Oscar Murillo: Masses

WIELS (Brussels), Feb-24/Apr-24

WIELS contemporary art gallery is a fifteen-minute walk from Brussels Midi station. A former brewery, designed in1930 by architect Adrien Blomme, the entrance hall retains two huge copper vats, evidence of the site’s history but also a prelude to its current show.

Turner Prize winner, Oscar Murillo, is a multidisciplinary artist whose work focuses on issues such as migration, globalisation, and identity. The viewer enters his exhibition from back to front, walking along the arc created by six large canvases supported by a scaffold, observing the uneven stitches that hold together multiple patches of fabric, and noting traces of paint that have trespassed from the – as yet unseen – front of the work.

For the past decade, Murillo’s has led a project called Frequencies, in which small pieces of blank canvas were distributed to schools worldwide for children to draw and write on. Murillo collected them, stitched them together into larger pieces, and then painted over them in large angular gestures in various shades of blue, alluding to the colours of the oceans, washing away children’s writing, but also connecting them into one cohesive painting. Disrupted Frequencies, the name of the panels in this exhibition, suggests the process by which information is transmitted globally, through processes of fragmentation and transformation.

Installation view
Back of the installation disrupted frequencies, 2013-2023

Opposite the large paintings, there is an installation resembling the aftermath of a party, comprised of white plastic garden chairs scattered in a disorderly manner. On top of some chairs, and spread around the gallery floor, are rock-like objects made from ground corn, cement, and wire. These suggest both the destructive end of an event and the genesis of something new. Upended church benches break the horizontal layout of the exhibition, reminding us of the changing foundations upon which we sustain our beliefs.

In a side room, shielded from daylight by black canvas covered with thick layers of paint and accumulated debris, a video shows new year celebrations in Murillo’s hometown, La Paila, Colombia. The camera alternates between close-ups of individuals drinking, socialising, and dancing, and wide-shots of the event, creating a sense of intimacy and then distance, perhaps a reflection of what Murillo experiences when he returns home.

disrupted frequencies, 2013-2023

Back in the main space, we encounter several Flight drawings hanging from the ceiling. In an interview, Murillo recounts that he ripped up his British passport during an airline flight as a protest against border difficulties faced by many migrants. These drawings, which he made in transitional spaces such as hotel rooms and airport lounges, point to experiences of impermanence and the changing status of identities as we cross borders.

flight #89, 2018-2019
Masses, 2023

Murillo’s work seeks to disrupt, and to traverse frontiers. At the same time he celebrates the freedom that comes from belonging. His exhibition draws our attention to some of the current policy measures in Europe that make it more difficult to travel across borders. He puts a spotlight on the significance of certain events, seemingly minor, but which might profoundly affect the lives of individuals: their freedom to depart, and their freedom to return.

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