tunga, mentioned above, had gotten the mining magnate in Brumadinho interested in collecting art, and creating this park to house it in was the logical next step. Many artists had individual pieces: a 12-foot statue here, a glass triangular building there, a huge kaleidoscope on a stand elsewhere. And there were many galleries, many permanent built specifically around a specific large work, and some which presumably have rotating exhibitions showing smaller pieces of several artists. Matthew Barney had a giant earthmover holding a white plastic tree inside a glass geodesic dome; Doug Aitken had a “sonic pavilion” playing sounds from deep in the earth in real time; Chris Burden had dropped huge construction beams into a just-poured concrete platform. There was a room playing a performance of a 40-person choir, each singer through an individual speaker. There was a gallery showing slides of 70s musicians’ LP covers used to serve cocaine, in comfortable rooms, one with mattresses, one with hammocks, one with a swimming pool (this would make an excellent party space). And those are just a few highlights. We spent 13 hours there across three days (we got half-price tickets because we are over 60!), but didn’t feel worn out like we do after two hours in SFMOMA, because the pieces were few and large, and they were broken up by walking and birdwatching and lunch.

We stayed in a little hostel in Brumhadinho, which had a jabuticada tree in the backyard, which mostly grows in Minas Gerais. It is a pine tree whose trunks are covered with little purple fruits, which you can eat but which are mostly used to make jam and liqueur. Apparently they had a festival just outside town while we were there, but we didn’t end up going.

On Sunday, after our final hours at Inhotim seeing the one section we hadn’t gotten to, we went to another CCBB branch in Belo Horizonte. This was hosting a show of artists from Berlin, including Thomas Rentmeister. His piece was in the first room of the show, consisting of maybe 4×9 meters of one-liter need-not-refrigerate milk cartons laid out on the floor. The curator said he was delighted when he was installing the work, since the dimensions exactly matched the parquetry on the floor. A film we’d seen in Berlin’s gay museum, “Deep Gold”, was also being shown in this exhibition, and we had a chance to see the whole 18 minutes of it this time. In the courtyard of the building, an exhibit called “Standard Time” featured a crew of workers with ladders. Every minute they’d rearrange planks on a set of struts so that the planks would indicate the current time. A video feed showed the same thing happening at another location outside somewhere as well. Yelp Nearby Open Now pointed us to a little place a block away serving perfectly grilled Brazilian river fish, where we had lunch. (It’s a good thing we did, because the hotel in Brasilia only had a buffet, which was getting pretty tired-looking by 10pm.)