An interview with Julian Opie on the occasion of his 2015 Arendt & Medernach public art commission Walking in the City, Arendt House, Luxemborg
What is the mission assigned by Arendt?
I'm afraid I don't really know. I was asked to come up with a plan for the building. I had made an exhibition in Knokke in Belgium and the connection with Arendt was made there.
What has your approach been for this project? Can you tell us something about the concept behind the work?
I don't really have concepts behind the work - I work through making. The work is visual and forms a language. Steel, paint, an image, a set of people, walking, a language of drawing inspired and learnt from forms of communication in the ancient and modern world. Giants, statues, striding Egyptian figures, busy workers walking to work, shipbuilding and painting techniques, public signage. I play with all these elements that you will probably recognise as you look at the works. I have made similar things before and am developing new works right now as a result of making these. It's a process of drawing and trying and experimenting.
How does the artwork produced for Arendt House form part of your work in general? Does it extend beyond your usual framework?
At any given moment I am working on five or six groups of works that are slowly coming into existence, and then go on to become a different but related group of newer works. The various types shift, cross-fertilise and allow me to experiment in many different directions and use all the influences that interest me at the time. These statues come from a line of flat and three-dimensional projects. Making flat drawings stand up has been central to my work since the beginning in the early 80s but in the late 90s - as my first child began to grow up - I found myself using her toys to create a series of animal sculptures. I was intrigued by the way the simple cut out slabs of wood could stand in for sheep or cows depending on their drawn outline. They were thick enough to stand on their edge and allow a child to place the drawings together to make a farm scene. I set about making my own flat cut out drawings and creating my own scenes as exhibitions.
Later I found a similar reduced language - based on logos and symbols, hieroglyphs and lavatory and road signs - that could describe individual people. These pictogram portraits were simple enough to be cut out like the animals and stood on their edge. Here in Luxembourg I was given the chance to make them monumental. I filmed people from far away in the streets around the city of London. Busy office workers on lunch breaks provided me with endless models to create a body of images, a crowd of sculptures. They are monumental but everyday, common gods, as are all people. For titles I have given each one an imagined job to personalise and differentiate them; Academic, Banker and Lawyer. In this case though I have many other characters for another day.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in this project?
What were the technical constraints for the installation of your artwork?
Transport! I also think a lot about the future when working outside. To make outdoor work you have to use eternal materials (which don't really exist beyond a certain point) or you have to use a renewable technology. I have designed these works to exist like a ship. To be painted now but designed to be painted again in the future when necessary. The slow change and build up will be part of their character.
We made flat printed banners as tests and hung them from a crane to establish the correct scale (I work by trial and experimentation), I then made mock ups on the computer and in miniature wooden model form. In the end though every project is a best guess and an act of faith - a mental projection made material.
How does your artwork fit into the environment in particular?
Office building, busy road and pavement. Working people passing. I look at public statues of the past (London is dotted with them to great effect with generals and soldiers and kings of the past overseeing the squares and roundabouts). I look at monuments and gravestones and I stand at street corners watching the crowds pass as a flow. Humans have always depicted humans. Artists have echoed back the audience and sculptors have integrated the human body into architecture.
What is the link between your artwork and Arendt & Medernach? Arendt House?
One is now in front of the other. I hope it will be a happy association. It has been a great opportunity for me to work on a new and giant scale; to produce a new body of ambitious works and to have a permanent presence in Luxembourg.