Signs. 2006

Julian Opie describes the origins of a series of sculptural works presented around the city of Indianapolis in 2006 as part of a major public art project.

In 2000 I was commissioned to make a work for a Munich based insurance company. I used a local company to produce two large glass wall panels back painted with portraits of a male and a female employee of the firm. The glass panels mimicked the corporate look of the offices. A number of wall mounted, glass paintings followed but these three statues were the first freestanding works. The paint is sandwiched between two sheets of glass, visible from both sides, creating a two dimensional sculpture. The backgrounds are left as clear glass allowing the figure to float free above the plinth.

Kiera has appeared in a number of projects. Originally she was the nanny of my elder daughter and was later employed as a studio assistant. She is now an artist working and exhibiting in London. She usually dresses in a grungy studenty way but turned out to be a great model.

Bijou is a professional fashion model, the first that I ever used. She also appears in a number of works in many different poses. This is the first frame from a film titled "Bijou gets undressed."

Monique, an art collector and businesswoman living outside Zurich, commissioned me to make portraits of her entire family in 1999. In 2003 she asked for another portrait of herself and I used the occasion to undertake an entire project based on her and her wardrobe. It became a kind of "mega portrait" looking at her from all angles in many different media.

The sighting of these works in a niche in front of a grand corporate building attempts to combine references to classical statuary and shop window display.

Having served as a design advisor during the building of The Baltic art museum in Newcastle, I was asked to create a system of signs that would alert people to the opening of the museum in 2001. Five versions of thirteen different animal signs were proposed and museums around the U.K. were free to choose a group to be installed outside their building. Three to thirteen animals can be installed together in any configuration depending on the location and the viewing angles. The physical objects and the colours are taken from actual road signs but the animals themselves are traced from small wooden toys.

When driving on the motorway I am often admire the huge signs on poles that stand beside the road in the countryside. Although they are there to give information they seem to also act as giant paintings. For a 1996 commission for Volkswagen in Wolfsburg I created a row of eight giant motorway signs along the canal opposite the car factory. Each sign depicted an animal, a person, a building or a car. Official road sign coding colours were used and the drawings mimicked the diagrammatic depictions found on actual road signs but retained some elements of other sources.

The animals depicted on these signs are from the countryside, if perhaps an imagined one. They have escaped into the city or are on their way back out, they seem to stay together for safety. The piece was originally conceived for a traffic island where the multiple poles might remind one of trees. There were no available traffic islands in Indianapolis so we settled on a busy street corner.

In 1996 I bought a set of toy animals in Vienna for my daughter whilst installing an exhibition. The shop specialised in wooden toys made in the Black Forest region of Southern Germany. Once home, some of the animals were removed to the studio, scanned and redrawn. At first they were painted on the sides of wooden boxes that could be moved around to create sculptural installations. When asked to make a lakeside project for the opening of the Kusthause Bregenz in Austria, I used a local wood company to create this life-sized, ( at least for some of the animals ) version.

The animals are solid wood like the originals, with a thin layer of paint, which reveals the wood grain. With a few pieces of painted, shaped wood, children are able to animate an area and enter into a different world. In a sense it doesn't matter too much what the elements represent. I have shown these sculptures in many countries, different arrangements tell different stories. In Bregenz the animals were arranged in a loose line following the direction of the lakeshore. In New York they grazed randomly beneath the trees. In Indianapolis they mount the ridge of a hill against the sky.

Even when there is no actual movement, the eye can read movement into a series of still drawings as it scans across them from left to right. This is how cartoon strips often work. While working on an animated film of a figure walking I noticed that placing the drawings in a row had this effect. For a large-scale commission in Manchester, England, I broke three walking films down into single frames.

The resulting string of drawings animated the glass facade of a department store and a number of interior walls. I went further for a poster campaign in the Tokyo subway and had two or more figures walking in both directions in the same strip. The IMA's glass facade is made up of four rows of forty-five vertical pains of glass, almost acting as blank reels of cine film. It was a simple matter to place every other frame of four walking films on every other window to create an image of movement and because the facade is curved, of circulation.

I have used dancing as well but walking has proved the most useful and natural human movement for me. A person walking is as likely as one standing still, in fact when it is people we don't know, it is more likely. My experience of strangers is that they are most often seen walking. By drawing a lot of walking people I have realized how different and telling each persons gait is. I walk in an ape like fashion, arms hanging forward. Some men and most women keep their backs straighter and their arms sway behind them as well as in front. Men take varying but longer strides, some people glide while others bounce or sway. I can keep detail to a minimum while gaining a sense of character by drawing these particularities.

I have used vinyl again on this project. Vinyl is poured plastic and therefore similar to paint but instead of being brushed into shape it is cut from a roll by a computer guided knife. It gives me a flat characterless surface that is quick to read and is similar to the look of the computer drawings. I first noticed vinyl in America and it has become the common look of public imagery and signage in most places that I go. I like to use standard, predictable materials and then insert my own language and thoughts.

Bruce is a professional dancer with the Ballet Rambert in London. His partner commissioned me to draw his portrait and in the process I used him as a model for this film. Suzanne is a fashion designer and writer but she also collects art. She was buying one of my prints when my gallerist noticed her walk and suggested that I might like to draw her. I have made five films of her walking so far. In both cases the model was asked to walk on a walking machine in various outfits and at various speeds.

The resulting video footage was downloaded onto the computer where the necessary section can be edited and stored as single frames. At twenty-four frames per second a double stride is described by around forty frames. Each frame is drawn over and these drawings are laid on top of each other and "smoothed out". A friend then animates the frames and after further smoothing to eradicate any jumps, the film is translated into a format that can be played by the LED (light emitting diode) panels. I link the first frame with the last creating a loop that allows the figure to walk continuously, (easier said than done).

The figures are drawn in a diagrammatic fashion based on public signage systems. They employ a minimum of detail omitting neck and feet, whilst retaining, through stance, clothes and movement, particularities that reveal the identity and presence of the model. One of the inspirations for these works was the small LED horse to be found on taxi meters in Korea. These are simply animated to appear to gallop whilst the meter is running. Such a small, pathetic animation seemed to have such drama and I liked the way that motion became almost still. The first three resulting, double sided, walking LED monoliths were placed on marble plinths in the lobby of a Tokyo office building in 2002. The plinths emphasize the statues like quality of the figures.

During the process of making this exhibition some projects have had to be dropped and new ones inserted. Making outdoor installations requires pragmatism and quick changes. A plan to make some scrolling landscapes proved too complicated and I started to look for another solution for the sight. Monument circle seems to be the heart of town. The huge war memorial with its' many carved figures is flanked by busy modern office buildings. It is a tourist attraction and is usually quite crowded. People often gather outside office buildings, usually to smoke, so when I made a mock up of my figures standing in front of the building they seemed to sit quite naturally while also perhaps reflecting the figures on the monument. I have used a common form of street signage to hold the images of the men who are drawn in a sign like manner. Over the last few years I have built up an archive of images of people. I picked only men to give the group an identity and perhaps a slightly intimidating air. Men tend to stand quite straight and evenly balanced, facing the camera directly. The men are composed as if they were elements in a painting, using colour, spacing and gesture.

When I received an e-mail from Bryan Adams I assumed it was a joke but when I phoned the given number he picked up and said: " How great is the internet ? ". He wanted a portrait of himself for the next album and we set a date for a photo-shoot. He lives in West London in a large studio by the River. Bryan took a break from practicing with his band and we retired to the large sky-lit kitchen, to work. I had been drawing pictures of women in various poses and was keen to find an equivalent way of drawing men. I asked Bryan to hold his guitar and he played some riffs from the latest album but without plugging in the guitar. I photographed every pose without knowing quite what I would do with them. I first used the images for a series of paintings, which emitted sound.

Bryan agreed to swap the portrait for a short piece of music, which plays from speakers attached to the rear of the canvas. I have considered men playing tennis or basket ball, even fencing but somehow playing the guitar is the only male pose that works. Recently I drew the poster for a music festival in Switzerland and used the rock group Deep Purple. In this case the singer with his microphone also seemed to work. Here in Indianapolis, Bryan Adams seemed to hit the right mood, jeans and a t-shirt and a low-slung guitar. I have long tried to bring the paintings I have been making off the wall and out into three dimensions. The glass statues and the LED moving monoliths are other solutions, but I wanted to use the look of business signs. Modern towns are full of these, often large and illuminated, objects but they are somewhat invisible now. They have an equivalence to historical statuary, relating to architecture and having a symbolic role.

In 2002 I took my wife and nine year old daughter on holiday to Bali. I had work to do in Tokyo, so we stopped off there first. I bought an underwater camera in the airport as I had a plan to draw my family swimming underwater. I had been invited to make a museum installation in a long corridor of the national museum in Tokyo and wanted to use the Bali holiday as a way of knitting together a series of images. I was drawing portraits and a lot of landscapes at that time and was interested in finding a way of showing them together. Inspired by Rosenquist's F1-11 painting, I envisioned wallpapering images of faces from Bali interspersed with landscapes, sea scapes and underwater scenes. I hoped the mood, colours and subject matter would fall together and make sense of the diverse images. Once in Bali I asked the people working in the hotel and those selling various services on the beach if I could take their photo. I wandered around the local hills and villages looking at the landscapes and photographed the monkeys at a local temple. I asked my wife and daughter to swim past me as I sat on the bottom of the hotel pool taking photos. There was a coral reef near the hotel and we took local wooden boats out there to snorkel. We were surrounded by colourful fish and I photographed them too. Without flash the images of the fast moving fish were not great and I later resorted to a London aquarium to get better ones.

To further knit the work together I recorded the sounds of the waves on the stone beach, the musicians playing their wooden xylophones and the early morning bird song. These sounds were played from concealed speakers along the corridor in the Tokyo museum. The fish drawings surprised me. I would not have planned to draw fish, it came up almost by accident but they proved to be very useful. They act as a kind of automatic compositional tool. It takes a long time to place them correctly so that they seem natural and make a dynamic picture but in theory they can be placed anywhere on the canvas almost as if they were abstract marks. I have made some works with fish only and others of fish in combination with swimming figures. The bodies give the scene a focus and a reference to classical painting. The American habit of joining buildings together with glass bridges gave me an opportunity to further use this project. The bridge creates a screen across the road and the double image of my wife swimming creates an animated connection between the two buildings. In Tokyo I had used wallpaper which is a lovely surface but very difficult to get just right. The fish and the figures are black and white so another option was to simply use sticky backed plastic (vinyl). The stick-on quality emphasises the possible movement of the elements.

I have always been drawn to statues. They are a subset of sculpture and play a particular role. They are often placed on plinths, have a relationship to architecture or are even part of a building. You find them in city squares depicting heroes or in parks, gardens and palaces showing gods and goddesses in various poses. In a sense they are stand-ins for people and as such are often used as memorials. Indianapolis is a city of memorial statues and I wanted to connect to this but in a contemporary way. I have placed Sara on a high brick plinth modelled after a garage forecourt sign seen on the outskirts of town. Since I started showing art in the early 80's I have played around with the relationship of something drawn and something sculpted. I often draw on sculptures, or rather turn the material that I draw on ( the sheet of blank paper ) into a sculpture of the same thing that I am drawing. Over the years I have found that the relationship between the two can be loose. Watching children play I see that a whole city or farm can be imagined using simple wooden blocks as long as each block carries a simple sign for the thing that it is. This is the first time I have made a four sided LED statue. Each side is a flat drawing and she is always seen from the front. I hope that the eye and brain put the information together to make a whole person.

The five buildings were drawn in London and New York but the window configurations and building shapes are mixed and matched. The scale brings the buildings above eye level and whilst keeping the sculpture as small as possible aims to create the sense of being in a city. The question mark in the title undermines the emphatic quality of the noun and the object. It also adds an element of anxiety.

"City?" was built by a commercial sign maker in London. The body of the work is made of aluminium, which is electro-statically powder-coated white. The windows are cut from sheets of black vinyl by a computer-guided knife. The unwanted vinyl is "weeded" by hand and using water and soap each side of the building's windows are floated on as a single sheet and manoeuvered into place.

I first made sculptures of schematic office buildings drawn on boxes in 1996. They were made of wood and were intended to be individual works although they were often used in installations with other wooden sculptures of cars, trees and animals. A similar out-door work, "My brother's office." was commissioned for the Dutch town of Assen in 1997 but City? Is the largest and most complicated of the office buildings series to date.

I have drawn a lot of portraits. The format has been passport style close-up. I wanted the bare essence of a face, a presence. However I am always looking for ways to expand on the logic of the works I have made in order to make new works. I take a lot from looking at other peoples art, including, perhaps particularly, older art. In fact I often want my works, in some ways, to look like older art. I wanted to try half-length portraits and multiple portraits as so often seen in museums. I think I have managed the half-length portraits, mainly by getting the models to pose with something, a staff or a book but the multiple portraits have been more difficult. The eye can flick annoyingly back and forth between the different people and the question of the relationship between the people seems to hang unanswered.

The only time I got it to work was when drawing monkeys; in fact a single monkey did not work. I was not sure why but felt that maybe one reason was because the relationship between them was obvious and they looked the same (to me). I very much like the woodblock prints of Kitagawa Utamaro made in the late 18th Century. He is most famous for his portraits of women or "beauties". You may have a mug or calendar with one of them on it, I do. He manages to portray groups of women. At first glance they seem to be the same woman repeated but they are not. The same is true of a lot of early Renaissance paintings by artists such as Giotto. All the haloed figures can seem to be the same person, often drawn from the same angle. This might seem a limitation or lack of imagination or skill but it offers great possibilities in terms of making a picture.

I set about trying to use this logic by asking a family that I have known for a long time to pose together for me. I have seen the girls grow up and they seem very much a unit. They don't all look the same but have a lot of shared characteristics and colouring. It was awkward to do the group session in the middle of a family weekend. There was much giggling but once I was safely behind the camera they worked hard at it. They were joined by their mother for some shots. It's not just the similarities of the four that bond the image but also the body language between them. I have drawn other groupings of these four women but this format, which echoes film posters and the wide screen, seemed to ask to be very big. Since the painting is of a group it avoids the problematic question that arises when presenting the single portraits out of context, which is; who on Earth is this person?

Armed with a solution I have made my first large outdoor portrait work. Being outdoors it begs a form that fits into the urban surroundings. Usually I use a canvas on stretcher (albeit computer cut plastic), which reminds you of a museum painting and I show these in a museum-like context. For "Esther, Lottie, Hannah and Ginny." I have used an aluminium light box. It is closer to the way in which advertisements are presented. One could imagine an entire exhibition of paintings around a town using the walls of the city as the equivalent of the walls of a gallery. It might be easier to drive.

September 1, 2006