When visiting any of the numerous galleries in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, one typically knows what to expect: a quiet, sterile space with high-priced artworks on the wall, a few lone sculptures scattered throughout, and the occasional not-so-subtle look of judgment from the “gallery girl” seated at the front.
But, beginning Thursday, visitors to David Zwirner’s 19th Street outpost will have a completely different experience—one that’s visually intriguing, sweetly aromatic, and gluttonously tempting. The entire gallery space has been converted into a fully functional chocolate factory—with candy free for the taking—by 28-year-old Colombian artist Oscar Murillo, who Zwirner began representing late last year.
The artist has imported 13 factory workers, all friends and family members from Colombia, along with a massive steel assembly-line machine, for an installation/performance piece titled A Mercantile Novel.
Murillo, who emigrated from Colombia at the age of 10 and moved with his family to London, graduated from London’s Royal College of Art in 2012 and has rapidly risen through the ranks of the art world’s contemporary elite. Shortly after his final year, his paintings began selling for roughly $2,500-$8,500 each—a sizable price for any freshly educated artist. Now, his abstract works command as much as $400,000 at auction, and he has swiftly gained the title of “the 21st-century Basquiat.”
However, none of his paintings are on display in this new exhibit. Instead, hundreds of chocolate covered marshmallows are produced, packaged, and presented throughout the day using the candy factory Colombina—located in his hometown of La Paila and where four generations of his family have worked—as a model.
Stacked boxes filled with supplies divide the gallery space. Wooden crates overflowing with packaged chocolates sit center stage in front of a wall that hosts a projected film and a poster image of his mother working at the factory in La Paila. The candy-making machine lies beyond a set of blue, vinyl divider panels that hang stiffly behind a sign that reads “Notice: Authorized Personnel Only” and constantly exudes the sweet smell of cocoa that overpowers the room.
Serving as a comment on immigration, the exhibition attempts to “bring together conversation about [the artist's] experiences…growing up,” as Murillo explained on Wednesday, as well as the relationships individuals hold within their communities, using trade and globalization as a binding factor.
Emphasizing the relationship between individuals and their communities, Murillo will be taking the group of workers, who have never visited New York City, on trips to various parts of the city, aiming to cover every neighborhood, 50 blocks at a time. Each excursion, capturing experiences and reactions on film, will be projected on the wall in the gallery space.
"The contents of the factory are secondary," Murillo told Details magazine. "What I'm really interested in is the journey, with social mobility being at the heart of the thing. The workers from La Paila have never been to New York before—I want to see how they respond socially. Then there's the semi-interaction with the art audience. That's a friction I'm also interested in. To me, this is the most profound reflection of what my life has been."
Those who visit the exhibition are invited to share the candy they take with others throughout the five boroughs and beyond as well as discuss their interactions on the exhibition’s Web site and Instagram account.
With the “art” leaving the confines of the gallery by way of its visitors, the exhibitions becomes less about what goes on inside David Zwirner’s walls and more about the social interactions that occur on the outside, linking workers, visitors, and complete strangers through economic practices while democratizing art in the process.
This isn’t David Zwirner’s first time transforming the entire gallery space. And it probably won’t be its last. In fact, the gallery has gained quite the reputation after last year’s installation of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms. The two separate rooms—completely mirrored from top to bottom—reflected hundreds of pulsating LED lights creating a “seemingly endless space…allowing a moment of contemplation and meditation.”
The winter exhibition drew in throngs of visitors, the majority of whom spent upwards of three hours waiting to even step foot inside that gallery’s walls. Similar conditions could be experienced with A Mercantile Novel as visitors are only allowed past the vinyl blue panels that divide the “gallery” from the “factory” while the workers are on break.
‘Oscar Murillo: A Mercantile Novel’ is on display at David Zwirner Gallery, 519 West 19th Street, in New York until June 14, 2014.