Julian Opie speaks to Jut Land Development, commissioners of a new public LED sculpture in Taipei City.
What brought you to Taiwan?
I was invited to make a public sculpture outside the JUT headquarters in Taipei. I designed this in London where I live and work and the physical object was made in Korea and shipped to Taiwan. The work is a 4-sided screen in the shape of a cigarette box on its side. The box is made of LED panels that can play any film I program. The idea was to place a group of my animated walking people on the screen and have them walk around the box to create a statue of a crowd, a street scene. It is always necessary to fine-tune such a work. I arrived with a technician and we spent time making small adjustments. People often think that artworks are all about content but in some ways they are more about getting whatever content you might have to be just right, to sing. It is always a tense period when this final composing takes place with time limits and people watching but I feel very happy with final result.
Have you been to Taipei before? What was your impression?
I have travelled quite a lot in Asia but only been to Taiwan once before. Although I was working I had a chance to see a bit of Taiwan, the wonderful historical museum and lots of great restaurants. The site of the statue is an extremely busy multi level street and it was quite an experience to work there for three days, very urban, loud and vibrant.
Could you talk more about the work you were commissioned to make?
I can talk forever but writing is slow and I'm a bit busy! Every work comes from previous works and it's a long story that goes back to works I made when I first starting to look at and draw the world. By drawing you can see, and by seeing you learn to draw, it's an ongoing process. I need to really see something to be able to draw it and even then it can take years to figure out how to first draw and then use those drawings.
I had been making large-scale architectural works for many years, trying to recreate the sensation of space and movement by building environments for the audience to look at and inhabit. I wanted to find a way to place people within this sculpted landscape. I needed a language with which to evoke humans and eventually found a simple graphic language taken from signage such as lavatory doors and safety signs. I used this universal language - that is almost like hieroglyphics - to draw people I knew and turn them into statues that I could place among my other sculpted representations of buildings, animals and cars to create an urban model, rather like a huge children's farm set. These images of people began to take over my work. People are such powerful images, irresistible to humans it seems. Having found and developed this language I discovered a way to draw faces by applying the same kind of graphic system to facial features.
Movement has always been central to my work, whether it's movement around and through the artworks or the movement of the artworks themselves. Modern technology allows me to make my works move and replace implied dynamic movement with real movement. Life and vision is so much to do with movement -it's odd not to depict movement really. Some ten years ago I developed a system of animating walking people by placing them on a treadmill and filming them and drawing some 40 frames to create an endless loop that could then be turned into a film and then a screen and thus into a painting or sculpture. By combing groups of these people I can also sculpt crowds.
Your public art works can be seen in many places around the world. Do you try to make each work slightly different according to the local culture?
Every work is, as I said, the result of previous works, a reaction and a development and in some senses an adjustment. If one sees an artwork as a kind of experiment with multiple ingredients and an unknown outcome then another work is a further experiment based on the previous results and failures as well as successes. In this way I move and adjust from one project to the next.
A commission such as the JUT building in Taipei offers me an opportunity to try out a work that I have often thought of making but have never had the chance to install. I see it as a statue of a crowd in the style of a war memorial or a Greek or Egyptian temple. The length of it allows the crowd to gather a certain density and narrative. I have made similar works but more like a tower or monolith and I have made flat screens attached to a wall.
In terms of local culture there is no reference. Human's gather and walk on pavements around the world so this is a local scene in any city you may visit. I have made paintings of people from various countries highlighting differences in costume but that is not possible for the films where an enormous amount of work needs to go into each individual figure.
Public art is usually quite different from what we exhibit in galleries or museums. What role does public art play in our society or environment in your opinion?
Too big a question! What I do know is that Public art is very tricky - it can easily be like a loud radio played on the beach - annoying! I try to avoid the problem by integrating my work into the environment - the sculpture is built from the materials of the given environment and the subject matter is a reflection of the surroundings. I hope by making this connection to the audience the work is engaging rather than annoying and alienating. Movement is helpful in this, making the work playful and giving it a point. By following the movement of the figures and watching the changing pattern of the people you have seen the work itself, no need for further interpretation or confusion. As a passerby you yourself become the subject matter of the work. Throughout history humans have used lasting materials to place images of humans around their cities, often combined with buildings. These figures are usually leaders or gods but obviously in my case they are simply other people on the street, part of the crowd. These statues animate our cities and create a kind of hybrid of the city and ourselves.
You became such a well-known artist after the 1980s. Your works are in auctions and have high prices. Does it change anything in your life and change what you want to do?
My life is what it is, I always wanted to be an artist without really knowing what that would entail or wither it was even possible. I try to take nothing for granted and to build both my work and my career from scratch without following set guidelines. Making exhibitions and projects have become very much part of how I work. I make works for exhibitions and I make exhibitions for my work. Showing the work is part of making it and the placement of the work is as important as the colour. Museums and galleries seem normal now but they are recent inventions really. Humans have always made art in one way or another and artists have to navigate whatever system exists to show and communicate and sell their work.
How do you usually work? What kind of work do you most enjoy doing?
I go to work every weekday. When I am not at the studio, travelling on work or holiday, I take the world in and photograph it. In the studio I work with 8-10 assistants and many outside fabricators to follow various projects and develop various ideas. I usually sit alone drawing and planning and every now and then get up to stretch and talk with my assistants about what to do next.
You've been creating artworks for around 40 years. You develop your works from low tech to high tech – computers have become central to the process and presentation of your work. What does technology mean to you? Do you fully embrace it?
To make something you need some kind of technology - I suppose that is what technology means. I look for the best, fastest way to make things that suits my way of thinking. Computers do that. They are very good for drawing and communicating. I use hand made methods, mosaics and paintings, as well as laser cutting and electronic displays. If I lived on the beach I guess I would use sand and palm leaves. The important thing is to find a language in drawing and materials and to learn to talk with them.
What's your next project? Could you share it with us?
I am drawing a lot of landscapes at them moment - distant scenes that are glimpsed from a train window or an aeroplane. Some move because you are moving, like a view from the car windscreen and some move because something is moving in the scene, a bird or wind turbine. The movement gives the sense of reality and connection and allows me to bring a very simple scene to life. I am working on a project to make my people walk across the river Thames and through a Paris underground station and a Boston university corridor. I have gallery exhibitions coming up in Vienna and Tokyo this year – which will focus on single bodies of work - and a couple of museum shows in the pipeline which will bring together more groups of work.