Julian Opie interviewed by ELLE DECO on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Fosun Foundation, Shanghai.
More than 50 artworks will be on display at your first-ever solo exhibition in China. Could you tell us more about some of the new works that hold particular significance for you?
As I work over the years, themes evolve and various threads are followed. It’s hard to say where one group of works begins or ends and projects often double back on themselves. The largest work in the show, for instance -the five wooden skyscrapers that stand in the centre of the exhibition - refers back to a series of works I was making in the 90s. The latest portraits are now becoming very simple again, after a period where they became very detailed and fully formed. So it’s hard to say which is significant, it’s all part of a flow, a series of interlocking experiments. An artwork is more like the byproduct of trying to figure something out, the unexpected result of an experiment. In recent years I have been focusing on a number of parallel projects, portraits, figures in motion and landscapes with a recent return to sculpted architectural spaces. In this show I have made eight interconnecting rooms on the two floors of the Fosun centre. There is a room of running people and a room of walking people, a room of simple portraits and one of more complex portraits. These rooms are connected by a giant statue of a city through which you have to walk to move from one room to the next. Upstairs there are four rooms of still and moving landscapes that are connected by a sculpted flock of metal sheep inviting you to go for an imaginary walk.
The works cover a wide range of media, from oil painting, sculpture, to mosaics, LED/LCD films... What lies behind this exploration? Are you still looking for new ways to present art through technology?
Art can only be presented through technology, even if that technology is paper and pencil. There is no art on its own. An artwork is as much about the way it is made as it is about what is represented. Every time I make anything I am playing with and experimenting with how it can be made. You could compare this to the music in a song while the imagery is like the words. I notice the way that things are made in the world or rather certain ways of making jump out at me and seem vibrant and evocative. I see an LED sign in an airport or a Roman mosaic in the British Museum and the way the materials effect the representation seems strong and moving. The way humans twist and mould the world to create images, to mirror the way that we see and interpret the world is what engages me. I am not promoting any particular approach or technology. I am just as happy with hand painting as I am with 3D printing, with laser cutting as with tapestry. All these are ways in which images have been made in the world, human inventions to bring what is drawn in the mind into physical existence. I need subject matter to work with and I look to the obvious: people, the landscape, cars and buildings.
What is the inspiration behind your mosaic works?
That is easy to answer, Roman mosaics! I don’t like Byzantine mosaics, these are done with coloured glass and are gaudy and jewel like. I like the flat, hard, earthy look of cut marble. The Romans used marble cut from the earth and then had slaves rub the finished designs with stones to flatten the palace floors. The drawing is made of stone, of the earth. When you look at a mosaic you remain very aware of the hard natural material, you can feel it and it does not disappear like paint or digital ink. So the drawing fights with the material, your mind registers the squares and the stone and your eye sees the flowing three-dimensional drawing. A face is a very powerful and familiar image. We are faces and we spend a lot of time looking at other faces, so this seemed an obvious place to start. Most pictures are of faces so it’s easy and quick to read while the stone is slow and in a sense clumsy. I then looked at other mosaics that represented athletes, striding, leaping figures that confound the static solid quality of stone. I had been making films and paintings of people jogging in the parks of London and these images seemed ideal for the process of mosaic. The mosaics are made in Rome, the home of mosaics, by a craftsman with whom I have developed a close working relationship. Together we have worked out the best way to make the most of the limited colour range and how best to draw with the regular cubes of stone.
How has the city of Shanghai inspired you? Could you please share the story behind the new work "Walking in Shanghai"?
I don’t know China well though I have travelled and showed a lot in nearby countries. The only direct reference to Shanghai is in the large model towers that I mentioned before which are self consciously placed in view of the towering Shanghai skyscrapers across the river.
There is no work called Walking in Shanghai in the show.
It took me a long time to find a way to draw people. In the end it was looking at the male and female signs for lavatories that gave me a clue as to a simple sign language that I could mould into an individual drawing or portrait. I set about drawing friends and neighbours. It didn’t matter who I drew since everyone seemed interesting and a kind of classic type when you put them into a similar logo-like language. As I travelled and worked around the world I looked at people in this way and realised that different places and climates produced different, recognisable and fabulous types that I could use. The world seemed a huge palette of possible people to draw. It seemed to make some sense to draw people from the places where I was exhibiting. When an artwork creates circular lines of thought, when there are simple logical connections that you can see and follow it gives a work a smooth flowing quality that I like. You are a person, you look at an image of a person, the language used is a language you also recognise prom public situations where people address and inform other people, just as you are being addressed and informed in the gallery. The materials are also familiar from other forms of language, road signs, airport information boards, and ancient temple walls. All these threads must twist and turn and build a visual mental connection between me and the viewer through the artwork.
Walking/running People has become one of your signature subjects. What lies behind this fascination? Do you like observing locals when you travel to a new place?
I think I have covered that question.
How do you see the relationship between your work and its surroundings?
Making an exhibition is a challenge. It is also a relatively new thing. Museums and galleries were really only invented in the 18th Century and even then an artist would only really show one or two works in a group exhibition. Before that the artists would make commissioned portraits or work on specific architectural projects like a chapel ceiling or statues for a piazza. Like most artists I make my works in my studio and use a variety of small factories. Most of these works end up in people’s houses, in collections or occasionally in or outside public buildings as part of the permanent architecture. Bringing a large number of these works together for an exhibition before they disperse into the world is a very particular challenge and I have given a great deal of thought to how best to do this. Each work must be given the best showing individually and yet the whole must make sense and produce a kind of narrative that helps each work and allows the viewer to see more and enjoy the experience in a way that is a bit like a movie - as they move from room to room and spend time comparing and stopping and passing. In the past I have tended to try to strip galleries back to the original architecture but recently I have changed my mind and now try to build a kind of bespoke architecture to produce a series of interlocking spaces that reflect the kind of space depicted within the works. I invite the visitor to enter into the show like entering one of the artworks. In fact I make 3D models of the gallery space in my computer and drop virtual art works into the models to plan the shows. This way I can walk around the show before it is made, adjusting and refining the experience. I am building a website now that will include these models and show my work in my own virtual museum.
It’s often a shock when I see my works in people’s houses and on the whole I’d rather not. I hang works in my home and know that it’s a different undertaking to making an exhibition in a blank, white, prepared showing space. If I lived on a desert island I expect I’d make art works from sand and palm leaves on the beach. As a contemporary artist I use the available vehicles to work within, museums, galleries, public spaces, new buildings and also CD covers, invite cards and my own internet shop.
Are any of the works at Fosun Foundation site specific?
Yes many, come and see.
Your works seem reminiscent of graphic design. Could you tell us more about the evolution of your distinctive visual language?
What is graphic design? I’m not that sure. I draw. I use existing visual languages with which to draw in the same way that musicians use existing instruments to play or exiting genres of music within which to experiment. I place myself as a filter between what I see and what I then produce. I feel that we deal with the world in this way, we take in information and use our bodies to function and behave and live. Shadows are a basic and natural kind of drawing and hieroglyphs are not far from this, turning images of the world into a sharable language. In the recent movie Arrival I was frustrated at how hard the heroin tries to learn the alien’s language and to teach them ours. Would it not have made so much more sense to draw? This universal language of recognition is the basis of communication. We synthesise what we see and sense into a symbol that can be reproduced and shared. Brains function in this interpretive way, reading our surroundings and developing language to express what we know and want. My mind naturally draws my surroundings. If I shut my eyes I can draw the room I am in and I do this with a line. A line is a focus of attention and thought as you think your way, trace your way around an object. These lines have become hieroglyphs and then words and symbols and signs.