"It's Another Dimension": Julian Opie on Animating Roman Mosaics for His Lisson Gallery Show

"It's Another Dimension": Julian Opie on Animating Roman Mosaics for His Lisson Gallery Show
Monday, July 23, 2012

Over the last thirty years, Julian Opie has developed a striking visual language, reducing his subjects to a few, highly evocative shapes. In Opie's hands, figures become almost logo-like, at once corporate-looking and human. In an exhibition of new works London's Lisson Gallery, the artist has looked back to the dawn of art history - Egyptian friezes and Roman imagery - producing for the first time a series of mosaics and 3D-printed busts. Opie's work bridges periods, genres, and techniques. The show includes six nature-based animations, and two films, "Summer" and "Winter," that reinvent the traditional landscape with digital technology. Opie talked to ARTINFO UK about two- and three-dimensionality, Google Maps, and LCD screens.

You are presenting a series of mosaics. How did you arrive at this technique?

I'm always looking for ways to make images. Artists have used oil paint on canvas for quite a while, but that's just one amongst many options for making an image - and it's a relatively recent option. It's also nice to refer to other areas in the world. Oil paint refers to museums and art, which is great but limited, and therefore I often use other systems. I've been using LED signs -  which you see in advertising, road signage, and football stadiums -  and computer-cut vinyl. I also use flocking sometimes. You can draw anything with flocking, it's quite a nice way to make an image.

Recently, I've been looking at a lot of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian ways of making things. There's a wonderful staircase at the back of the British Museum that's got a lot of Roman mosaics, and I went to the Vatican and looked at the mosaics they've got there. I eventually found an Italian mosaicist called Constantino, who is great, and can whack out a mosaic very quickly in a very traditional manner. I'm also looking at making some work in North American Indian beads, [but] I haven't actually managed to figure out how to do that just yet. There's always a lot of things floating around. I've got people asking other people how it might be done. This fell together, the mosaic thing.

But having found a way of doing something, you've also got to find the perfect image to go with it. If you can't marry those two things, it doesn't work. It's only recently that the way that I've been drawing people and their faces seemed to offer enough activity in the image for mosaics to make sense. Mosaics aren't great for huge areas of dead flat colour. [The new portraits are a] mixture of modern portraits, which are based on my own drawings, and perhaps Japanese manga and ancient Roman mosaics.

You've often used your signature flat line in sculptures. How do you envisage the relationship between the two and the three-dimensional?

I went to a college, Goldsmiths, that didn't make any distinction between painting and sculpture. That made a lot of sense to me, it's partly why I went there, really. I've never really felt that a flat image was entirely not a sculpture - everything's got to be at least a few molecules thick. A painting is an object. You can try to deny it, and that's fine, but of course it's a couple of inches thick, and it's got wood behind it, and pigments and so on. So everything is an object and has the qualities of an object. But, having said that, there is two-dimensional imagery which suggests three-dimensionality, and then there are actual three-dimensional objects. I've always tended to move around, making a play between the two. Even in the beginning, I tended to draw in a very dramatically two-dimensional way, but drawing on three dimensional objects, so there's a confusion in your brain as to what is flat and what is not flat. I find it a very useful method of making things lively ­­- and also a bit distant.

You are presenting two films, "Winter," and "Summer." Could you tell me about the starting point for these?

When we were on holiday in France, we went out with my son and decided on a circular walk. Every twenty paces - he counted the paces, he's six-years-old - I took photographs. Twenty minutes later, we were back in the same spot having taken some hundreds of photographs. Then I went about drawing as many of these photographs as was necessary to keep a sense of movement going, which turned out to be about 75. The idea was a little bit taken from Google Maps. Do you ever do that thing when you go down onto the ground and move around? There's that sense that you can move through space, but only in quite a crude, jumping way. Because of the twenty steps, this is like a single place, but you move through it - and because it's a circular walk, you move through it endlessly. I did the whole project once in the summer, and I did it all again on a misty day in the winter, which has a very different kind of quality to it.

How do you keep up with technology? Do you feel that you are times at the cutting edge, and at other times wilfully embracing something a bit older for a different kind of effect?

What I'm really interested in is the way the world looks. As stuff becomes normal, it then becomes interesting and useable. I'm not particularly interested in the latest 3D TVs, this could perhaps be useful one day but it doesn't strike me as having much resonance to it. It's not just about something being technologically stunning. I like the fact that LEDs look like road signals, and that you are used to seeing them as scroll-outs telling you the currency exchange rates in airports. It's the same with the LCD screens, with everybody staring at their phones, computers, and TVs. It is the look and the language that we are used to, and therefore it has a resonance, a character, and a quality and that makes it useable and exciting to me. Of course, I also like to make things move, because I think an image without movement is a bit like an image without colour - which is fine, black and white images are great - but it's tempting also to see what you can do with colour, and likewise with movement. It's another dimension in a sense. It is an incredible headache to try and figure out technology, and it moves so fast that by the time we figure the whole thing out, quite often we find that that technology has been discontinued.

In the art world, people expect an artwork to last forever, and not fade. They have just about got used to the idea of a photograph, but beyond that it's quite difficult to explain how these things can exist into the future. When you make a mosaic it'll last thousands of years, but when you make an LCD screen, it won't. One has to see it as a process in a way, like a car or a washing machine, and you'll get another washing machine at another point when you need one. But maybe that gives it a certain edgy excitement too: it's not going to be there forever, but the artwork perhaps will in some form or other.