Julian Opie speaks to Independent Collectors about collecting, and his own work being collected.
What is the most interesting commission you have ever received from a collector?
I define what projects I undertake so I don’t feel that commissions come from collectors - rather collectors ask me for a project. This is often a simple request for a portrait and then I approach the project with my current interests in mind. What is often offered is a place, a position. This might be a beautiful garden of a high street facade or even the surface of a skyscraper. Often the larger scale and more public commissions come from property developers or department store owners. I imagine that these people, often collectors themselves, have the desire and freedom to initiate such works. I have recently installed two large LED moving paintings in front of department stores in Brussels and Zurich, and am working on a group of three giant steel walking figures for a collector-owned office building in Luxembourg.
With technology getting better and better, do you feel under pressure to update your techniques and methods to stay current?
Is technology getting better? It is always a battle to get anything made well. I use old technologies - stone carving, mosaic and hand painting - as well as new ones like 3D printing and LCD and LED screens driven by fast computers. I feel no pressure to use any particular technology. I notice technologies that exist in the world. They catch my eye and I store the possibility until it seems usable and useful. Sometimes I go out and find people to help me and other times I come across them by fortuitous chance.
If I feel any need to stay attentive it is more to the forms of showing work than to the technologies for making it - though of course these things are connected. It used to be the case that exhibitions in museums and galleries, posters and magazines were the ways of getting your work seen. This has changed, or rather, has been added to in recent years. Art fairs are increasingly important venues and I put a lot of effort into making an engaging and useful web site. People look at work through their screens as much as directly using their eyes (even when in a gallery) and this is challenging and interesting. I like to send specially designed invite cards and animated email invites but as yet I have resisted getting very involved in apps and Twitter and online projects.
Your artwork is instantly recognizable as an “Opie”, but with unofficial “Opie apps” and YouTube tutorials on how to make an “Opie portrait in Illustrator”, how do you feel about your work being plagiarized and what impact does it have with your collectors?
I don’t feel any of this is more than incidental. I get a lot of emails from schools who have made projects, usually portrait projects, using my work as a starting point and I find this lovely. I seem to have found a way of drawing that other people like to use and that is a positive thing I think. I am always looking for ways to draw, ways to synthesise the world and engage with it through art, so if that allows schoolchildren to get going on something then I am always happy to see it and often respond to their emails. I have even done a few school projects along those lines.Actual plagiarism for commercial ends is a bit darker and I use DACS to keep an eye on issues of copyright.
How has the art market changed since when you were first gaining recognition in the 80’s?
I don’t get very involved in the art market. I have 13 galleries worldwide who deal with it for me. I have always come to the studio every day, except for school holidays, and got on with making more works and planning more exhibitions. Undertaking public projects and commissioned portraits has bought me into closer contact with individual collectors and this has nearly always been a very nice addition to the process. Drawing someone is an exciting and intimate occasion and, although I seldom see the collector again, I always feel we shared something very particular and interesting. Internet research and shopping have changed collecting a lot. It’s great that so much information is available and I always wanted availability and prices to be out in the open, but the possible decline of importance of actually seeing the art work and the exhibitions is a sad but connected phenomenon. Auctions have always had a role but I instinctively don’t like them; I do use them myself to find art works to buy, though I would always rather buy from a gallery. The ideal is that the work ends up being looked at, looked after and placed well, preferably in good company.
How important is the role of a collector to your practice?
I collect myself and the last thing I would want is to have any role in the work itself (I mostly collect older things so this would not happen anyway - other than to look after the object and get it seen more). I collect work because I love the work and want to have it. I make work to satisfy my curiosity and interests and to engage in the world, I want the works to have a life and work for me and be seen, and selling the works is a part of that process. If I did not sell any works, if they all went to storage, this would minimise my practice I think and lessen my energy somewhat - possibly even deny me the exciting opportunities of exhibiting. In the end however, I make the work for fun rather than for anyone in particular. I use collectors as a resource, to draw and through this to engage in the history and look of portraiture. I use the funding that comes from collectors to enable my fabrication.
Your work is included in some of the biggest collections in the world, as well as the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate and MoMA, but do you have a preference on how you would like for it to be displayed?
I have intense preferences on how my work is displayed. It is terrifying how much display can make or break a work. Seeing work badly displayed makes me very upset, whether it’s mine or that of an artist I admire. I do my best to monitor and control the display of my work. When it comes to my own exhibitions I do the curating and the exhibition design but this is not very possible in museum displays - other than actual exhibitions - and one does not want to get a reputation of being a control freak. When I meet collectors who own my work they often want to tell me what they own, what the titles are, and where the work hangs. This is always a slightly disturbing conversation though I don’t quite know why. It’s almost like a report back on the behavior of your child and a repeated conversation from the past. I always fear the worst and feel oddly responsible. Seeing my work in people’s houses is even worse - added plastic frames, crowded installations, and the feeling of having caught sight of yourself in a public mirror; but every now and then it can be very pleasing and makes me proud.