Texts by Julian Opie to accompany his solo exhibition at Alan Cristea Gallery, London in 2018
I sent two of my assistants out to the park to film people walking and, on reviewing the films, I found that many joggers had run past the camera. Running is a more regular, rhythmic movement than walking and I found them easier to draw.
Humans are built for running. I have read they can outrun a wolf or a horse over long distances. By drawing one stride with around 30 frames I can set a drawing in motion to run smoothly forever as an animation and, by grouping a few joggers together in a painting, I can create a dynamic complex composition with implied movement. A second later and the runners would have moved on and the composition, so carefully planned, would be changed and lost.
I was thinking of the striding athletes circling ancient Greek vases and of stone carved Roman friezes of battling warriors. The random positions of striding legs and pumping arms slice up the space while hair and phone cables and shoelaces flick and bounce. Sporting clothes and equipment could be the modern equivalent of the armour of the past.
Walking in Melbourne
As part of the plans for a show in Australia I asked a local photographer to set up his camera in various places around Melbourne and record the passers by. He sent hundreds of photographs and I set about drawing the best ones without a very clear idea as to how they might be used.
Some 60 drawings later I have a palette of characters and have been using them in a range of paintings and statues. Each one throws up surprises and opportunities that I could not invent - a tattoo or a tasseled dress, a goatee or the logo on a T-shirt. I have one group from the middle of the city and one from the beach. By making groups of six walkers I get a street crowd and a list and a kind of fashion parade.
The photographed moment was random and fleeting but by cutting the drawing from thick, black card - by carving it permanently - it slows down and solidifies. Random decisions such as wearing a striped top or swinging a bag or water bottle become solid decisions and material that you could run your finger over.
Making art is a fairly odd decision but people have been doing it since forever. If doodling while on the phone I’m inclined to draw a 3D cube and then another. It’s the fastest way to create imaginary space, another world. I live in London and move through a labyrinth of extruded rectangles like an ant on a computer board. I understand space and see movement by the changing views on these shapes. By simply adding flat squares to the sides of my extruded rectangles I create modern buildings. These basic building blocks of modern towns are universal and are engraved on our retinas and minds, recognisable without thought or interpretation. By colouring the windows and suggesting glassy reflections the surfaces of the blocks become pictorial and seem to shimmer a bit. My aim is to make a series of flat drawings into a real space that is also illusory.
I do photograph real buildings but in the end for these works I just juggled different shaped rectangles to get the feel of a building.
While sorting out the colours of the windows for the 3D towers I got an assistant to masking tape some painted squares onto the wall. Although she only painted a few windows the result looked oddly realistic, like glass and like the surface of a building but also like modern abstract art. I set about making a small painting of the windows of each building.
Cornwall is beautiful. You see the sky and the sea and the green fields. Theses colours surround you and fill your eyes, creating an environment, a space to be in echoes the colours and shapes on your retina. Anything and anywhere is visible but beauty means that you can hold it in your eyes, make a picture of it, that it’s picturesque.
I think we use picturing all the time in order to navigate and interact and it’s how I know I am present. By putting that picture back out into the world on the cave wall or website or gallery, I can extend, record and play with the pictures I see. By looking at that picture there is a doubling up of the process, a view of a view.
Being under 2 meters tall humans are in a poor position to understand their surroundings. The world that is so clear and understandable from an airplane is simply a series of narrow coloured stripes from the ground. In Cornwall the stripes are dark rich greens and aqua greys. As my holidays pass the colours range, and as we walk along the cliffs the stripes twist and slide. I have been drawing these stripes all my life in various materials and scales and levels of detail. My aim is always realism but not in the sense of photographic detail, more the realism of a glance or a memory or the feeling of being immersed all day in a view. Then I come back to London and draw all this in computer sharp lines with inkjet printers on plastics and glass.
In order to be able to draw subtle movements of the face I had to find a new way of drawing. I looked at Japanese manga and old master paintings to understand how shadows could be used to draw instead of lines. I used a 19th Century invention of grooved lenses that gives the illusion of movement as you pass by a picture. Like the classic haunted house portraits whose eyes follow you, I can make my sitters respond to the viewer. It’s a simple trick that fools no one, but nonetheless breaks the rules of reality. Magic is an important part of art and allows the picture to break away from normality and become communication, language, alive.
I used two of my daughters and a commissioned sitter for this project and feel the interaction with a young person is easier to deal with.
I like it when things are objects but also pictures and also language. Carved stone hieroglyphs have these three qualities and company logos made of stone and steel and plastic on the lawns outside factories also have them. I sit on the underground and imagine an international corporation logo for each person opposite me. An individual portrait that’s also a universal sign. This is the desktop version.
Early Greek and Egyptian statues were often built as striding figures. The implied movement gives a dynamic and grace to the figure, a sense of purpose, independence and power. A standing posed figure seems to be responding to you the viewer but a walking figure is oblivious and therefore you can look at them without confrontation. Scale is a strange thing, we read scale in relation to ourselves, elephants are big and ants are small but it can easily become inverted, solar systems can look like ping pong balls and the insides of computers like Asian cities. We have the ability to project and see from outside ourselves. By making a statue small (and I have made some of these figures over 7 meters tall) it can also make you feel small and therefore the object giant. I think toys often work in this way.
Egyptians used to put models of workers in their tombs to help in the afterlife. Bakers and brewers and sailors were represented by small painted wooden figures realistic enough to create an imaginary world. People tend to assume that painting by hand is normal for an artist but I use it as just another technique that is good for some purposes and has a certain mood and feel and set of references. I don’t actually paint them myself.
On my walk to work I pass through a small park and there are always a bunch of rowdy, jet black crows hanging around. I know they see me but they are aloof and seldom fly off. I spent a morning filming them and identified a number of specific movements. The movement seems to be as crow-like as the drawing itself. I don’t invent or imagine things, just notice and record them. It’s the choices about scale, style, language, materials and reference that are my tools. I choose normal things because I must know them intimately and feel they are common currency so they can be turned into symbols, I don’t draw parrots or flamingoes, I like the boring as it’s only when you are bored that you can see.
Certain places are full of language and ways of making words from materials. Airports and shopping malls offer a huge pallet of techniques in glass and plastic and electronic screens. The mood is hard and slick and vulgar but seductive. A completely different but equally useful mood and set of materials is found in graveyards and memorials. No one would make a gravestone from acrylic and LEDs. Materials create mood and suggest meaning. When I see something I see the bounced light but also read the history, recognise the value and weight, the density and age and reference. Engraved stone and inlaid bronze have a heavy, slow melancholic mood. I work near Bunhill Fields an ancient London graveyard (Bone Hill) that is a lovely calm place - I have photographed and drawn the office workers that take the short cut past the 18th Century tombs of their London predecessors. Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan are buried there and the massed stone tombs and gravestones seem to suggest another crowded London.
My grandfather had a walnut and leather desk in his office and certain heavy expensive items sat on this at my eye level. Bakelite lamps and stone pen holders, leather-bound books and glass bottles of ink. We live in a mental construct like a computer game; we navigate through what we see and sense making thousands of computations and judgments to stay safe and function. I draw the people waiting to cross a busy road checking their phones and shifting their balance and bags and turn them into models, stand-ins that can be placed and played with. A person casts a shadow that is a flat drawing of themselves that can be seen, copied and rebuilt. A photograph is a cast light shadow and so is a drawing but it includes the artist, the drawer as part of that process. Anyway there on the surface of the desk the statuettes can stand and turn the surface into their surface, the desk becomes a pavement.
Seoul to Busan
Looking directly at something is not always the best way to see it. Look straight at a dim star and it disappears. If you look down the centre of your train carriage and become aware of the landscape outside the windows you can see it better, not the details but the shape and colour, the way the hills roll and the fields shift shape as you pass. You can move an object in your hands to understand it’s shape but you must pass through a landscape to see it properly. My father used to say that speed is the only new experience (he did not ski or ride a horse) and as I travelled by train from Seoul to Busan in South Korea I felt that I could draw the speed, the passing time, the rice fields, mountains, rivers and cables with a series of sliding lateral images that lacked detail but gave the sense of movement. I used a flag making company in the UK to print soft, glimpsed images that could waive or be pushed past like drapes or banners.