Texts by Julian Opie from the catalogue accompanying his solo exhibition at Alan Cristea Gallery, London in 2015.
Everything you see is a trick of the light. Light bouncing into your eye, light casting shadows, creating depth, shapes, colours. Remove the light and it's all gone. We use vision as a means of survival and it's essential to take it for granted in order to function, but awareness allows us to look at looking and by extension look at ourselves and be aware of our presence. Drawing, drawing out the way that process feels and works brings the awareness into the present and into the real world, the exterior world. By drawing I have made a thing, lots of things which are nothing really, useless, but I can show them and look at them and get other people to look at them and see if it can do the same for them. Artworks are like little experiments designed to bring out, mimic, reveal what is already there but hard to hold. There are standard ways of doing this but blundering around trying to invent new versions makes it fresh and relevant. I set up projects, experiments, based on previous successes that I feel could be better or go further. Some observation or variation suggests to me that I could make a new work. I vaguely sense a possibility and need to build a model to test it out. I gather resources and in the process of building I rely on trial and error and instinct to squeeze success out of the elements. Things often don't go to plan and I'm forced to side step or back down in order to get it to work. It's nearly always an "only just" situation, a last second hop from failure to success and even then I have my doubts but if I enjoy the work and want to show it to people I feel it's probably good to go.
A shadow is a kind of photograph but silhouettes came before photographs so perhaps photographs are a kind of shadow, certainly they are connected and have a similar uncanny sense of reality. As painted portraiture ran out of steam at the beginning of the 19th century - on the eve of the discovery of photography - a new and confident middle class wanted cheaper smaller pictures of themselves.
It's said that on arriving in America, immigrants were advised to get their silhouette or "shade" made to record the moment. This was art as record, as trick and memento. The genius to rise from this art form was August Edouart. He cut full figures from black card and glued them onto watercolours of rooms or landscapes. He would travel from town to town, rent a public hall to show a few well chosen works and take local commissions to produce individual and family group portraits.
My interest in these led me to notice shadows and silhouettes everywhere. It is one of the most common forms of drawing around, certainly in that period from late 18th to early 20th century. It's so common it has become boring, and it's kind of boring anyway in the sense that it does not stray much from reality.
A hundred years ago it was a normal evening hobby to cut silhouettes; ancient people made silhouettes of their hands on cave walls by blowing ochre over their outstretched fingers. One of the silhouette forms I noticed out on the street was the weathervane and the boot scraper. A drawing made of cut metal that could take on other functions. I like functional art; or rather I like places where art finds a way and a place to exist that's almost functional and not quite decorative. The result can be a bit surreal, a figurehead on a ship, a pub sign, a playground or funfair image, a pipe that is also a head - perhaps even an Etruscan roof tile that depicts a god or an Egyptian jar of funerary ashes the lid of which is an animal's head. Anyway the boot-scraping dachshund or galleon weathervane made me think I could turn my images of people walking on the street into something similar screwed to the wall creating its own shadow.
I used the same images of people that created the small walking figurines but I went back to the original photos and redrew them as silhouettes.
This series uses elements that define the space they are in. In themselves they are not particularly interesting, at least not in the way that I have drawn them. The interest comes from the space they define and the movement they suggest, the way they bend and animate the white of the wall. I have also made films of some of these subjects allowing the fish or boats or sheep to create an endlessly changing composition that essentially remains the same, a narrative without beginning or end. The carp were filmed from above in the Barbican pond in London. They are fat and heavy and slow and seem to slide past each other while twisting their bodies and slightly rolling into the curve.
I once judged an art competition and the most frequently used image by far was fish. I'm not sure why this is but partly perhaps because they are disconnected and need no environment, they define their environment.
A boat floats and this allows me to make a drawing with no edges and no frame, it is a simple shape and yet has enough complications to have something fun to draw and to look at. The lines I use are, as usual, just on the verge of being too thick to draw with, giving the boat a solid feeling and allowing it to feel real, almost like a silhouette. I wanted to make the print like a wall drawing that could turn the wall into water - that could bend the wall back into the surface of the sea. By cutting the drawing out of sheet steel and hanging it from hidden fixings it can almost be part of the wall turning the whole wall into the print.
I have chosen to draw small, modest, working boats that have no glamour but have a pleasing and familiar shape. There is an innocence to a dinghy, they have a job to do and are purely functional. I have a small boat in Cornwall and as we motor around I take photographs of the other boats.
Sheep have a similar modesty in the animal world to dinghies in the world of boats. I can't imagine drawing antelope or bison. Sheep are sadly functional and for us they are interchangeable. I use them as compositional elements and have built films that run on algorithmic, random programs creating an ever changing painting of wandering, grazing sheep on a plain background. Filmed on the sloping fields of Cornwall the sheep can be above and below each other on the same surface. With their full coat they are barely more than a blob and are pleasing to draw. I grew up with English art of the post-war St Ives School, artists such as Nicholson, Moore and Hepworth. I find myself drawn to a lot of the same subject matter. As with lyrics, it's important to choose the right subject matter but they should not be seen as the point of the song, they allow a certain narrative and create a particular mood. The St Ives mood is plain, modest and innocent, often lovely and occasionally cloying. I find myself contrasting this longing, wide-eyed, cool and natural quality with elements of our urban, post-industrial, somewhat ruined world. My sheep are drawn in the language of motorway signage produced on machine made surfaces. The sheep remind you of quiet walks and wind swept valleys while the LEDs, the shiny acrylic and the powder-coated, laser-cut aluminium are part of the urban struggle through the airport, underground or high street.
We often play with pebbles on the beach, make towers or draw out patterns, throw them at targets, skim them on the waves or simply pick up nice ones. Unlike the other elements in this series, the pebbles can't move, but there are endless variations of them and each tide changes the composition. Once drawn they define the plane of the tilting beach.
Pebbles are rocks on their way to being sand to then become rocks once again, they are hardly objects at all and when drawn with a line they are little more than a wobbly circle but nonetheless they are easily recognisable largely due to their distribution.
WALKING IN THE RAIN
Not to dramatise, but making art can be a bit like navigating a boat in a storm, it's not really about direction or progress but more about staying afloat and grabbing what passes you when you can. In the midst of everything else in life there is only a limited time available to actually produce anything from the interests and ideas that I have at any one time. I may be drawing a portrait commission or making an animated film of someone jogging, but I hear the clock ticking. I know I can only retain focus for a limited time, can only bear to draw that thing for a while. Whilst the storm is raging and in the relative darkness, certain things seem momentarily possible if not always advisable. I tend to go with it and make as many things as I can while the chance is there. I only understand something for a while or perhaps I only believe in it for a while. To initiate an edition requires an element of belief and even risk. The technique is usually new to me and often seems to test the limits of what can be done. Having made something that seems to me to work, I often mean to make more, feel I should make more but at a certain point the moment has passed and I can't be bothered with it, it may not even be possible any more. The storm has blown me off course again.
While filming people walking on the streets of London it started raining. I realised that this created a whole new world, umbrellas went up, people's postures and the whole mood changed. I have always liked the rain, the sense of isolation it creates as the world shrinks and everything gets dark and glossy. As a child I loved a heavy downpour, I would grab an umbrella and run out onto the dark streets alone.
With the studio doors open I arranged to take photos of passers-by as soon as it started raining. I then gathered the images together to make a frieze of passing people. With the umbrellas included, the images became large and complicated with a layering of different movement from top to bottom. This was probably the most complicated picture I had managed to compose so far. The next project involved making a show in Korea. I hoped tropical rain might provide another, similar painting. I commissioned a photographer to repeat the project in Seoul. The rainy season was over and when the rain came it was light and the weather was warm. The resulting image is very different in feel, mood and colour. I usually make paintings in two or more sizes since each size makes for such a different art work, but I could not imagine such a complex image being small so instead of a smaller size I decided to make an editioned silkscreen print on paper. Inspired, or challenged by Lichtenstein's giant interiors made as woodblock prints, I made the prints as big as the existing London silkscreen companies would allow but still within the size that can be framed in a traditional glazed metal frame. The frame gives a slightly traditional, old fashioned feel to the work that I hope contrasts well with the modern outfits and dynamic strides of the people depicted.
WALKING IN THE CITY
I look at, refer to and live with lots of art from different periods. One of the areas I have loved most is ancient art from Roman, Greek and Egyptian cultures. There is a type of small Greek terracotta figure, usually female, called Tanagra statuettes that were cast in hundreds and later found in pits near temples. It is thought they were bought by visitors to the temples and left as offerings; when the shrine was full they would be removed and buried. They were glazed and highly coloured. The small scale, lively poses and elegant costumes have a surprisingly powerful effect. Small scale can be bigger than large in the sense that it makes your mind feel like you are small too, so suddenly everything is huge. The Egyptians made beautiful painted, wooden, doll-like figurines to be used as helpers in the afterlife. The dynamic of a striding figure was of course used a lot in Egyptian culture. A walking figure suggests life and power and purpose. The person is not posed for, or even aware of the viewer. In profile the striding human body is dynamic and you can feel your own body respond. Such a view is available on any street corner and with this set of figurines I invite the owner to create a small busy crowd of city workers.
People love magic. To break out from the normal, to enjoy things being wrong or false seems to please humans. Is it to leave reality? Is it because we are so embedded in reality it hurts and it's a relief to escape momentarily? Or is it that we, I, only feel vaguely connected to reality and magic is therefore closer to how things really feel? Real magic would be terrifying, what I like is reality represented at a slight distance or angle. I like it when you know what the trick is but it shifts reality nonetheless. I like it when you see things that you know aren't there. A revolving radar suddenly appears to turn the other way. The train next to you starts to move but it looks like your train is moving. The Victorians loved visual tricks and I'm supposing so did - and does - everyone else.
The 19th century was a time of great practical invention and a lot more people had a bit of time and money; flip books and zoetropes and early photography and shadow projections were popular and so were lenticular lenses. It was discovered that when the surface of a sheet of glass was ground into a series of parallel ridges that functioned as lenses, it had particular properties. When laid over prepared images the lens produced the illusion of three dimensional depth or movement. As you moved the position of your eyes or as you combined one eye's view with the other, the lenses showed you an image made up of a changing set of thin strips. Up to thirty thin strips of image can lie under each ridged lens and the moving eye can be fooled into seeing an animated image. Animation in all its forms is a way of fooling the eye and brain that they perceive movement, precisely because we perceive movement naturally as a series of still images. Our view of the world is a built illusion, a mental construct, so seeing the illusion taken apart and recreated is a relief, is funny, is thrilling. Without the use of electricity but with Japanese made, acrylic lenses, I can make boats rock and sheep graze. I found a range of different movements in nature that can be depicted using this technique. The way trees move at different speeds as I walk through a forest and the way minnows shoal in a rock pool. I only need to gaze at them and later photograph them and then find a way to draw them. In some cases I draw them frame-by-frame or get my assistants to draw them from my initial drawing. In some cases we build a three-dimensional model in the computer and then set it in motion while getting it to render as a flat drawing. As I said, lenticular lenses can manage some thirty consecutive images before the movement loops, this is not much but it's enough to break the stillness of an image and evoke the sensation of a familiar movement, to fool the eye, to break the firm surface of reality.
WALKING LENTICULARS 1
My films of various people walking have come in bursts as I have found new ways to approach the subject. The way I draw can change slowly, almost without me noticing or sometimes I make a conscious shift. I now include people's necks and feet but at the same time I am always trying to minimise the amount of detail needed. Waiting at the school gates for pick up time I was looking at passers-by and realised that everyone walking past looked better than my models. They were more interesting, more real, they talked on phones, smoked cigarettes, they carried bags and had a sense of purpose and were utterly unaware of me. Suddenly the London crowd became an invaluable resource, a gold mine.
WALKING LENTICULARS 2
I rented a high-powered camera and, with the help of my assistants, set about filming people on the streets. In order not to disturb the models and make them look my way, we filmed from far away with a long lens. It proved very hard to find a spot where everything worked well, where the pavement was flat, where no traffic got in the way, where there was enough light but no confusing shadows. People tend to fiddle as they walk and we only had the one chance to catch them. Out of hundreds of clips only a few were possible to use. I only need one stride but the beginning needs to be pretty much the same as the end to make a clean invisible loop.
Unlike my former models I did not know the names of these people so I tried to guess their professions in order to have a title for each one. I like the way "solicitor" or "waitress" or "teacher", defines them and encourages one to make assumptions even though it's clearly just a guess.
This set of lenticular 3D prints of the French countryside follows on from a previous set of Japanese style landscapes. I am addicted to the work of a Japanese artist of the early 19th century called Hiroshige. You will know his images from his influence on other artists and from a thousand other uses, especially the famous Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge from the series 100 Famous Views of Edo of 1857. Hiroshige influenced Van Gogh, Monet and Herge (creator of Tintin) and many others. These in turn showed me how to draw and, in particular, I have borrowed the verticality of the landscapes (Europeans tended to use a horizontal format for landscapes) and the use of a dramatic foreground element to emphasise the depth of the view beyond. There is always suggested movement within Hiroshige's images, someone punting down the river, birds crossing the sky, rain falling, flags flapping, people crossing bridges or fireworks popping. He achieved all of this with woodblock prints and vegetable dyes on a strictly government regulated scale. I can make elements actually move using computers and LCD screens and emphasise depth and create some movement with the grooved lenses and computer printing of lenticular technology.
After following Hiroshige's route around Mount Fuji I decided to approach the project again in a less literal way. I used the countryside that surrounded me on our summer holidays and looked for elements that could be combined to create similar compositions. The mood and colours of the warm quiet valleys of the Loire seemed to work their way into the images, and I found myself drawing in a softer, more detailed way - even including insects and individual leaves on trees. Like Hiroshige I have used different times of the day and different weather conditions that bring out the depth and beauty of the view.
PAUL, BIBI, DINO
More than half the projects I am asked to do never actually happen but sometimes they provide the impetus for new works anyway. I was asked to come up with a project for the Olympic park in London and I proposed a field of statues of running children. To show what I meant, I drew my son Paul running. Another aborted project was for the low underside of a bridge in Calgary. There was no room for an upright figure so I drew baby Dino crawling across my studio floor. Finally, for a project that now actually exists, I drew Bibi to join Paul and Dino, to make a wall frieze that runs through the corridors and wards of a London hospital.
There are many ways of knowing a place, many ways of looking and of sensing your own presence. I have often depicted movement through space using stop frame animation, where a series of slightly changing images mimics real movement and fools the eye. Thinking of the way Google Street View works and some early computer games where movement through space is economically evoked by surging from one static position to the next, I thought I could make a different kind of film. I took a walk around my house in France, finishing at the same spot I started from and taking a photograph every forty paces. When seen in series I think you can feel something of the way it feels to move through space, the way you occasionally take stock of the view and use landmarks to gauge your progress. I had to draw fast to keep the sense of brief glimpses and movement, and once I got to the last image I carried on and redrew many of the first images as I had by then developed a rhythm and a way of editing the infinite detail of nature. I made the first film in the summer when the French colours are rich and the trees full, but I love the landscape in winter too and although winter trees are very hard to draw I made this second set and used the 75 resulting images to make an edition run in itself. This landscape has a lot of emotional attachment for me and the film has a melancholy sound track sung by my wife Aniela. The actual valley depicted is now ruined by a high-speed train track that cuts right through it and this walk is no longer possible.
I wanted a clean frameless way of presenting the images and I chose a system of sticking an image to the back of glass borrowed from Heathrow Terminal 4. The passenger routes there are enclosed by grey, back painted, glass panels. They provide a slick, modern, slightly sinister surface that has depth and seems to float. It's almost a mirror and almost a window and avoids seeming like a real barrier as you can't quite locate the surface. It feels modern like the remote, glass house in the recent Alex Garland film Ex Machina.
I have often used animals. I first came across them as possible things to draw in my children's farm games. The simple cut out pieces of coloured wood stood for sheep or pigs in a similar way to the words "sheep" and "pig". You could make whole sentences out of them and then play. Some objects have this drawable quality, partly because of their shape but also because of the way we know and use them. Some animals exist as symbols as much as real things, seen on packaging and road signs as often as in reality. I don't draw monkeys or aardvarks, as they don't exist as images in the same way. (In Australia you see road signs for kangaroos and crocodiles so things could be different).
I don't get on very well with horses and I'm not a fan of racing or hunting but I like the look of a horse, they are a bit mythic. Statues of horses are particularly powerful, romantic and often intimidating. I have made a lot of works relating to historic public statues of people, often using LED sign technology to create animated figures that stride endlessly on plinths in public sites. There was a large equestrian statue outside my hotel in Berlin and I decided to try to make my own version. I located a kind and patient art collector who breeds horses and began a very prolonged project of trying to film a horse at full gallop. Getting the right angle and a fast enough camera, good weather and a willing horse and rider took a few attempts. I considered drawing the rider as well but somehow a jockey on a horse had a whole different set of meanings that I didn't want and the shape would no longer neatly fit into the tight rectangle of a painting or LED screen, so I photoshopped the rider out.
Filming at twice the normal film rate of 25 frames a second it still only took 23 drawings to describe the cycle of movement needed to make an endlessly galloping horse. I chose the three most dynamic and classic poses from these and used a system of painting derived from signage, specifically thinking of the signs above high street bookies. Depicted in the shiny urban plastic of the high street, the galloping horse still manages to feel wild and romantic as if it's escaping town.
If we had no language I wonder how we would think things through or describe things even to ourselves. I have a language of drawing that develops, adapts and circles back over the years. Like verbal languages it is based on the past and other people and practice and communication but the syntax is somewhat more invented and personal I suppose. With that language I am able to approach certain subjects and use them, draw them. Drawing a person is a challenge because it's been done to death and the subject matter is so strong; the model has expectations and can even sue you. Through drawing buildings and then animals I slowly moved towards a way of drawing people and finally cracked it when I used male and female lavatory signs as basic models to draw real people. I then applied this to heads as if using the same sign language but "zooming in" on the face. This gave me a set of symbols with which to construct any face. I have used and adapted that system for nearly twenty years and in a sense the whole project is almost like an edition with each picture in the edition using a different model. For this reason I have generally avoided using the faces as editioned prints.
By looking at European old masters and Japanese Manga animation I have found a way to use shadows within my system to create more depth and action. I light the model with a powerful side light and then with the help of some computer software I break the shadows down into three areas. This has allowed new ways of working. On a whim, after a photo session with a model I asked my photographer to take some pictures of me. It's useful to have self-portraits as people often want images of the artist but I prefer to put my work in public than a photograph of me.
The result was this portrait and I thought that rather than simply add it to the pile of other portraits I would use it in a different way as an editioned print in a different technique of paper bonded to the back of glass.
The world often presents itself as palettes, an array of possibilities and choices. When making art this is very useful; an array of colours, lots of possible boats or types of trees or people. No shortage of people.
I took my family to the South Bank in London, there are plenty of restaurants and always a big crowd near the London Eye and along the river. These people make good models, they are hanging around, holding bags and coats, looking at things. In this environment a camera is not out of place. The resulting photographs allowed me to make a series of full length portraits of languid figures in poses reminiscent of old master paintings but obviously casual and modern. Art often focuses on the bizarre and tries to get past what is normal, to undermine and confound, which is great but I like to deal with what is normal, what is engraved on the back of our eyes and brain, what we use to navigate, what we know, what makes up the palettes of the experienced world.
Editions as a definition are often mixed up with the notion of printing, and ideas of machine versus hand-made. I like to approach fabrication from the point of view of what makes sense for the particular project. The choice of how to make is as telling as the choice of what to make. Making an image in laser cut plastic, or engraved marble, or gold leaf effects how you see and read that image. I like to think of hand-made as yet another possible way of making things and another look that carries certain associations and meanings and moods rather than the natural way to make art. I employed a couple of painters to come to the studio and for some 8 months they have been hand-painting these prints in my basement. The colours are more intense than silkscreened colours and there is a slight movement in the paint surface that breaks the image up and slows down these quickly glanced portraits. The black line is then silkscreened over the hand-painted colours.