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Oscar Murillo, ‘Social Cataracts’ at KM21, photo: Peter Cox

When someone suffers from ‘cataracts’, the lens of their eye has become clouded. Social cataracts, the title of Oscar Murillo’s exhibition at KM21, describes how we human beings increasingly fail to really see each other. Black pieces of linen cover the walls of the exhibition space. It is dark at KM21, yet Murillo’s paintings are carefully lit, turning them into points of attention. But how much attention do we give to what not immediately allures to us?

Upon entering the exhibition the smell of oil paint gently hits me. It’s dark and two small old-school TV screens placed on the floor in the middle of the room attract my attention. Nevertheless, I first turn left, toward a large painting called (Untitled) Surge (2019-2020), created on several swathes that have been stitched together. At approximately eye-level, a hole has been stitched into the textile. The strokes of paint are thick. From a distance, the painting reminds me of the reflective surface of water; the bright lighting makes its colours shine. There are two more paintings from the same series installed at the very end of the exhibition, one at least three times this size, stretching out over a large wall. Before entering the exhibition, I read that Murillo was inspired by Claude Monet’s water lily paintings, which Monet had made during different stages of suffering from cataracts. Monet’s paintings are famous for their scale and contrastive colours. Some however also have a brownish hue wherein details and contrasts get lost, unveiling his vanishing sense for colour and texture. I have the feeling that Murillo was especially intrigued by this loss of perspective, depth and horizon, which demands the viewer to focus upon the water’s surface alone.

The black swathes of linen that function as a backdrop for Murillo’s paintings are themselves to be considered a work as well: The Institute of Reconciliation (2014 – ongoing). At KM21 they are neatly aligned, covering the walls but also parts of the floor. White plastic garden chairs, those chairs we sit on in beach cafes, or in our parents’ or friends’ gardens, reappear throughout the space. They hold stone-like objects and wooden frames with small paintings. The chairs become characters in what appears to be a demonstration; enthusiastically circling around each other while holding up their ‘protest paintings’. While it is an intriguing and funny sight, I don’t feel included in the event; there is no force tangible in the room, it’s rather calm here.

[blockquote]White plastic chairs become characters in what appears to be a demonstration; enthusiastically circling around each other while holding up their ‘protest paintings’

Oscar Murillo, 'Social Cataracts' at KM21, photo: Peter Cox

Oscar Murillo, 'Social Cataracts' at KM21, photo: Peter Cox

Oscar Murillo, 'Social Cataracts' at KM21, photo: Peter Cox

Elias Canetti has written an elaborate observation on the behaviours of crowds in his book Crowds and Power (1960), and dedicated a sub-chapter to the crowd as a ring. These crowds-as-rings are closing themselves off from what is outside of their ring by facing only each other, recognizing in each other’s faces only what they are already feeling and thinking themselves.[1] Is it such an ‘echo-chamber’ that Murillo is referring to when he speaks of ‘social cataracts’?

I find myself searching for such hidden layers of meaning in Murillo’s works. It is however also in a more literal sense that hidden layers can be discovered; rough line drawings lurk out from beneath the paint of the two works of the series (Untitled) News (2021) for example. The drawings from his Flight # (2018-2019) series, that Murillo made during his frequent travels, also give an impression of what might be luring under the surface. The drawings come across as free-flow thinking pieces; as if Murillo put on paper whatever came to his mind in a specific moment, resulting in a repetition of phrases and  strokes. In fact all of the works on show seem to be part of such an ongoing practice of thinking through doing ­­–it’s a shame that I as a viewer don’t feel the opportunity to become part of this no doubt fascinating process.

It is difficult to recognize connections between the different works. Especially the video work collective conscience (2021) is hard to place. It starts off with a suspenseful sound that fills the whole exhibition space, definitely ‘setting the tone’. It continues to show images of a path that runs through a landscape, as seen from a birds-eye perspective, but also from close by. On that path, life-sized paper-maché figures are placed one by one on their backs: at one figure’s head, feet or side another figure is placed, and so on for a couple of meters. About half way into the video, small explosions and fireworks start to set the figures on fire, and with that the sound changes into festive music. The exhibition leaflet tells me that collective conscience is inspired by a Colombian New Year’s tradition for which life-sized paper-maché figures are burned. Murillo filmed this work in the area of Colombia where he was born in 1986 and again following the exhibition leaflet the imagery is supposed to evoke Colombia’s recent history. I myself don’t know that much about Colombia’s history and therefore find it hard to really grasp what this work is trying to tell me. What I do sense though, is that taking up historical or traditional events, it radiates feelings of unrest. Without background knowledge, it was quite disturbing to watch the figures burn, festive music playing in the background ­ ­– almost as if somebody or some system is feeding off of these disappearing bodies.

All of Murillo’s works highlight the blurred and fragmented way in which we perceive the events and people around us

Oscar Murillo, 'Social Cataracts' at KM21, photo: Peter Cox

Oscar Murillo, 'Social Cataracts' at KM21, photo: Peter Cox

Oscar Murillo, 'Social Cataracts' at KM21, photo: Peter Cox

A similar feeling of unrest is also evoked in the documentation of the performance work Letter from America (2019). A voice from beside the camera forcefully recites a song of the same title by the Scottish band The Proclaimers. The first two times I watched the video I sensed the work communicating anger against institutions, resignation of things that have happened in the past and grief of having lost close-ones. The performance has taken place at the Walthamstow Trades Hall “a traditional ‘working men’s club’ in Northeast London”, as is written in the leaflet. In the video, I see a crowd observing Murillo  who is moving around a life-sized paper-maché figure lying on its back on the ground.  The figure is covered up to its belly by a piece of black linen. Murillo bows down to paint white strokes onto the fabric and to place fish figures on one of its corners. As he all of a sudden lifts the fabric to crawl under it, the black linen’s movement appears to me as an interpretation of a bashing sea, swallowing the paper-maché figure slowly. Once the figure has been dragged under the fabric, Murillo storms out from under, forcefully throwing stone-like objects against the Walthamstow Trades Hall’s facade. Those ‘stones’ in the performance remind me of the ones placed on the white plastic chairs throughout the exhibition, and I am still wondering what Murillo wants to evoke with that. Are they remnants of people we have lost?

Murillo’s work needs an attentive viewer; someone who takes their time to go beyond the works’ surfaces and who is curious about the many things he references. When I for example read into the song of the Scottish band, I came to know that the places referred to in the song (“Lochaber no more, Sutherland no more, Lewis no more, Skye no more”) have been or are cities in Scotland that in the 18th, 19th or 20th century have been hit by forced evictions and deindustrialisation measures, bringing about emigration waves to Canada and the US. It is here that the connections of the works start to become clearer to me. All of Murillo’s works highlight the blurred and fragmented way in which we perceive the events and people around us. Triggering more attention for each other’s lives, and for how stories and histories are intertwined is exactly what the exhibition attempts to do. It forces us to look under the surface, in order to put a hold on the spreading of social cataracts.

[1]    Elias Canetti, Masse und Macht, pp. 29-30 Masse als Ring, FISCHER Taschenbuch 2014 – 33. edition, first published 1960 by Claassen Verlag GmbH


Oscar Murillo’s exhibition at KM21 is on view until the 18th of April

Nele Brökelmann

is beeldend kunstenaar

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