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Interview with Oscar Murillo

Maria Kruglyak


Oscar Murillo’s Together in Our Spirits at Fundação de Serralves—Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art brings the artist’s aesthetic investigations to Portugal for the first time. The show marks a decade of the long-term public work Frequencies (2013–2023), which serves as both entry and conceptualisation of the exhibition journey. Bordering community art, the work has the strongest connection to the early investigations that first got the artist famous, with big groups of people entering his practice as makers, creatives, and participants through what he calls the “working-to-work” process.

On paper, the concept behind Frequencies is simple: stitched raw canvases are placed on school desks of students aged 10 to 16 for half a year on the premise that they draw and doodle on them whenever they please. Now ongoing for a decade and involving over 100,000 children all over the world, this iteration of the work is created with the participation from about 900 school students in northern Portugal. The rough-and-ready canvases characteristic of Murillo’s work are displayed for people to look and flick through as if in an art market display. They are surrounded by the previously exhibited pieces from Disrupted Frequencies—collages from selected Frequencies works semi-covered by dark blue, bold oil-stick strokes that evoke the feeling of a calm and conscious disruption. The artist sees these as resembling waves and the “‘obliterating force’ of water”[1]—the lines inducing a latent, powerful force that is peaceful only on the surface.

Selected “conscious and unconscious markings”[2] of Frequencies also serve as the basis for the wearable sculptures Arepas y Tamales (2022), consisting of blue and white workers’ uniforms in the same raw material as the Frequencies pieces. These are covered symbols that have been digitally extracted from the Frequencies canvases. Rather than evoking a sense of being meditative or calculated, the selection feels calm and light, as pleasureful as it is honest—following the natural aesthetics of symbolism. The uniforms themselves feel neutral, grounded, and, despite or perhaps because of their reference to labour rights, non-political, even if not apolitical. Speaking to Murillo, I begin to understand that his work is best seen not through their political implications—“it is already is political,” as he says—but through its aesthetics, allowing these “to take over” rather than subjecting them to over-theorisation[3]. This is also where the life force of his work comes from: by presenting life in its multiplicity without judgment, it allows us to experience it in full and freely tune into its frequencies.

Moving to the Contemporary Gallery, we find the installation Mesmerizing Beauty (2023) with plastic garden chairs—a leitmotif in Murillo’s work bringing us back to the grounded, informal scenario—connected to wooden structures upholding a series of works on paper. A film in the back of the room shows a procession in New York from The Shed to the Rockefeller Center that the artist created organised in 2019 as a reflection on the Rockefeller family’s removal of an initially commissioned mural by Diego Rivera in 1933 upon the media labelling it “anti-capitalist propaganda.”[4] The room is delineated by three (new) large-scale painted curtains from the series Surge: Social Cataracts, creating an informal and almost transitory affair demarked by underlying tensions. 

This tension of latent energy reaches a crescendo if we follow the exhibition into the Serralves Chapel a five-minute walk away. Here, in the way of the (now defunct) altar, is a large-scale site-specific painting that is part of the Manifestations series: an imposing work that echoes the blues of the light of the upper altar in the top right and a darker red in the bottom left. Made with big, bold strokes in a frustrated zig-zag, the work holds eruptive friction—an overtaking that feels too large to fit well inside the chapel. For the artist, the Manifestations series represents a manifestation of the self, perhaps one that, alike its spatial position, does not quite fit into normative frames. 

Finally, the bright, small upstairs chamber of the chapel hosts small-scale paintings. Plastic chairs are set out, and the room is filled with brightness and peace—all the fierceness of Manifestations as if dispersed by the ever-enduring coming togetherness that the chairs symbolise. Through these waves of aesthetic-driven energies, Together in Our Spirits has an ability to make you feel full of life and possibility while upholding a constant reference of the latent force of power within ourselves.



Maria Kruglyak: I wanted to start by asking you about your practice more generally. Looking from the outside, it feels as if your artistic practice has changed a lot since your very public breakthrough [in 2009]: you’ve started to work on a much bigger scale, and your projects now include a lot more people. For example, over 100,000 students from all over the world have now participated in Frequencies. Do you feel that your practice has changed, or is it a continuation of the same investigation?

Oscar Murillo: You know, Frequencies started ten years ago, and has been a research project for the last decade. So, no, I wouldn’t say that [it has changed]—it’s just what the project demands. At that moment in 2013, I was already working with a huge group of people, with thousands of people. It just so happened that ten years ago it was not manifested publicly, as at the time it wasn’t something that needed public attention. It has obviously grown and it has done so in the public arena—so it has become more public.

The show here is manifested over different spaces and different gestures. I would say that most of these gestures—in fact, all of these gestures—come from the same place. And it's just that it has been a very, very intimate and very, very quiet endeavour that did not need the public attention. So, it has always been there; it is just that the experiment has matured and solidified. And now it’s time to begin sharing that research with the public.


MK: How would you describe the research behind Frequencies?

OM: To me, it was something very simple and I think it has stayed the same. What has happened, rather, is that my different enquiries and curiosities have come together. For example, how does that relate to some of the other things that I've done such as these papier-mâché figures [from an exhibition idea in 2014] in relation to cultural reality? That show looked at the conditions of labour and migration—which is what inspired these uniforms [Arepas y Tamales (2022)].

So, these uniforms are a coming together of that idea and of the characters drawn by the kids—such as trees, lips, flags, names of countries, buildings—extracted using technology and placed all together to develop these fabrics. And then from the fabrics I looked at the historical meaning of uniforms—the idea of a uniform as an identity and a representation of labour, for example. So the piece is partly born out of Frequencies. And then of course the paintings [Disrupted Frequencies] are as well—this idea of stitching these canvases [selected Frequencies] together as a kind of demonstration of bringing together (sewing together) countries or places that are socially or politically or geographically so disparate and distant. It becomes a kind of reconfigured fragment of, let's say, the world or something.

MK: It's like the world through a different kind of imagination.

OM: Yeah, exactly.

MK: You touched on the fact that the uniforms [in Arepas y Tamales] represent labour. Do you mean representing labour as an identity? For me, putting on a uniform also has a feeling of being able to enter an anonymous movement. 

OM: Yeah, you know, like a kind of working-class. It's a new representation.

MK: It's a powerful thing and also connects to your Manifestations series [a painting from which is exhibited in the Serralves Chapel]. I know you have previously spoken about manifestations as being connected to the world; do you then mean manifestations as the way that people express their political opinions? Are these works for you connected to the political?

OM: It doesn't have to be political. I think it’s the manifestation of the self. I don't think it has to be political. I think it already is political, but I don't think it has to be. You know, very often in my case I would say: look at my face—isn't that enough? Isn’t it enough that I am here, representing myself? What else do you want?

To me, with a painting such as Manifestations, I think it is vital that we stop the rhetoric and this kind of theoretical discourse, and allow the aesthetic energy to take you on a journey; for the aesthetic to take over; for that aesthetic to just be the thing. And that's it.

Frequencies, for example, is a work that has been receiving all this information, all this energy [from all over the world]—it all connects to diversity, to difference. It’s the idea of a radio frequency moving up and down. I’m from the equator, so I’m already asserting a kind of geographical-biographical position: the equator line. The equator line is not political, it's geographical. From the equator line you go North, you go South, you go East, you go West: you go everywhere because you can, because why not? So, that's my kind of attitude towards being an artist, towards work, towards life.

MK: Yes, I understand. So, going back to the process behind Frequencies: you are placing these raw canvases on students’ desks, where they need to stay for six months. What do you think happens to students when they sit at desks with canvases? Is it a way to allow or invite them to manifest themselves? Where does this idea behind Frequencies actually come from?

OM: You know, I see children first of all as young human beings. It's not about the state of being a child but about being a young human being in this world. What does it mean to be a young human being? What does it mean to have the capabilities and the access of a young human being? That reality of a young human being allows for an unpolluted way of being, and at the same time young human beings have the ability to get infused and to be infusing. They are always recording, recording, recording; these young human beings are like recording devices. And so, to me, they are like vessels that are downloading all this data, all this energy, in a very conscious way. And the canvases need to be there for six months because this time allows for the potential of the unconscious to also be present. The longer you leave them, the more of the unconscious, non-deliberate process can be manifested.

In a way, for me, Frequencies is about drawing and communication, but it is of course also about the future. You know, the youngest child that has been part of this project in this final year will be 20 in ten years. So, it has that kind of sense of the future, and it’s all diverse, multicoloured. There is multi-frequency and possibility. 

MK: What was the process of selecting the works for the four rooms of the show? How did it come together?

OM: This is what I mean with the title of the show, Together in Our Spirits. So, you know, Frequencies started moving before the show opened with children from the region—that was the first intervention and gesture. And then, when we started thinking about the show and the different rooms, it was important for me that it would not be like a museum show. If you look at the different rooms, they’re not museum spaces. Upstairs [in the Contemporary Gallery,] for example, it looks like a hall—there’s not even any proper lighting, you know? In a way, there’s no conditions for art—and I like that because I wanted to make a gesture towards this being almost a community centre where people get together. And then you sit down and watch this film—but you sit down in this very informal way. And the installation in the middle [Mesmerizing Beauty (2023)] is where the individual is at odds, where there is no rationality. And then these curtains [part of the series Surge: Social Cataracts] are connected to some writing that I did, to words, to this idea of the sea almost rushing through the space. I wanted them to set the stage. They’re not like a painting, they’re more like the context. So, in a way, they are like ghosts coming from the suggestion of water.

And then here [in the Serralves Chapel] is when it all changes and becomes more violent with the painting [from the Manifestations series]. It’s almost an aggression or a kind of standing up to (symbolically, because the church is deconsecrated)—a symbolic confrontation that is physical and visceral.

MK: Are you thinking of it as a confrontation with the church?

OM: I’m thinking more symbolically and historically with the church: the relationship of the church, its histories throughout the world and the canon—and the manifesting of myself in relation to that, whatever that means. The painting becomes this symbolic representation of that energy, and it’s up to you to say whatever that you have to say.

 So, the show ends with this kind of collectivity. Going back to the title of the show, Together in Our Spirits, it’s all about us being here, a group of people, receiving this message.

MK: And then to my final question: what would you want people to take away from this show?

OM: Whatever they want.

MK: Sounds good. Thank you very much for your time.

OM: Pleasure.



Oscar Murillo


Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves




Maria Kruglyak  is a researcher, critic and writer specializing in contemporary art and culture. She is editor-in-chief and founder of Culturala, a networked art and cultural theory magazine that experiments with a direct and accessible language for contemporary art. She holds an MA in Art History from SOAS, University of London, where she focused on contemporary art from East and South East Asia. She completed a curatorial and editorial internship at MAAT in 2022 and currently works as a freelance art writer.


Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.



Oscar Murillo, Together in Our Spirits. Vistas da exposição no Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves, Porto, 2023. Cortesia do artista e Fundação de Serralves.

[1] Anna Pigott // Oscar Murillo Studio, ”Oscar Murillo: Together in Our Spirits,” exhibition brochure (2023).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Quoted from the interview below.
[4] The Shed, “”Collision/Coalition: Jun 19—–Aug 25, 2019””: theshed.org/program/34-collision-coalition (accessed 29 January 2024).​​​​​​​

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