The World Close at a Distance

Interview by Kathleen Weyts
12 December 2023

Oscar Murillo, photo Tim Bowditch, courtesy the artist, © Oscar Murillo 2023

In conversation with Oscar Murillo

For each issue, GLEAN invites a Guest Editor to curate a section of the magazine. We interview them and ask them to invite three writers or artists who have influenced their practice (or who otherwise deserve our attention) to take up space in these pages. This Winter Issue’s Guest Editor is Oscar Murillo.

KW: (Kathleen Weyts) You are in the middle of installing a studio in Brussels. Are you giving up the studio in London?

OM: (Oscar Murillo) I’m at a stage in my life where I’m wrapping things up; I’ve been on the road for about ten years now, accumulating work, stuff, travelling, … Today I have this vivid picture in my head of turning my back on the world. When I look at the catastrophe of humanity, it makes me want to go back to nature, to heal. To hide in nature as a kind of protection. I spent the summer cycling around Europe with some friends, from Brussels to Venice, and it gave me a better understanding of the countryside here: we passed through Brussels, Luxemburg, Germany, France, the Swiss Alps, Italy … But for the moment, my London studio is still my main workspace. Coming to Brussels is more of an investigation. Returning to London after the pandemic – which I spent mostly in Colombia – I began to feel very unsettled. So when I received the invitation for the show at WIELS it seemed like a good opportunity to spend more time in Brussels, the symbolic centre of the European project. It reminds me a little bit of London 20 years ago, in a good way. It’s a more humanistic place, the capitalist machine is less present here. And there is a different set of social dynamics, too, which I’m just beginning to sense and to understand, relating to the layers of communities, the colonial histories … It can be very palpable, very present.

KW: As it is in London.

OM: Yes. But here in Brussels it feels a bit more ‘compact’. The linguistic situation also adds another layer, a layer that is constantly alive.

KW: Did you leave Colombia at an early age?

OM: I turned eleven in February and we left in March. That was in 1997.

KW: You continued to speak Spanish at home with your parents?

OM: Yes. The interesting thing in our case was that a large community of our family migrated. Colombia in the 90s was crippled with financial issues – it still is. Instability and violence were rife. All that affected us. And then my dad opened up this escape route to Europe, which he understood as being a much more civil place than the United States. And I think he was right. If we had migrated to the US, I don’t think I would have become an artist; or I would have been a ‘Latino artist’. London was a city ‘in becoming’, from the mid 90s onwards, it was a city that was on its way; the seeds of neoliberalism, which had been planted years before, were growing. London was suddenly full of opportunity and excitement: fashion, music, art … And of course, everything was fuelled by money – by the banks, essentially. We tend to forget that it was really the thriving financial sector that gave London that tremendous amount of energy. Otherwise, London might not have become the expensive and sterile city it is today. Back then, the city was broken. East London, where I grew up, was a ghetto. Once that prosperity took hold, however, the city gradually began to strangle different kinds of possibility. I enrolled in the Royal College of Art in London in 2010. Even before that, during the financial crisis in 2008, I remember thinking: what’s the next stage of this project of privatisation? Around that time, maybe a little earlier, I attended a lecture by Jeremy Deller at the Hayward Gallery. He told us about how the privatisation of London resulted in the destruction of public space. This process is still ongoing, it’s very much present with us now.

KW: Brussels and London: how do you want to develop your practice between these two cities?

OM: I consider Brussels more a thinking space. I believe the city can offer something akin to a base for my practice. For example, if everything were to fall apart, I could keep making works on paper. At the beginning of my practice, when I was trying to understand how to be an artist, time was very important. I mean time when you’re not working but thinking. Undertaking, very seriously, the task of becoming an artist. Which artists often confuse with entering the industry of art. Maybe I was more naive back then, but I knew that it was important to not spend all my time making work. I did not want to become a symbolic human being. I needed to spend time in my studio doing things that didn’t necessary lead to financial success. I think Brussels can help me to inject this necessary time for reflection into my practice. It’s a place where you can hide a bit more. Things here seem to be less driven by the necessities of capital. It turns the volume right down. Time works differently here. That’s something I’m enjoying a lot, regardless of the studio.

KW: When was it clear to you that you wanted to become an artist?

OM: Very early, though not consciously. Art happened unconsciously, as a way of repairing the horror, the distraction and the trauma of growing up in the violent and oppressive environment of Colombia in that period. When we left for London, it became a kind of double trauma: on the one hand, the trauma inflicted by the place, and on the other, the trauma of leaving a culture and a relationship to a place that was just beginning to formulate itself: friends, the tropics, nature … And then the arrival in London was also traumatic. You can compare it to bringing a mango tree from Colombia and trying to plant it in a place like Rochefort in the South of Belgium. It just won’t grow. That uprooting created the trauma. Nevertheless, the culture, the ecosystem in London at the time was amicable, so I was able to adapt. Art was the mediator that allowed me to do that. One of the important things that I’m grateful for is that nothing was imposed on me at art school. No imposition, no fragmentation in terms of which direction you could take, but a beautiful guidance with regard to what it means to study art from a historical, obviously European perspective. I spent some formative years working out how to co-exist with all this, navigating and negotiating, figuring out what I was drawn to, questioning at the same time and making sure I found a way to internalise it, to make it mine. It was a beautiful but frictional process. Recently a friend who came to visit me at my studio asked me, ‘Why do you keep getting drawn to London?’ I told him that I was drawn to the fact that London has a hyper-hierarchal class system. It gives me something to fight against. It’s a fertile ground for me.

KW: You’ve developed your practice around different media, but above all you are a painter. What is it about painting that attracts you?

OM: For me, painting is the most intimate medium. Even when I make paintings that are large in scale. It also has to do with the idea of survival. I always wanted to develop a practice where if everything collapses, falls apart, I can still make work. My practice, even though it has expanded and involves different paths of engagement, remains rooted in drawing. Even in the painterly or the performative, the core is drawing. And the painting is born out of drawing.

KW: I’ve never seen your drawings in an exhibition, do you keep them hidden?

OM: I’ve shown the drawings only occasionally, and I haven’t made them available to buy. They’re too intimate, which isn’t the same thing as personal. Drawing feels priceless to me. There’s a certain intimacy and immediacy about drawing on paper that I’ve always been attracted to. I don’t fully understand why, but I find it difficult to release them; I still have all my drawings, I keep them in my studio. I’ve also kept a lot of my other work over the years, like my early paintings, I felt it was important to live with them. And then I decided it was time to move on. That’s when travelling became important. I was doing a lot of museum shows, biennials, exploring more experimental platforms. And now, once more, I feel the need to leave. I need to go.

KW: You were in Colombia during the pandemic. How did that happen?

OM: Around 2019, I was in the midst of planning a museum show with the director of the Museum of Art at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá. I was going to make a large-scale work to be installed there. I was very excited about being in Bogotá and about the prospect of producing a show there. We’d already packed up the studio, and then Covid took over. I remember thinking, I can go back and try to understand how this would affect life in London, but it also seemed a good opportunity to stay in Colombia. I didn’t know where that decision would take me then, but now I look back at it as a beautiful twist of fate. The economic precarity there was immediately exacerbated by the pandemic. It affected the ways people lived and made money. People started cycling or walking to sell their wares, lottery tickets, vegetables, whatever … And I found structure for myself in helping the community. We came together with a group of friends, even though of course it was about contributing what we could to improve the situation. For me, it was also about ‘getting in’. ‘Getting in’ meant serving, becoming a servant to the community. I ended up staying there for a year and it became one of the best experiences of my life. Everything stood still, there was no anxiety about my career or projects, the focus was on being there and on nature. I think this is why I keep talking about turning my back on the world. I’ve taken all I wanted from the world, and now I need to understand it, to lock myself away and digest it.

KW: If you succeeded in ‘turning away’ from the world, would it change the way you work?

OM: I think it would. In a good way. It would allow for a deeper ‘digestion’. I’ve been thinking a lot about the body of work that I showed in Venice last year for the exhibition ‘A Storm is Blowing From Paradise’ [in the Scuola Grande della Misericordia]. The content of the show, which was centred around the project Frequencies1, represented an accumulation of information, of messages. Almost like desperate messages travelling through the catastrophic reality of the world. I’ve been thinking about these messages almost like urgent telegrams, comparable to getting WhatsApp messages in a way. I feel overwhelmed, receiving all these personal telegrams. Yet when I see them, I still want to understand them and respond to them. That’s what I’m working on, what I’m living with. I want to take all these messages and read them, digest them, in nature, away from the hostility.

KW: Why did you decide to work with kids for Frequencies?

OM: In every contemporary society, whether in the West, South America, Asia, Africa and beyond … the school system is the only ‘universal’ system left. Not even the prison systems in all these parts of the world are the same. In the school system, I see a way to set up a situation where mark-making and drawing become a space of freedom and possibility. Freedom is something that is constantly negotiated in school. Those in positions of power try to impose doctrine, kids are push back against the system. It’s a kind of push-pull for terrain. The young mind is a recording machine. And in this project, the canvas becomes the recording device. It’s really about the kids recording their environment. The canvas that you place on their desk becomes like a film. Because of their lack of self-censorship, children are often the vessels that can give you the truest sense of what’s going on.

KW: When you finished school, you were immediately catapulted into the ‘industry of art’ – like a rocket straight to the centre. How do you look back on that experience?

OM: It’s been tough. In the beginning, the industry swept me away. I realised very quickly that it had nothing to do with art. And then I figured out how to put the positive sides of the industry to work, while never letting go of the experimental spirit, as it was encouraged in school. Maybe it also has to do with my restless nature. I chalk a lot of it up to intuition: knowing how to manoeuvre, understanding the business of art – and the fact that on a certain level it had nothing to do with the evolution of my ideas and of my practice. It was a kind of commercial frenzy; there’s so much tension and energy that you really need to concentrate. When I came out of school, my work got internalised by the commercial machine because everyone’s thinking ‘America’. But I’m not thinking ‘America’. The comparisons with Basquiat are emblematic of that. Despite his Haitian and Puerto Rican roots, he was really a New Yorker, an American. I’m not. That difference is crucial. Even though I got sucked into it, I was always aware of the fact that I was not who they thought I was. This is how what I call my ‘decade of geographical research’ began, which led to the birth of Frequencies. That project was also born out of the circumstance of not having enough time. I’m always sensitive to my experience of time. Take Brussels: I don’t think another major European city has a similar relationship to time. Hop on a train and in an hour or two you can be in Paris, or London; you’re in the centre of the storm. And it doesn’t take that much to get out of the storm. The last decade has been turbulent, but I’m trying to recalibrate. The idea of leaving is vital, as a matter of survival …

KW: Do you consider your experience in Colombia as a breaking point?

OM: After Colombia, a line was drawn. We can speak of collective and personal experiences of the pandemic; my personal reality was that I felt I might have died if the pandemic hadn’t happened. The way I was living would have killed me. And the pandemic saved me. That might be more accurate.

KW: You were educated in a European art historical context. Who are the artists in this tradition that you feel drawn to?

OM: I’ve always been drawn to Fauvism and Impressionism. I like the radicality of what those artists were doing at the time. Fauvism is so wild, particularly in the French context: the stiffness, if you can call it that, and the colour. Something that I loved to do as a kid, and still love to do, was to spend time in the kitchen of my parents’ apartment in London and draw still lives. It wasn’t actually about the still lives themselves, but about the experience of time. It was about sitting down and arranging the little objects. Maybe one of the last things I’ll do is paint that apartment and draw still lives. Two weeks ago, I was in London, at a Philip Guston show. In some of his statements he said that his work wasn’t about abstraction, but about not being able to render emotions in a pictorial way. I think of that when I look at what we’re going through right now. How do you express the horror, how do you expel it from your body? In a way, abstraction is an American project that was born out of a certain collision of the academic and the artistic. What I’m getting at is that in the US, in this post war-moment, abstractionism was a kind of celebration of the ego, of American triumphalism. It didn’t possess the same criticality as European abstractionism, which was always more radical. One of most important shows for me in the last ten years was ‘Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945–65’ in Haus der Kunst, which was co-curated by Okwui Enwezor. He proposed a kind of recalibration of post-war history by looking at how the world was reconfiguring itself after the traumas of the war.

KW: How influential has Okwui Enwezor been for you personally?

OM: I met Okwui in early 2014. Around that time, I did a show in New York at David Zwirner called ‘A Mercantile Novel’. With that show, I was saying, ‘This is who I am’. I don’t think the installation has been fully understood yet, which is a good thing. That show was a kind of question mark: it allowed me to begin to turn the ship, to anchor myself according to my own terms. I met Okwui at that show, and after that he became a point of reference to me. The encounters that we had resonated with the idea of time, of digestion. Looking at his previous work, I came to understand him as a bridge between two sides of what I now perceive as a cultural war. He was a great mediator between systems that have become segregated and compartmentalized.

KW: How did you manage to ‘anchor yourself’ and work according to your own terms at such a young age?

OM: You just need an attitude. And you have to understand that the market, that capital in general has the ability to always get its way. But if you assert yourself then you can protect yourself.

KW: You told me that poetry is important to your practice.

OM: Recently, before going to sleep, I wrote down what I can only describe as a kind of collection of whispers. As if I was being spoken to. A lot of the titles I use are a kind of ‘final sentence’ in an ongoing deciphering of myself and my position in the world. Sometimes I’m scared of poetry, or too respectful; sometimes it almost seems like a ‘higher art’. In a sense, it’s been a companion to my studio practice. Like drawing, it’s a kind of exorcism.

1 Frequencies is a long-term collaborative project conceived by Oscar Murillo in 2013. The project has invited thousands of students aged 10-16 to participate by freely drawing, marking and writing on raw canvas placed on their school desks over a period of six months. After a decade of using Frequencies as a vessel for collaboration, travel and accumulation of material, the artist ushers in a new phase that sees the vast collection of canvases and memories flattened into raw mass as a resource for new works.