Palm Reading

Left: São Paulo Bienal curators Agnaldo Farias and Moacir dos Anjos. Right: Inhotim founder Bernardo Paz.

“DID YOU SEE WHO THAT WAS?” Gavin Brown asked, clapping Marc Spiegler’s shoulder. “Fucking Ronaldo!”

Of course Brown would be the only one to recognize the football star in the elevator. Aren’t his eyes always on the prize? The rest of us—Spiegler, Marian Goodman’s Rose Lord, upcoming Venice Biennale curator Bice Curiger, and myself—were too busy trading itineraries to notice the lone guy in the striped polo.

It was, I suppose, an auspicious beginning to a short trip to São Paulo to catch the twenty-ninth edition of the city’s Bienal, the second-oldest such exhibition in the world (after Venice). Tuesday’s lunch, hosted at the apartment of collector Jay Khalifeh, from which we had just come, could have been an art gathering in New York or London or Paris, the only evidence to the contrary the effusive Portuguese mingling with the English and the choppy, chimerical skyline beyond the balcony.

Left: Ronaldo. (Photo: Gavin Brown) Right: Artist Gil Vicente.

That evening there were thousands of people at the Bienal’s opening in Oscar Niemeyer’s capacious pavilion in Ibirapuera Park. A crush formed at the entrance as guests were escorted individually through metal detectors. Inside, military police hugged the edges of the tony crowd. The caipirinhas were flowing.

“There is always a cup of sea to sail in” was the show’s title, lifted from the Brazilian poet Jorge de Lima’s Invenção de Orfeu. “The 29th Bienal,” the website promised, “will bring visitors in touch with the politics of art.” (Bold in original.) This was heavy stuff to absorb going into a place. To offset the sobriety, I envisioned a mockumentary directed by Francesco Vezzoli and starring Parker Posey as a party girl who flees New York to reinvent herself as the artistic director of a museum “in exile.” Jennifer Coolidge would play the kooky trustee (“I wear my politics on my walls”) and Jane Lynch the grudging, cynical scribe . . .

Never mind that the most bluntly (certainly headline-begging) “political” work in the show was a series of nine charcoal portraits by Gil Vicente depicting the artist assassinating world political leaders. Then there was the family of vultures flying around in a vast, three-story netted enclosure at the pavilion’s center, a dubious “political” sight gag.

But there was also a decent selection of inspired work, stuff that might stand better on its own, some familiar, some not, including Marta Minujín and Rubén Santantonín’s classic La Menesunda; David Lamelas’s new installation Moon Time; dance films by Joachim Koester and Manon de Boer; and Miguel Angel Rojas’s late-1970s photographs, shot from the hip, of gay cruising spots in Bogotá. Curatorial eye, here, beat out rhetoric.

After the opening, I beat it in a cab with NBK curator Sophie Goltz to a fun and swishy party at another collector’s house, and then to the Lion’s Nightclub, a disused office building featuring a hip parade of biennial and local scenesters slinking to Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys. But something continued to nag.

Left: Venice Biennale curator Bice Curiger. Right: Artists David Lamelas and Marta Minujín.

The fact is that everyone told me to go to Inhotim. “No one comes just for the Bienal,” people of a certain status and geographic fluidity said. For people who had money and for people who wanted money (typically the same people), São Paulo was merely a pit stop on the way to mining tycoon Bernardo Paz’s quixotic sculpture park stranded in the Brazilian countryside.

And so, on Thursday morning, at 6 AM, another plane to Belo Horizonte and an hour-and-a-half taxi to the edge of a town in bad repair and just beyond that, a row of black-tie security outside a boxy gate. “Welcome to Disneyland,” said my companion, though the vibe was more Jurassic Park. (“Dia by way of Werner Herzog,” curator Hans Ulrich Obrist had put it admiringly, evoking visions of Fitzcarraldo.) Past the checkpoint, palm trees of every variety crowded the manicured 178-acre landscape; orchids hung from wires; occasionally, a hot dog stand would materialize in the shrubbery. I wandered the grounds, first with artist Carlito Carvalhosa and then with Gavin Brown, Tim Neuger, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, as we moved from the wondrous, newly inaugurated Galeria Cosmococa and Galeria Miguel Rio Branco to Matthew Barney’s geodesic sci-fi pavilion to Doug Aitken’s UFO sound pavilion to Tunga’s True Rouge pavilion. Outside Galeria Doris Salcedo, a gaggle of fans accosted Tiravanija.

“Oh! Are you Rirkrit?” they asked, astonished.

“This happens to him all the time,” Brown grumbled, rolling his eyes. “I never get groupies.” (Behind us: “Tell us, how do you pronounce your name . . . ?”)

Left: Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija (left). Right: Dealer Gavin Brown.

“This is the greatest museum in the world,” Tiravanija sighed once we’d ventured on, and everyone did seem taken with the palmy glory. We loped through the artificial jungle, hopping on chauffeured golf carts, which we decided were “bourgeois” (certainly not nearly as chic as the chartered helicopter Chantal Crousel arrived in). We ran into Glenn Lowry and Kathy Halbreich of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and artist Arto Lindsay and Inhotim artistic director Jochen Volz and dealers from all over. Along the way we passed more sculptures, mostly monumental works by Zhang Huan and Simon Starling and Edgard de Souza and Cildo Meireles and Paul McCarthy and Dan Graham and Olafur Eliasson and a massive sculptural oasis in a sea of white sand by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. We made our way toward Tiravanija’s new Palm Pavilion, an open-faced shack on stilts dressed in corrugated steel, “built in Thailand,” he noted, “in a factory smaller than the final work.” We paused to smoke a cigarette and drink a chopp and observe the differences between Brazilian and Thai corrugation before heading up the hill to Chris Burden’s impetuous Beam Drop. “Is this a light?” Neuger asked, tearing off the cigarette’s filter with his teeth and spitting it to the ground.

Back on a golf cart hurtling down the uneven terrain, I nearly collided with other golf carts filled with art tourists catching the mood of these man-made Elysian Fields. And past more familiar faces and artworks and around two lakes, there, in the center of the Restaurant Oiticica, surrounded by admirers and long buffet tables of meats and cheeses and petits gâteaux and bowls of candied pears and figs and rice pudding, stood the Fitzcarraldo himself, Bernardo Paz, twirling a straw in one hand, looking like a patrician poster boy for Mother Earth News. He welcomed me warmly: “Did you like it?”

Left: Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry and deputy director Kathy Halbreich. Right: Artist Arto Lindsay.

Left: Artist Miguel Angel Rojas. Right: Dealers Rachel Lehmann and Tim Neuger.

Left: Galeria Vermelho's Eliana Finkelstein. Right: Dealer Gerd Harry Lybke (center).

Left: Dealers Daniel Roesler and Alexandre Roesler. Right: Dealer Luisa Strina.

Left: Artist Lina Kim. Right: Artist Marcos Brias; Agustin Pérez Rubio, director of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León; and artist Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich.

Left: Dealer Pedro Mendes of Mendes Wood and curator Rita de Alencar Pinto. Right: Dealer Marcia Fortes of Galeria Fortes Vilaça.

Left: Dealer Monica Manzutto. Right: Dealer Pilar Corrias with Inhotim artistic director Jochem Volz.