New details have emerged about a series of international passport-control incidents that ensnared Oscar Murillo, the young artist, based in London and La Paila, Colombia, who rose to prominence in 2014 as his works went for skyrocketing amounts at auction. Last month, Murillo destroyed his British passport mid-air on a flight to Sydney, which resulted in him being detained upon arrival, kept in a detention cell for two days by authorities who checked his identity, and eventually deported to Singapore. From there, he hopscotched from Barcelona to Madrid to Bogotá, in his native Colombia, which allowed him safe passage back to the United Kingdom.
Word of the detainment and deportation emerged weeks later during Art Basel Hong Kong, where Murillo was in town to appear on a panel during the fair’s Salon sector. A representative from David Zwirner, the gallery that represents Murillo in New York and London, confirmed the story to ARTnews today.
“I recently attended a panel in Hong Kong where Oscar spoke, and what I understood from that talk was that he destroyed his British passport en route to Sydney as an act and response to the notion of ‘privilege’ that is associated with certain citizenships in the Western world,” Julia Joern, a partner at Zwirner, said in a statement. “He still retains his Colombian passport.”
Indeed, that panel gave Murillo a platform to expand upon his thoughts on the notion of privilege, in the Sydney Biennale and elsewhere. Here is his opening salvo:
For there to be a valid and open conversation that transpasses [sic] the current still-dominant colonial situation in which we still live in—from a Western context, the West is a salivating penis, you know, pretty much ready to penetrate the rest of the world, as it has been for 500 years or more—we in the context of the art world need to get rid of people like Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Cecilia Alemani, Massimiliano Gioni, and all these curators and individuals that keep the status quo.
Murillo appears to have made the decision to mutilate his own passport just moments before he did it. According to sources, on March 8, Murillo boarded a flight in London that would take him, via a connecting flight through Hong Kong, to Sydney, where he was to participate in that city’s biennale, which runs through June 5. Four hours before he was set to land in Sydney, he decided that his proposed work in the biennale was not sufficient, and acted upon this by creating a situation that directly commented on his own geopolitical identity: he flushed his British passport down the toilet, releasing it into the open skies and destroying it, purposefully ridding himself of the letters of transit that would help allow him safe passage into Australia. Upon landing, customs officials placed him in a detainment area—despite his having a valid Colombian passport—and ultimately decided to deport him. Murillo was forced to pay for the plane ticket himself.
Murillo did not respond to an email request for comment. But he does offer an explanation for his actions in a pair of shaky iPhone videos posted to the blog of French journalist and curator Judith Benhamou-Huet. She says in a blog post that she ran into the artist in an elevator in Hong Kong during the fair—”Murillo approached me in a lift, very sweetly”—and he agreed to discuss how his dissatisfaction with the biennale in Sydney led him to flush his papers.
“The action of destroying the passport was to create a blockage situation, to create the point in which I am no longer that individual,” Murillo says in one of the iPhone video uploaded to Benhamou-Huet’s blog, in which the artist and the journalist are sitting side by side in what appears to be a hotel lobby. “I gave a proposal, I went and made a proposal with a curator, and we were both really happy with it. At the same time, I was feeling uncomfortable because, despite the agenda for the biennale, which wanted to propose a strong situation, there seemed to be a lot of conservative attitudes toward allowing an artist to be really freely expressive.”
“In Australia?” Benhamou-Huet asked.
“Yes, but Sydney in particular,” Murillo said. “So even though there was a degree of satisfaction with what I wanted to offer, I nevertheless thought that it wasn’t enough, that simply intervening in a space was too symbolic, too limiting and slightly ignorant, and not present and not urgent enough.”
The website for the Sydney Biennale indicates that the work Murillo contributed to the show is meandering – black wall (2016), which is described on the biennale’s website like this: “The installation comprises a series of medical autopsy tables stacked on top of one another. Unstretched black canvases draped across the mortuary-style tables call to mind the history of abstract painting and notions of non-objectivity and the void conjured by Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square on a White Ground, 1915.”
In another anecdote from the fair in Hong Kong, Benhamou-Huet noted that she witnessed Murillo in a suite at the Mandarin Oriental, scribbling in a notebook alongside the artist Yutaka Sone, who is also represented by Zwirner, the two of them sketching away “like two children deep in concentration with their colouring pencils who have found an absorbing activity far removed from the miasmas of the art market at Art Basel Hong Kong.”
In a nod to his recent country-hopping, the book, Murillo said, is called Room Service.