Julian Opie interviewed by Numero China on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Fosun Foundation, Shanghai.
How long did it take you to prepare your show at Fosun Foundation in Shanghai? Have you ever visited the space before conceiving the exhibition and what was your impression?
I have been working on the show since my last visit to Shanghai in May 2016. Fosun Foundation invited me to come and look at the building site that would become the exhibition space and some weeks later suggested the third floor as an extension to the show. In a sense each show is an extension and a refinement of the last and in its turn becomes a test ground for the following show. It’s an ongoing process much like the production of the works themselves. I made a large museum show in Krakow Poland in 2015 that then morphed into a similar scaled show in Helsinki. The Fosun Foundation exhibition is a step on from those shows. I have taken greater liberties with redesigning the actual space. This is new for me. Previously I had tended to strip any gallery back to its architectural basics and use that as a starting point. I made a small show in Tokyo last year where I divided up the space into a sort of walk through maze where each small wall held a work and your passage through the space reflected the movement depicted in the artworks themselves. I have enlarged this idea and tried to build a sculpted space within the two floors of the Fosun Foundation building that will guide you through different groups of work.
Could you share with us some stories behind the works you made for this show?
As I work over the years, themes evolve and various threads are followed. It’s hard to say where one group of works begins or ends and projects often double back on themselves. The largest work in the show, for instance - the five wooden skyscrapers that stand in the center of the exhibition - refers back to a series of works I was making in the 90s. The latest portraits are now becoming very simple again, after a period where they became very detailed and fully formed. It’s all part of a flow, a series of interlocking experiments. An artwork is more like the byproduct of trying to figure something out, the byproduct of an experiment. In recent years I have been focusing on a number of parallel projects, portraits, figures in motion and landscapes with a recent return to sculpted architectural spaces. In this show I have made eight interconnecting rooms on the two floors of Fosun Foundation. There is a room of running people and a room of walking people, a room of simple portraits and one of more complex portraits. These rooms are connected by a giant statue of a city through which you have to walk to move from one room to the next. Upstairs there are four rooms of still and moving landscapes that are connected by a sculpted flock of metal sheep inviting you to go for an imaginary walk.
In one of your previous interviews, you said “If pushed I usually say I make sculpture as this sounds less presumptuous than an artist.” Could you please elaborate on this?
Well, it’s a normal dinner party (or school playground) question; “what do you do then?”. It would be easier to reply “engineer” or “shipbuilder” but I have to say “artist” and wait for the inevitable slightly puzzled hesitation and the usual following question “what sort of art do you make”. I suppose that quote is from a while back and these days I tend to be more general saying that I make paintings and sculpture and films all the while knowing that this is a confusing answer that won’t help much. “If I was a sculptor, but then again …no,” sang Elton John in 1970. It has a nice practical ring to it and seems a more reasonable claim that being an artist. In reality though I think of every artwork I make as an object, a sculpture, even if it’s flat and rectangular and hangs on the wall. I have never thought that there is a separate category of certain kinds of pigment spread across cloth. Every decision as to scale, material, position is a part of making and showing art.
Movement has been an iconic feature of your work. When did you start to work on the walking figure series?
I started working on the walking figure series in 2002. I had been making films of driving along a motorway and walking through a city that were loosely based on computer games and screen savers. I had been drawing people standing as statues. It seemed a logical move to put a figure in motion. I think the idea came to me while looking at crowds walking down the street. Most of the people you see are stingers and most of them are walking. It’s such a basic human movement, intrinsic to our bodies and to knowing the world. You can tell a person from their walk like handwriting or a fingerprint and it reveals so much about them. I asked a friend to walk on an exercise machine in the local gym and filmed her and then drew each frame. The resulting 30-40 drawings became a resource that I slowly found ways to use. First as wall drawings and then as paintings in themselves. I found myself looking at Egyptian striding figures and Assyrian and Greek wall carvings to further understand the possible dynamics of groups of moving people. I can compose with the individual frames making singles and pairs and crowds.
Would you say that stillness is less charming than movement to you?
Where is true stillness? Only in images perhaps and then there is the movement of the viewer and the implied movement within. Perhaps you mean do I prefer making moving works or still ones and the answer is that they help each other and I play back and forth. I like to come at things in a variety of ways.
You once said that you use photography as a notebook and a mirror to bring outside images and information into your studio and onto your computer screen. Do you always take your camera out with you? Do you adhere to any special method of observing the world around you?
My camera is too heavy so I use my phone mostly. Or I use a professional photographer since I’m not very good at taking photos. Do you remember when you used to have buy rolls of film and ration how many shots you took and get them printed? When I’m happy I notice things around me.
You've been creating artworks for around 40 years, from hand-drawing to computer high-tech. What is the importance of technology to you?
Art can only be presented through technology, even if that technology is paper and pencil. There is no art on its own. An artwork is as much about the way it is made as it is about what is represented. Every time I make anything I am playing with and experimenting with how it can be made. You could compare this to the music in a song while the imagery is like the words. I notice the way that things are made in the world or rather certain ways of making jump out at me and seem vibrant and evocative. I see an LED sign in an airport or a Roman mosaic in the British Museum and the way the materials effect the representation seems strong and moving. The way humans twist and mould the world to create images, to mirror the way that we see and interpret the world is what engages me. I am not promoting any particular approach or technology. I am just as happy with hand painting as I am with 3D printing, with laser cutting as with tapestry. All these are ways in which images have been made in the world, human inventions to bring what is drawn in the mind into physical existence. I need subject matter to work with and I look to the obvious: people, the landscape, cars and buildings.
You render subjects unique and recognizable using just lines. Would you call yourself a minimalist artist?
I wouldn’t call myself a minimalist artist. Minimal art was an art movement of the 70’s pioneered by certain artists. I grew up during that period and was influenced by it and very much enjoy much of the art that is described as Minimalist. Group categorisations always seemed frustrating and people don’t seem to bother with them much anymore. It’s a way of categorising the past or marketing the present and is not that useful to me. I feel a certain connection with some of my contemporaries which is deeply encouraging but I tend to work in isolation. I use lines a lot and I tend to think in lines, imagine and mentally map in lines but I also use blocks of colour without lines and am experimenting in fully three dimensional sculpting that needs no lines.
In 2000, you produced the iconic artwork for the cover of Blur’s ‘best of’ album; in 2006, you created an LED projection for U2’s Vertigo world tour. Do you have a close relationship with the music community? Does music bring you inspiration?
No, I don’t work in close relationship to anyone really except my assistants and occasionally with someone who commissions a work from me. I met Blur and photographed most of them. I only worked with U2’s manager. I photographed Deep Purple on stage and Bryan Adams in his apartment - all as commissions arranged by other people. I have commissioned some music myself for art works from Bryan Adams and Paul Englishby and hope to do so from Max Richter with whom I worked on a ballet by Wayne McGregor. I think music brings inspiration to everyone. My wife is a musician and music fills my house and car. Sound is a part of every art experience even if its silence. I often use sound in my artworks and exhibitions and I hate it when people are given headphones with information to listen to while looking at my shows.
It’s been said that you’ve also taken inspiration from Tintin cartoons by Hergé. Is that true and how did Tintin inspire you?
Yes, very much so. I grew up with Hergé’s books and poured over every one. I loved and related to the way in which he had developed a language with which to tell stories and describe and bring the world to life. I think Hergé was influenced by earlier art that I also look at such as Japanese Ukiyo-e and in particular Hiroshige which gave birth to Japanese manga. Graphic story telling is intrinsic to art and ancient art but Hergé found a very human and engaging way to depict everything with a dynamic charm and incredible observation and skill.
Could you please tell us about your studio, the location and interior design…How much time do you spend there? How do you usually work? What kind of work do you most enjoy making?
This would take too long to answer. It’s a workshop with 10-12 people working just above the City area of London. I have been here for 35 years in an old Victorian warehouse where furniture used to be made. It’s very vertical and I sit on the top floor drawing and looking at art that I have collected. I i-chat my assistants or wander downstairs to see how projects are progressing. We use many outside factories, big and small, in London and abroad. I work with 13 galleries around the world to make shows and undertake commissions and sell works. I work from 8:30 after school drop off to around 6:00 and take all school holidays off to leave London and travel with my family. I always travel to install my shows and all the while I try to take in information that might be useful for my work.
What are your upcoming projects?
After Fosun Foundation, I have a show in Suwon Ipark Museum of Art outside Seoul in September and a room at the National Portrait Gallery in London in October. I will also have a museum show at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne at the end of 2018. Some new commissions in between and of course lots of ideas about new works I’d like to make.