Harper's Bazaar speaks to Julian Opie on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai in 2012.
What interests you about working with digital media? Do you think this is where the future lies for art in terms of artist experimentation?
Over time, people have come up with many varied ways to make images - it seems to be an innately human activity (although they say elephants like to doodle in the dirt with a trunk held stick) but I don't see any way of making art intrinsically more or less interesting - wall paintings, mosaics, stone carving, LED digital signage boards, oil paintings or just arranging things. They all have their qualities and moods, references and uses. Leave me on a beach long enough and I'll be making sand sculptures. It's a huge challenge to use electronics to make art and the rules change every few months but making art in parallel with what I see in the world has always made sense to me. It would be terrible to leave such brilliant graphic tools to signage and advertising. There is a poetry where nature and people meet technology. The scrolling of LED numbers on a currency exchange board can be like sunlight sparkling on water. The first LED I fell in love with was a tiny galloping horse on a Korean taxi meter. Seeing TV monitors playing simple screen savers on Tottenham Court Road in the 1980's inspired me to use this technology to give space and movement to my sculptures. Artists will probably continue to work with the best media at hand, that may be digital for some artists but others will turn away from that. There are a lot of artists and lots of ways to make art.
Why are most of your subjects urbanised people - what is it that interests you about 'city dwellers'?
I'm not sure that that is true. Anyway, most people you see are in cities. I live and work in a city so when I go out looking for material it's usually urban. I have recently started a project where I photograph strangers on the street - people who are busy and walking - this has a very different flavour to posed models whom I control. They talk on phones, listen to i-pods, sip coffee, stride purposefully and carry all sorts of bags. I have done this in various parts of various cities and the differences in people's attire and attitude is telling. This would be very tough to undertake in a quiet village but I'm not sure the people would look so very different.
Are there any big projects and other exhibitions you have coming up aside from the show at Lisson Gallery?
I am usually working on a range of ideas. Ongoing projects like painted portraits, films of people walking and new avenues of investigation like 3D scanned statues and mosaics. When an offer of a show or a request for a project idea comes up I look at what I'm working on and use that as a starting point. Thus the project or exhibition becomes a vehicle to carry, promote and incubate new works. I have always worked like this, making exhibitions part of the work process. What would I do if no one asked for anything? I think I'd find that hard. It's never happened so far. I keep myself busy with what's on offer. I like working and I like to make a lot of work - it's satisfying and engaging and makes sense of life and the world. I need to make a lot of things in order to really understand what the art work is about and how to move on. This gives me plenty of material to make shows, feed art fairs and make project proposals. I'm working on a lot of possible public sculptures that may or may not eventually get built. I just finished a large LED tower statue in Calgary Canada that depicts people endlessly walking around a giant column. I'm working on shows in Mumbai, Vienna, Knokke, Oslo, Seoul and Boston but at the moment all my focus is on the upcoming show in London.
Do you have any plans to visit India and work on any projects here?
Yes! My next show is with Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai. A large and elegant commercial gallery in the centre of town. This will be my second show there and I'm very much looking forward to being back there as India is one of my and my families favourite places. I arranged to photograph a lot of people walking on the streets of Mumbai and am planning to draw some of them in time for the show. They would be life sized vinyl paintings (coloured plastic adhesive sheets) that have their roots in ancient Egyptian frieze figures, old master full length portraits, as well as traffic signals and urban signage. There will be many other works too, all of people, some moving others not.
You have worked on a wide variety of projects, from album covers to animated public sculptures; what would you like your next project or challenge to be - is there a subject, place, or medium you would especially love to work with?
As I already explained, I work with my current obsessions - finding homes for them amongst the requests I receive. I don't solicit projects or shows - I politely wait to be asked. In the end the aim is to try to make something really good. It could be made of anything and about anything really and all audiences are equally important in my mind.
Your new exhibition at Lisson Gallery is a celebration of your oeuvre to this point. Can we expect to see anything radically different? What do you consider the major developments in the work you will be exhibiting?
Every exhibition is something of a summing up and something of a plunge into new territory. I always make new work for shows, pushing things along - and I'm nearly always pushing the deadlines to the limit. Hardly any of the projects for the Lisson are actually finished so I can't stop to write interviews for long. There will be some completely new projects on show at the Lisson. I hate describing works with words but there will be a galloping horse statue, a cinema scale walk in a French landscape with a specially commissioned soundtrack, the paintings of walking strangers that I mentioned will parade around much of the space and there are some stone mosaic portraits, glass classical nude statues and some laser scanned 3D sculpted painted head portraits. I don't suppose that is very easy to imagine, better that you come and see the show or at least check the photos I will put on my web site.
Can you tell me about what some of the defining moments in you career - any particularly interesting subjects and projects you have worked on?
I'm in a fairly constant state of rushed impatience to see the next work completed. I employ eight people and thirteen galleries to help me get things done and put works out into the world and it's still frustratingly slow. Each new idea fills my thoughts and affects the way I see the world and the redefines the things that interest me. Meeting and drawing a new model, battling my way through the challenges of a new technology, putting together a complex and challenging exhibition are all part of that process. Sometimes the projects you barely notice can become much bigger than you ever expected (a CD cover for a band) and shows you have dreamt of being asked to do can simply come and go. For me, the most exciting exhibition I ever undertook was an amazing opportunity to make a one person show in 1992 at the Hayward Gallery in London. I received very mixed reactions but It was a huge step for me and brought all the work I had made into focus. I feel I have been bouncing on from then ever since, extending and clarifying what I proposed.
Do you think it is imperative to push the boundaries of 'traditional' artistic practice to be valued as an artist today?
I'm not sure I have ever been very aware of traditional artistic practice. There is just what other people have done and the "natural" world around me. I devour other art from all sorts of places and times. I gaze at it, look at images of it and, when I can, I buy it and look at it even more. The art that other people have made is as enjoyable and important to me as nature itself and is a way of understanding and engaging in the world. I have always wanted to make my own art too, to respond to the art that others have made, to outdo them and talk back to them, to possess them. If one is looking out at the world then it only makes sense to use it's languages. It's never going to work for me to take anything for granted. A visiting alien would be as interested in coal as in diamonds and in CD covers as much as oil paintings.