Was it art, protest — or both?
It’s still not entirely clear just what the Colombian artist Oscar Murillo was thinking last month when he flushed his British passport down a toilet, midflight to Sydney, as he headed toward an art biennale there.
Instead, he was detained for two days in Sydney — after which he was deported to Singapore and eventually returned to Britain. (Mr. Murillo also holds a Colombian passport.) On Monday, these events were confirmed by his gallery, David Zwirner. Now the artist is being asked to explain them.
On Tuesday in London, Mr. Murillo released a statement through Zwirner to The New York Times and acknowledged that he had not originally intended to stage a protest but that his action had become one. “Destroying my passport was a way of challenging the conditions in which I have the privilege of moving through the world, as a citizen,” he said in his statement. “The act creates a disruptive situation that has the real potential to engage different power structures in a complex society — my status as an artist, the state as an arbiter, and the question of mobility in general.”
According to ArtNews, Mr. Murillo decided four hours before landing in Sydney that the work he was taking to the Biennale of Sydney was not sufficient and destroyed the documentation that would have allowed him to enter Australia easily, creating a situation that may have been a comment “on his own geopolitical identity,” that publication wrote.
Subsequently, Judith Benhamou-Huet, a French journalist and curator, said on her blog that she ran into Mr. Murillo at Hong Kong Art Basel, where he talked further about his concerns with the Sydney Biennale.
Mr. Murillo, in one of the iPhone videos uploaded to Ms. Benhamou-Huet’s blog, said: “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, he said, “there seemed to be a lot of conservative attitudes toward allowing an artist to be really freely expressive.”
In his statement on Tuesday, he noted that “a lot of curation today leads to the homogenization of emerging cultures — emerging from the perspective of the West — instead of forming collaborative exchanges with people that fall outside the dominant art world.” He added, “I was also trying to address the commodification of race and social practice in art.”
Called by his fans “the 21st-century Basquiat,” Mr. Murillo quickly went from cleaning office buildings to cover his expenses at the Royal College of Art in London to seeing his canvases sell at auction for more than $400,000.
More recently, however, his prices may have lost steam. Three Murillo works failed to sell over the last year at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips.