Julian Opie. Tate Britain, 2004.

Texts and excerpted interviews from the catalogue Julian Opie (J.O.), (Tate Gallery publication, 2004) by Mary Horlock.


During one of the interviews around which this book is structured Julian Opie described to me the first film that he made. It was a short piece of animation dating from his second year at Goldsmiths College, and arose from his interest in life drawing:

"Whilst drawing, I saw how each image went through a series of transformations. So I worked up a sequence of simple line portraits and I layered the drawings to animate the image, pushing it through various changes. It was just a portrait of someone's head but I turned it into an inventory of styles; so it would first be sharp-edged and spiky, like a Futurist portrait, and then it went soft and classical, and then it would become broken up and Cubist. It was as if a series of lenses had been put over someone's face and these lenses were art-historical styles."1

This film and Opie's description of it provide insight into his project. From the outset he has experimented with codes and conventions of representation, exploring the power of images and their relationship to perception and recognition. Opie has constructed his own language to reveal the ways in which we 'read' the world. The subject of this first animation - picturing the human form through the canonical styles of art history - shows how Opie's interest lies not in 'reality' but in how reality is represented to us, an idea that recurs time and again. In a sense, Opie has always been making representations of representations: paintings of paintings, models of models, signs of signs. His art reflects the artifice that frames contemporary experience.

This film also demonstrates the consistency of Opie's methodological approach. As an animation, it came out of drawing, which has always been his focus. Line drawing manifests a particular rigour and economy; it emphasises the essentials and this has consistently distinguished Opie's work and given it immediacy. What we see in this film is line drawing transformed into something else, into animation. Moving from drawing into different media and developing (often simultaneously) many different bodies of work, Opie is constantly on the move. Working in series, he has made his drawings into films, sculptures in steel, wood or concrete, paintings, billboards, CD covers, road signs and screensavers, discovering and defining multiple forms for a single image or idea.

This early film, then, hints at what is to come in Opie's oeuvre: the mixing and re-mixing of high art, the juggling with strategies of representation, the working in series and experimenting with new media, and all of this filtered through the commonplace scenarios of everyday reality. It is through such means that Opie makes us aware of the complex relationship between what we see and what we know. This book traces the development and diversification of his artwork from the early 1980s through to the present, and provides an opportunity for Opie to comment on his work. He is extremely articulate about his projects and his way of speaking is direct and matter-of-fact, qualities that are quite in keeping with his art.


A Pile of Old Masters 1983

Mary Horlock: During the early 1980s you were making art about art. Why choose to create new versions of Old Masters?

Julian Opie: Well, some years before this I was drawing canvases - stretched canvases - so in a certain sense what attracted me was the object itself: the rectangular shape with nails down the sides. Everyone can recognise it: it's an object of shared language and it's a simple and funny thing. At art school I'd started making copies of famous artworks - a series called 'Eat Dirt Art History' - where I'd draw, say, an El Greco very loosely in pen and ink and write under-neath it 'Eat Dirt El Greco'. I pinned these drawings around the school. It was an acknowledgement of the hopeless position of the art student in light of art history, but also a rally call not to feel overwhelmed by it.

It is quite irreverent. Were you trying to say that you could 'do' a Picasso or a Mondrian?

It was a self-conscious time, and I was making self-conscious art objects. I assumed that anyone looking at them would be mistrustful, and I wanted to address this and defuse it. What A Pile of Old Masters was proposing was kind of preposterous - that I could outdo art history. But I wasn't really challenging El Greco. And I was also using this shared language of reference to give the work a legible narrative.

And how did you select these particular images?

They're probably the artists and the paintings in the book I had closest to hand. It was necessary that they were recognisable, and easy to copy.

Roy Lichtenstein painted his own versions of famous paintings. Did you see any connection with Pop art?

Well, I would have been aware of Pop art. It was art, but it was outside academia. It didn't feel like history. It felt modern and that was attractive. Generally art about art was unpopular at that time, and those works you're talking about are not my favourite Lichtensteins.

But you could say that Lichtenstein had a similarly irreverent attitude to art history.

Yes, but Lichtenstein is much more serious-minded than you'd think. He used humour like other people use colour. He saw that it was no longer possible to consider certain images without irreverence. When you think how most people know the famous works of art history through postcards, that's irreverent by its nature. I could have drawn an apple and a pear, but drawing a Cézanne felt more honest: what I really wanted to do was draw a Cézanne, or a Lichtenstein for that matter. One of the possible thoughts when viewing this work is 'This is irreverent', but it's also deeply reverent. I knew the first thing that people would think was 'Here's this young artist who's just come in and thrown art history on the floor.' People knew I was young, and I played along with that. The point is, I had a lot of fun drawing the things that were supposed to be great - things that had become 'locked', unusable because they were so admired. I wanted to reach into this, try it out. But these paintings were things I admired very much.

In the centre of A Pile of Old Masters lies an overturned canvas with your signature on it, so you're staking your claim.

The flourished signature is part of the whole self-consciousness - I was pleased with myself, that I could do those things, but at the same time there's a double and triple meaning. I was told I had to sign my works and I didn't feel at all comfortable about it. So I found a way of working the signature into it.

The pieces aren't connected and so can be set up in different ways. Didn't you want to dictate how it's installed?

It's a sculpture that relates to the space it's in. I have drawn up guidelines but you cannot say definitively what will work where. At the Lisson, this was the only work that had a relationship with the space. You approached it by going down a small flight of stairs and saw it from a distance. I placed some of the paintings on the floor and leaned some against the wall. At the Hayward Gallery [at Opie's solo show in 1994] it was in the middle of a large, open space and I set it up differently: it was more dispersed and flat.

When I think of painted steel sculpture, I think of Caro and the 'New Generation' sculptors. Did you deliberately set yourself up against all that?

Yes. It was 'right' to use sheet steel, but 'wrong' that it was figurative. By this time, Sir Anthony Caro and his 'school' were perceived as the establishment. I admire the work but as a student it's useful to have something to rant against, and this was an obvious target. Primarily I needed a material to translate the way that I drew: welding could be almost as fast as drawing a line on a piece of paper, and it enabled me to assemble things at a speed where I could think with the material. It was also about the strength of steel. And it could defy gravity, so things were no longer grounded.

A lot of the works are about movement. Even in A Pile of Old Masters there's a sense that the canvases have been impulsively flung down.

There's a drawing by Hergé in the Tintin story The Seven Crystal Balls from the 1960s, where a fireball comes down the chimney and all the books are pulled off the bookshelves and spin around the library. I did copy that drawing of books flying, and I think this work has an element of that. I used to draw in notebooks constantly, refining ideas, and then make a lot of sculptures, some of which survived. I made maybe fifteen sculptures involving canvases, some with brushes, some in a circle, some tumbling out of a suitcase. This work, which had all the canvases on the floor, needed to have actual paintings on them, whereas the ones that were spinning around worked better if they were kept blank - an image would slow them down, and if they were spinning you'd only see a blur. Making actual pictures here has a function: it anchors them. It also makes some kind of sense - these famous paintings have been thrown away. It leaves no questions unanswered. Blank canvases on the floor would have been too ambiguous.

Staying with this idea of speed, did you paint quickly as well?

Yes, I was copying artists like Hals and Manet, who used a 'wet-on-wet' style. This style of painting is about performance and energy. The look had to be slick. If the painting didn't work out you had to wash it off and start all over again. I'd paint the surface a background colour, then draw on top of that with highlights or shadows with a very loose arm movement, cleaning the brush after every stroke. Some of the paintings are better than others. The ones that were originally painted in a similar 'wet' fashion worked best - the others I tend to bury under the pile.


The computer began to assume a central role in Opie's practice: it allowed him to develop his systems in abstract space before realising them in actuality. His key concepts were unchanged: the balancing of the generic and the specific, pitting realism against representation, and the working through of serial forms. Computer technology enabled Opie to develop new subjects whilst simultaneously expanding and refining his symbolic vocabulary to a degree of perfection. Concordantly, his installations became more multifarious in nature, translating his experience of people, cities and landscapes into a universal language of signs, brightly coloured and immaculately presented. Opie would select from and combine different bodies of work. Opie sought a way of bringing people into his existing inventory of signs, and this activity soon developed a momentum of its own. He approached the human form by first selecting the most standardised representations he could find - looking at signs and symbols in the real world, such as those used to indicate male and female lavatories. He then combined this with a digital photograph of a real person. He merged the two using a computer-drawing programme. 'I input the photograph on the computer and drew over it with the sign, bending the lines enough so it was still a sign, but also relating to the individual, combining the impersonal and the personal.' Opie would refine the image by eye: getting back to a basic form but keeping particularities that might reveal something about his model.

The first figures were elegant and laconic: little more than a blank circle floating above a body that was essentially defined by an outline of clothes. Initially Opie's motive had been to make anonymous 'passers-by' with which to populate his world - a woman with a handbag over one shoulder, a man with his hands behind his back. They looked like signs but were subtly enhanced, more suggestive, and fitted seamlessly into his invented world. With each figure certain features - the choice of clothes or the posture: a hand resting on a tilted hip, head up and arms crossed - were consciously used to enrich the depictions. Thus, he never completely erased the personalities of his models, and their particularities became more prominent through the reduction of everything else. We expect a fundamental utilitarian correctness from signs, but details like this are undermining. The figures are more ambiguous and more alluring as a result. Characteristically, Opie tested out every option: different models in different poses; different models in different poses and different clothes (People 1997); the same model in different poses (7 positions 2000); the same model in different clothes. He then denoted the differentiations through the titles and would frequently refer to his subject by name (Gary t-shirt jeans 2000, Brigid trousers top hands on hips 2000), thus maintaining a sense of individuality within the multiplicity. But it is hard to know how to read these figures when viewed either collectively or individually. Their serial forms prompt us to think about society and how we relate to one another and resemble one another, and inevitably we have to ask whether we are all reducible to predefined 'types'.

The desire to rationalise the human form has preoccupied artists for generations, but Opie gave this a new twist with the stylised symmetry of his figures. It is the incongruity between the soft and human, and the hard and artificial, that makes them so troubling. This was most acute with the nudes. Echoing imagery that derives from advertising brands or logos, Opie's nudes were drastically reduced: a simple outline of torso and limbs, a circle for the head, two curved lines for breasts. Whereas before, the clothes acted as a defining feature for each model, now there are simply suggestive contours. The position that each figure assumes becomes focal: poses that are familiar and recognisable, to which we can relate from our own experience (such as Lying on back on elbows, knees up 2000 or Sitting hands around knees 2000). It is intriguing to see something so particular and human captured in such a structured, graphic language.


After studying the figure in full length, Opie came to focus in on the heads of his models, testing out the same technique: drawing over individual photographs on the computer, reducing and abstract-ing the image:

"The first drawings were very simple, but that gave me a language on which to build. They started as black and white, with very pared-down parameters - the mouth was just a straight line and so on - and bit by bit I adjusted it until it seemed like the right balance between someone real and this generic form."

The portraits are graphic outlines: buttons as eyes, two dots for nostrils, a mouth suggested by a long, upper line and a short, lower line, and eyebrows that are two clean 'brushstrokes' leading away from the middle of the forehead. There is an identifiable schema, and these features become part of a series of identikit variations, returning to the concept of modularisation. Like the full-length figures, they are a sign language. As the critic Tom Lubbock wrote:

"They're portraits in the style of road signs, as if people who devised hair-pin bend warnings had been asked to turn their language of fat, black lines to the fine particularities of individual likeness - and had succeeded beautifully."17

The lack of particularity reinforces the idea of 'types'. This intrigued Opie:

"I think the whole notion we carry of people as examples of types is very interesting . . . There are some key famous people who become these types and I want to extend that really so that everybody is a type if you draw them in the way that I do."18

He later added, "I want it to be as if each person I draw were a multinational company with a logo."19 Each portrait carries the name and profession of the model (Gary, popstar 1999; Max, businessman 2000). Possibly as a result, their features take on a new resonance.

"I liked adding their job titles. Sometimes it seemed to fit and sometimes it didn't; I saw it as another way of classifying and identifying people. I also think it avoids the feeling that I know them but you don't."

But despite the graphic reduction, individual likenesses are never lost, and Gary, popstar is a good example. Opie drew him a number of times, with hair short or long, with or without sunglasses and beads, but each time we know him instantly. What becomes apparent is that each person, no matter how schematised, is still distinct: the tilt of their head, the fall of their hair or the arch of their eyebrows defines them; and their clothing and accessories are all treated individually. The differences between each person appear much more pronounced when we see a number together, and (as with the full-length figures) Opie has usually shown them in groups.

Like his figures, Opie's portraits are executed in different sizes and formats. He would always photograph and draw his models in various positions, and out of these serial drawings he has also developed simple animations, using movements such as nodding (Daniel Yes 1999) or shaking the head (Christine No 1999), blinking or, later, walking. The incongruity of something so fugitive, fragile and human vies with the production of these works, which is stylised, mechanical and impersonal. Moreover, the actual experience of watching such simple gestures in perpetuity is unexpectedly captivating.

Opie's people and portraits are all processed through objective observation and technology, and then perfected by the artist's own hand and eye. But Opie's style is a 'non' style, as if a special computer programme could abstract and reduce reality to quintessentials and fabricate them in multiple forms. This is part of the effect. The reality is that Opie's labours are disguised in much the same way as his models are: subjectivity contained within an impersonal, hard-edged syntax. This ambiguity is very effective. When we look at representations of the human form we think of ourselves, but Opie's people are blank reflections: the eyes in his portraits are empty pools; the standing figures are faceless.


Opie's general landscape views were scene-setters in the earlier installations, the backdrop against which the narrative unfolded. Now made in varying sizes, they can still offer a context for his standing figures. The computer has enabled Opie to distil imagery from an ongoing archive of his own photographs along with other sources as diverse as video games, illustrations on milk cartons, and paintings by John Constable. Opie strips everything back to basic form, giving primacy to the generic. The picture-book graphics and primary colours trigger different responses that vary with the scale - whether the work is realised as a grand modern master or made into a small souvenir.

More recently the slick, impersonal style of the computer-generated image has become the foil for more personal subjects. Some views are accompanied by a written list of sounds, and the results are evocative: 'crickets, voices, music' accompanies a stylised nocturne of distant urban lights and a near full moon; 'waves, seagulls, voices' frames a view of water dappled with sunlight. It is hard not to imagine listening, conjuring the sounds we know intuitively from memory. Opie has also used scrolling LED to relay a text and has employed actual sound. For example, Waves, seagulls, voices exists as a painting or wallpaper with accompanying beach noises. In each of these works, nature is framed by artifice; the two overlap and we treat the artificial as if it were real.

The artist always manages to conjure a mood of reverie that softens the experience. Opie might be suggesting that although everything can be reduced to a graphic outline or a generic view, experience is always personal and specific. Looking is an activity that involves the mental processing of pre-conceptions, associations and ideas, and this is highly subjective. It is also dependent on memory, and what we recollect is rarely accurate, rarely precise, yet from it we still create meaning. Opie offers an incomplete narrative in each of his landscape views - and we are invited to complete it.

Ongoing Multiple Possibilities

All of this work is now developed on computer before being defined in actuality. It is only at the final stage of production that a drawing becomes a work, executed as paintings in multifarious sizes, sculptures on metal, wood, or as concrete casts, as wallpaper, animation, signs or billboards. Opie's work is a series of 'options' stored on computer files that can be called up if and when required, and tailored to relate to any space. The computer allows him to explore all the possibilities that each image holds. A portrait head could be realised as a giant black and white wallpaper motif, or as a colour portrait in four sizes, or even an animation, and a nude might work in three sizes as a painting and in vinyl on wooden blocks or as vinyl applied directly to the wall or glass.

The computer occupies a useful place that did not exist before, somewhere between a final work and a thought. Before, I used to think, draw, and then make something. But now I can think and draw on computer, continue to work it through, and I can leave it there - it's not like a thought that dissipates - it can just stay in the computer and be outputted when I've decided what to do with it. A drawing is inflexible by comparison; you can't change its scale or its colour without destroying what you've already done. When he fixes on an idea, Opie will work through all its possible permutations. The computer has greatly enhanced this activity, but inevitably it has become more difficult to visualise the full range of options available. Indeed, by 2001 Opie knew his repertoire had expanded beyond what any single exhibition could present. When he was preparing for his solo show at the Lisson Gallery that year, he realised that the only way to make a comprehensive presentation of his work was through a publication. He took the bold step of adopting the style of a flimsy mail-order catalogue, offering a consumer's guide to his work with every genre and type laid out and listed in a colourful assortment of typefaces typical of such brochures. The actual exhibition offered 'samples' from this on-going production - nudes, portraits and landscapes - with the catalogues stacked up in piles by the reception desk, free for everyone to take.

Kiera walking, 2002

"It started as a project for a Jean Nouvel building in Tokyo, which was being built for a big Japanese advertising company. I knew it would be a very busy place, with people arriving from the underground, walking into the building, through the lobby, and waiting for a short while before getting the lift up to their offices. There's a wall of glass lifts that go up at high speed, looking out over Tokyo. It's very high tech and I saw a lot of movement going on in there. I thought I could use this as a camouflage for my work. What I wanted was to infiltrate the scene.

"I was also really interested in LED screens, which they use a lot in Japan. I saw these illuminated signs everywhere in Tokyo and Seoul - and the fact that I can't read them makes them much more appealing; the movement and colour is all you see. It's incredibly beautiful, like something in nature, like light on water. The city loses its solidity and becomes a fluid thing, especially at night.

"I'd been making drawings of people's faces, and creating various simple movements by layering the drawings, making them blink and nod their heads. I'd also been drawing people in full length, in different positions. Looking at many drawings together, there was movement: flicking across them you get this simple animation. After I'd seen the space, I knew I was going to make statues of people, and I tried to think of a movement that would feel natural there and was simple enough to be looped. Walking fitted the bill: it was simple and familiar. I decided to make three people - three's a good number, the minimum number for a crowd - and I looked for different types in order to create contrast between each.

"I tried to use the language of the building; the floor was made of marble so I used marble for the plinths. There are in fact little scrolling LEDs on the lifts. The choice of technology tied my work to the surroundings. And other things happened. What was interesting and unexpected here was how the glass and stainless steel created all these multiple reflections. Every window shows reflections of the moving, lit figures; they stand out from everything else. It animates the whole space in a way that I hadn't really expected. That's the good thing about commissions: you're dealing with new environments and unexpected things happen.

"Kiera is a young artist. She's one of the people I call on to draw from time to time. It turns out she has very long legs; I tried her in different outfits, and when she was wearing a miniskirt and high heels her walk became much more particular. I suppose she walked a bit like a catwalk model, but it was only after I'd filmed other people that I noticed these nuances.

"I made about thirty drawings for each person. I needed a man so I drew myself, and then I thought I should use another woman, since it's easier for women to look different from each other. The other woman, my wife, is wearing boots and walks in a different way. So there were three very different-looking people, all striding purposefully at different rates, and yet staying in the same place.

"The actual movement turned out to be much more realistic than I expected. There's nothing realistic about the image, but that doesn't matter, and, if anything, it heightens the sense that the movement is realistic. The three people are not really to be looked at but more looked through, or around; they're there to animate the situation. When you do look at them you start to notice the lights, and how they work, a bit like when you look at a stone sculpture and you notice the sparkle in the stone, the grain of the marble. This is another level of looking, which is fine and should work, but for me it's not the main thing. The main thing is the movement.

"After I'd animated the drawings, I found I could use other technologies, and so I used Kiera Walking on plasma screens. Plasma screens are quite common now; they're used a lot for public information displays. But I like them because they're flat and can be hung on the wall like a painting.

"To see an animated image on something so high tech seems completely right; because the image is quite like a sign, this suits one set of expectations, but then the glass screen and rectangular shape fits the idea of a classical painting. Kiera Walking also became a wall work: I had these drawings of Kiera, and if you flick between them and look across them then you read the movement. I had an exhibition in a gallery in Portugal where they had a long hallway. You could see all the way down the length of it, but couldn't get any distance from it. I wallpapered every other frame from the film along this wall, so she mimicked your movement down the hall. And I'm now using Kiera and the other people for a project for the new Selfridges store in Manchester, where they wanted a project to animate the whole building. Using vinyl pictures on glass, all three people are depicted walking around the building. The spaces are complicated, and at times the people meet, walk together, and then head off in different directions.

"It's a positive thing to see how these images could function in different ways, and I do that with everything. I'm always juggling, turning one thing into another thing, but keeping some elements constant. It would feel fraudulent to come up with another image simply in order to avoid upsetting those people who want something that's specifically for them, like a logo or a brand. For me, the project, the gallery show, the commission, they're all opportunities to work and play out the ideas in which I'm engaged and interested."

Zone of Transit: Considering a context for Opie's Work

"Sometimes he wonders what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would be merely an encumbrance."27

Many critics perceive Opie's art as symptomatic of a state of alienation, highlighting how in this world of advanced technologies we have grown estranged and distanced from our own natures. Opie expresses frustration at this reading, not least because it frequently falls foul of a kind of historical amnesia, ignoring the way in which artists and writers from the seventeenth century onwards have used detachment as a tool to explore how we relate to the world. Opie also questions why this state of estrangement is generally portrayed in such negative terms, and points out that his tone is never so despairing. Of course, there is no denying that the onset of modernity did bring a growing sense of anxiety, and that many artists reflected this in their work. On the continent, writers such as Baudelaire saw the city as the catalyst for individual alienation, and described how metropolitan life, with its anonymous crowds and newly scaled spaces, would overwhelm and alienate us. In Britain, Dickens and Ruskin predicted that industrialisation would distance us from nature and leave us spiritually bereft.

Skipping forward to the present, we accept the reality that is modern technological and capitalist development (the shift from Metropolis to Megalopolis). Our world is one of accelerated movement, overabundant information, virtual parameters of scale, the proliferation of signs. As representations of reality supplant reality itself, everyday experience is increasingly about a fast-paced flow of images. Artists like Opie are trying to find a new way to deal with this.

When the anthropologist Marc Augé published Non-places - introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity in 1995, transience was a key characteristic of the world he described:

"where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating . . . where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing; where the habitué of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly through gestures with an abstract, unmediated commerce; a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary, the ephemeral."28

Society is in flux, buffeted by a constant flow of information and of people. Our lives are channelled through road, air and rail routes, around airports, service and railways stations, dependent on invisible and interconnecting cable and wireless networks. Augé believes that we do not yet know how to look at this world; it is in fact a world that we read rather than look at, a world through which we pass at speed. Speed drastically altered our perception of the landscape. In the early twentieth century the Futurists pushed the celebration of modern technology to an extreme, proclaiming a new aesthetic of speed.

Their leader Marinetti edged towards insanity, with his fantasy that the acceleration of life would straighten meandering rivers and that someday the Danube would run in a straight line at 300 kilometres an hour. The Futurists' romance with machines and their remoteness from society resurfaced (albeit in a new guise) in the inter-war 'machine aesthetic' of the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

Now Opie, much of whose art is inspired by the idea of travel and motion, has updated this concept with his own evocation of car culture, Imagine you are driving. Significantly, however, the emphasis has shifted. Opie presents us with an endless sequence of images of the road ahead: we have less of a sense of the inspiring and exhilarating pace of movement, and more an expression of the anonymity and monotony of motorway travel. But the obsessiveness of the depiction is compelling.

We fix on the white lines marking the tarmac, propelled by the vanishing point towards a horizon we never reach - drawn into a kind of spatial sublime. Opie captures the real effects of driving, how the car both liberates and distances us from the world - so that we pass through the landscape quickly and are closed off from direct experience of it. The sights, sounds, tastes, temperatures and smells of the material world are reduced to the two-dimensional view through a windscreen. Of course, this view is a succinct metaphor for contemporary experience: seeing the world through a screen. The technologies incorp-orated within the car reinforce the artificiality of this experience: we find ourselves in a sealed, stable, weightless environment. With our senses impov-erished and our bodies fragmented, we begin to dream. This is what Opie feels. When we drive through the city, the streets and buildings become the backdrop to our thoughts, virtual passages through which we move, on the way to another place.

The signs and texts planted along the motorway tell us about the landscape through which we are passing, making its features explicit. This fact might enable us to relinquish the need to stop and really look, allowing us to retreat into reverie. Because we are constantly on the move we are always in a state of distraction, having to deal with a barrage of visual and social stimuli (signs, slogans, billboards, lights, fumes, sirens). Have we learned to overlook subtlety and detail?

Opie's Cityscape 1998 is an audio recording of a journey through London by car. In it, he and fellow artists Lisa Milroy, Richard Patterson and Fiona Rae recorded what they saw en route, each of them focusing on a specific subject category. Opie listed the brands of cars seen ('Honda', 'Fiat'), Patterson identified building types ('Shop', 'Bank', 'House'), whilst Rae read from posters and billboards ('Buy your specs here', 'North to Watford') and Milroy described people glimpsed along the way ('Man with hat', 'Woman with handbag'). Read one way, the work shows that we are unable to assimilate everything that surrounds us; that we reduce what we do see to the essentials in order to negotiate our way. But there is a flipside: the abstract flow of words can be as evocative as actual images. Listening to them, we conjure mental images fairly effortlessly. The mind's eye can take over.

"The philosopher Freddie Ayer was once asked which single thing he found most evocative of Paris. The venerable logical positivist thought for a while and then answered: 'A road sign with Paris written on it."29

Opie often talks about how we 'read' images, and his language of signs has a fictional functionality. He acknowledges that perception is increasingly about recognition, and recognition is triggered by the most simple things. His imagery is perfunctory but this is not a critique of how life is reduced to a surface and a symbol. Opie accepts what is out there and attempts to create something new and meaningful with it. In this enterprise, he is not alone.

Motorways allow us to escape mentally as much as physically, and the fact that most video games are about driving seems to support this (interestingly, 'M25' is both a video game and a brand of ecstasy). The weightless mobility of driving inspires imaginative travel. In the writings of J.G. Ballard, the rediscovered literary hero of current times, the sense of estrange-ment and uncertainty that came with new technology and the onset of car culture is a pivotal theme. Novels such as Crash or Concrete Island (first published in the early 1970s but now enjoying cult status) are condemnations of automotive alienation yet also celebrations of technological achievement. In Crash, the car becomes an extension of the human body, surrounding the soft and vulnerable human skin with a shell of steel. Ballard relishes the exultant sense of freedom and detachment that driving generates. He believes that we must embrace this condition, and that only then can we learn what lies beyond it. In this sense, Ballard and Opie think alike.

Motorway travel is no longer a novelty. However, the motorway has come to occupy a prominent position in the collective psyche; its very ordinariness and neutrality have allowed it to be interpreted as a potent psychological space. As Michael Bracewell notes:

"Increasingly, as the motorway features in the reclamation of shared and formative memory for successive generations, so its initial cultural status as a non-place is being exchanged for a new measure of significance."30

A re-assessment of the cultural status of roads and their hinterlands is under way, made plain by the recent wave of publications such as Edward Platt's Leadville: A Biography of the A40 (2000) and Iain Sinclair's London Orbital (2002). In the latter, Sinclair attempts to walk around the vast stretch of urban settlement bounded by the M25, the 120-mile road that encircles London. The resulting book is a dense and complex meditation on urban sprawl, the effect of automobiles and modernity. It reveals a side of London that is often ignored, merging history and memory, fact and fiction. Significantly, when Chris Petit chose to make a film based on the book, he drove around the M25, filming the view from his windscreen. He wanted to capture the hallucinatory quality that driving can create, finding this to be the proper visual equivalent to Sinclair's writing.

The service stations that line our motorways and punctuate our journeys - corporate, neutral and standardised - have also been given a new frisson of significance. As Augé observes:

"most of those who pass by do not stop; but they may pass again, every summer or several times a year, so that an abstract space, one they have regular occasion to read rather than see, can become strangely familiar to them over time."31

Such spaces might summon the residue of childhood experience or provoke a general sense of nostalgia. In his book, Always a Welcome - the glove compartment history of the motorway service area 2000, David Lawrence sees the service station as an 'ephemeral and ever-changing micro-landscape',32 a site of work, leisure and social intercourse that now occupies a central position in our everyday lives. And so the 'non-place' gains ground. Opie has already identified the potential romance of such spaces. When asked to make a sculpture for Belsay Hall in Northumberland he made Rest Area 2000, a supermodern sanctuary of steel and glass that brought together elements of a Greek temple, an eighteenth-century folly and a petrol station - a service area Utopia in a beautiful woodland setting. Bracewell concludes that this new concentration on 'boring places' is connected to the emotional needs of a generation now out of patience with post-modernism. He may be right.

When Augé writes of the 'non-place' the key location he has in mind is the airport. From the artificial spaces of motorways and service stations we might make an easy transition to the airport departure lounge. Aeroplanes ushered in a new age of accelerated global travel, and like the motorway they were full of promise, once emblematic of an idea of the future. The psychological implications of flight - a sense of vertigo, feelings of disorientation - might worry some travellers, but this is regularised in the modern airport through mechanical and highly controlled flow of traffic. The anonymity of the airport - its brilliantly lit, multi-reflective interiors and gleaming passageways - can induce a sense of generalised estrangement. Closed off from climate change and the cycles of natural light, the airport is an optically static environment in which we become physically desensitised. When reviewing one of Opie's exhibitions the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon wrote:

"Opie's work . . . knows the blend of pleasure and alienation that somewhere like Heathrow can provide. Moving through an installation of Opie's is like moving through a modern airport: it is to feel both pleasantly and unpleasantly removed from reality, in a zone of transit where what you do or who you are has become both threateningly and relievingly unimportant."33

That Opie wold then be commissioned to make work for Heathrow's Terminal 1 makes Graham-Dixon's words even more apt. Ballard lives in Shepperton, a suburb close to Heathrow. He eulogises this airport for 'its transience, alienation and discontinuities, and its unashamed response to the pressures of speed, disposability and the instant impulse.'34 His narrator in Crash also lives near an airport, and the novel is set in its concrete landscape. For Ballard, flight becomes a metaphor for transcendence. At Heathrow:

"We are no longer citizens with civic obligations, but passengers for whom all destinations are theoretically open, our lightness of baggage mandated by the system. Airports have become a new kind of discontinuous city, whose vast populations, measured by annual passenger throughputs, are entirely transient, purposeful and, for the most part, happy."

We are all aware of the dislocated nature of contemporary urban life and deal with its discon-tinuities daily, but in the modern airport such tensions are defused, since its 'instantly summoned village life span is long enough to calm us, and short enough not to be a burden'. Augé agrees:

"As soon as the passport or identity card has been checked, the passenger for the next flight, freed from the weight of his luggage and everyday responsibilities rushes in to the 'duty-free' spaces, not so much, perhaps, in order to buy at the best prices as to experience the reality of this momentary availability, the unchallengeable position as a passenger in the process of departing."35

Mobility is just one of the products now on offer at the modern airport. In response to the demands of an ever-expanding consumer society most are being transformed into vast shopping concourses. They nurture the passenger caught in limbo. The shopping mall is another simulated world, located on the outskirts of the city, served by the motorway and best reached by car. Sociologists note how peripheral areas have given rise to multiplexes and retail outlets and are frequented by what they call car-borne 'parkaholics', who seek the 'out-of-town' experience. The shopping centre is a self-enclosed and self-regulating public arena - more condensed than the average high street. With air conditioning and artificial lighting, the exterior is interiorised.

Multiple floors are connected by escalators, and our circulation is as directed and controlled as the air flow. The shopping mall is a virtual world; we know it is a fiction but we read it as reality. Bluewater in Kent is one such environment, visited by over 26 million people each year, accessible via the M25 with parking spaces for 13,000 cars.

The American architect Eric Kuhne called it a new kind of city, a resort, whilst Iain Sinclair has portrayed it as 'A one-night stopover, an oasis for migrants',36 comparing it to a Channel port like Dover or Folkestone, where one finds the same 'dizzy sense of impermanence'.

A new kind of transient England is coming into being. The motorway service station, the shopping mall and the airport lounge could be seen as representative of this. We increasingly inhabit artificial and transient environments, so it is hardly surprising that in this digital age we can imagine ourselves as part of a community even when our bodies might be separated by continents and we do not see each other very often. We might only know each other through an electronic name, and we might frequently create different identities for ourselves. It is hard to know where we are and where we belong.

Augé sees the users of the contemporary landscape as people who are no longer inhabitants in the traditional sense of the word - we are more like passers-by.

Because we are constantly moving we have no sense of belonging. We work and play in virtual worlds, we multi-task, we drive (or are driven) everywhere. We need a new language a grammar of some complexity, to describe the world - not as it used to be, but as it is: 'a world of global computer and communication networks; of distributed intelligence; of interactivity; of connec-tivity.'37 What we think of as reality is a fiction that has been created for us, and by us. Artists like Opie are trying to make sense of the world in these terms. His brand of fiction is direct and matter-of-fact, but its latent content is far more complex and evocative.

"We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent reality. In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, it seems to me, have been reversed. The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction - conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads."38


1. All Opie quotations unless otherwise stated are from conversations held with the author between 2002 and 2003.

2. Marco Livingstone, Pop Art - A Continuing History, London 1990, p.234.

3. Julian Opie quoted in Tate Gallery Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-4, London 1986, p.296.

4. Mel Ramsden and Michael Baldwin, 'Julian Opie's Sculpture', Julian Opie, ex. cat. Lisson Gallery, London 1985, p.8.

5. Michael Craig-Martin, Young Blood, Riverside Studios, London, April-May 1983.

6. Andrew Graham-Dixon, Independent, London, 8 March 1988.

7. Richard Cork, 'In a Hurry', Listener, London, 2 May 1985, p.34.

8. Lynne Cooke, 'Julian Opie and Simon Linke: Two Young British Artists, Who Are Also Good Friends, Speak About Their Work And Their Context Internationally', Flash Art, No. 133, April 1987, p.37.

9. Lynne Cooke, documenta 8, Kassel 1987, Band 2, p.180'1.

10. Michael Newman, 'Undecidable Objects', Julian Opie, ex. cat. Lisson Gallery, London 1988, n.p.

11. Ibid, n.p.

12. Kenneth Baker, OBJECTives, ex. cat. Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1990, p.190.

13. Ulrich Loock, Julian Opie, ex. cat. Kunsthalle Bern/Secession, Vienna 1991, n.p.

14. James Roberts, 'Tunnel Vision', frieze, issue 10, May 1992, p.31.

15. Liam Gillick, Art Monthly, no. 174, 1993-4, p.26.

16. Julian Opie quoted in Julian Opie, 9th Indian Triennale, British Council, New Delhi 1997, p.17.

17. Tom Lubbock, 'Simple Pleasures', Independent, 25 September 2001, p.10.

18. Julian Opie interviewed by Gemma de Cruz, Habitat Art Club Booklet, Winter 2001, n.p.

19. Julian Opie, interviewed by Louisa Buck, 'Logo People', The Arts Newspaper, no.111, vol.XII, February 2001, p.37.

20. Michael Craig-Martin in an interview with the author 26 November 2002.

21. Nicholas Logsdail in an interview with the author 12 December 2002.

22. Julian Opie quoted in Julian Opie, Gouverneurstuin, Assen 1997, p.37.

23. Richard Dorment, Daily Telegraph, 2 November 1994.

24. Julian Opie quoted in Julian Opie, 9th Indian Triennale, British Council, New Delhi 1997, p.34.

25. Ibid., p.43.

26. Michael Craig-Martin, Minimalism, ex. cat. Tate Gallery Liverpool 1989, p.7.

27. J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World, London 1965, p.14.

28. Marc Aug, Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, London 1995, p.78.

29. Will Self, Grey Area, London 1996, p.91.

30. Michael Bracewell, The Nineties - When Surface Was Depth, London 2002, p.285.

31. Marc Aug, op, cit., p.98.

32. David Lawrence, Always a Welcome: the glove compartment history of the motorway service area, London 1999, p.103.

33. Andrew Graham-Dixon, Independent, London, 9 November 1993, p.25.

34. J.G. Ballard in Airport, ed. Steven Bode and Jeremy Millar, Photographer's Gallery, London 1997, pp.120-1 op. cit.

35. Marc Aug, op. cit., p.101.

36. Ian Sinclair, London Orbital, London 2002, pp.388'9.

37. John Thackera in Airport, op. cit., p.69.

38. J.G. Ballard, introduction to Crash, London 1995, pp.4'5.

June 3, 2004