Opie in conversation with Korean Vogue on the occasion of a special public project 'Elena', to coincide with Seoul Fashion Week.
Thank you for the images that will be featured in the April edition of Vogue Korea. You said that these were made especially for Vogue - where do the walkers in your images come from?
When I’m asked to do a project I tend to think in terms of my current ongoing ideas. At the moment I am working mainly on drawing strangers and then processing those drawings into a range of art works. I have drawn friends and family, my staff, people specially invited to the studio and people who commission me to draw them, but at the moment I am going out onto the streets and photographing passers-by. My process is to hire a local photographer, somewhere in the world where I will be doing a show, and then to give them a set of guidelines as to how to get the images I need.
I have done this kind of project in Australia, India, England, Korea and America. The most recent filming was done in Boston but the ones I have used here were taken in New York. In some sense it doesn’t matter where I do it, people are interesting and varied everywhere, but I have found that different places make for very different kinds of portraits in terms of colour, dress sense and mood. Each time I draw these sets of people I find that the drawing’s style is a bit different, partly in response to the type of people I am drawing but also due to my changing mood, current interests and influences.
The weather in New York was getting cold when I sent my studio assistant there to do this project. The clothes were generally quite muted in colour and simple in form. I have been looking a lot at ancient Egyptian styles of drawing alongside contemporary signage. The results are here. When Vogue asked mew to make a ten page spread and cover I took this raw material that I felt would relate well to a fashion magazine focused on people and clothing, and set about trying to make something that would hold together in the busy, image heavy magazine pages, but that would also offer plenty of variety and enough detail to keep the viewers’ interest. I have paired the people into couples to fit the page shape while using a crowd of four for the cover.
Do you enjoy walking personally? There are some who consciously make the time to take walks, and there are others who humanistically praise or glorify the act of walking. Which group do you relate to more?
When you move the world becomes much more visible. Travelling in a plane or a car, a train, by bike or on foot, your movement reveals the shape of the things around you and also locates one’s own sense of self. It’s when I move that I feel I see the world, and since I am not concentrating on a screen or a book or my work I am free to notice the world around me. I get most of my ideas when I am in motion and many of my works are about this relationship between looking and moving. It’s easy to forget that we are animals and each of us exists only in a body built for movement. I have read that we are actually built for running, that over long distances we can out run a dog or even a horse. In motion a human makes sense and the repetitive act of walking is very revealing about each individual - importantly for me it is easy to draw and loop into an endless film. Some of the very earliest images of people, in caves and tombs, depict people walking and running. Seen from the side a walking person reveals all their shape and also their dignity - they are not posing or addressing the viewer but just passing by.
Your walkers for Vogue seem like they could walk straight out of the pages. Because most of the models that comprise the pages of fashion magazines are photographed still, I anticipate that your walking figures will stand out in the midst of all the stillness. You have occasionally collaborated with magazines on cover commissions. What kind of inspiration do you garner from them—considering that the project is neither for an exhibition nor a public setting, but for a magazine?
Well first of all thank you for offering your magazine cover. I love working on book and magazine covers. Since I started working in 1983 it has always been a thrill to see my work on a cover and feels a bit like winning a prize. I have never thought of museums and galleries as being the only venue for art. Looking at history these things are relatively recent inventions only beginning in the late 18th Century. Before that it was palaces and churches, tombs and cave walls. People seem to have a natural propensity to draw, to reflect on the world around them and want to make marks onto the surfaces of the world that share images of experience and turn the world into a language with which to communicate. I have worked on prison walls and CD covers, stage sets and T-shirts, city streets, bridges, whole buildings and of course white walled art galleries and museums. They all have their different qualities and allow for different approaches. Making the work in the studio is only half the job, it’s getting these things out onto the world that is also part of the process and where they will go, the context within which they are seen, is very much part of the meaning and logic of the work for me.
Let’s look back to when you first decided to make art out of the “walkers”—I assume that this idea was what many would refer to as a “eureka moment.” Back then, what significance did the act of bringing “walking” into the realm of art have for you?
I’m not a great believer in “eureka moments” or inspiration. For me making art is a process, a rolling activity where I investigate possibilities and make experiments - in the process of this the works get made. Each new work is the result of the previous work and the beginnings of a new set of possibilities after that one. I’m never sure at what point a decision gets made, as it’s more like a constant flow and a flow that does not necessarily always move forwards. I had been drawing standing people for quite some time and had made statues of the drawings, and since I often work with movement I wanted to animate one of these statues. The obvious way to do that was to ask the model to walk. I needed to study the movement and keep it steady so I asked her to walk on a walking machine. After making a few of these statues I realised that I was building a huge inventory of drawings of people walking, since each film needs over thirty drawings. I started to use the individual frames to make wall drawings and then paintings. If there was one ‘moment’ it would be sitting in my car at school pick up time. I was watching the passing crowds, a bit bored (the best state in which to notice things) and suddenly the crowd scene turned into an ever-changing random ballet. The next week I set about photographing people on the street.
What was the name of your very first “walker,” and who was the model?
The first walking person was my studio assistant at the time; Kiera is an artist in her own right (as studio assistants often are). Since she was working for me it was convenient to get her to be filmed at the local gym. I then moved on to family and friends and then other studio assistants and next people to the street and local parks. My next move was back in the studio where my wife and daughter offered cash to passing strangers to be models for half an hour. Filming people on the walking machine is much more complex that a simple photo on the street. For a film I need completely steady movement and perfect lighting.
You were very much influenced by the “walkers,” or “joggers,” or “runners” from ancient wall paintings or murals. Just as mankind has evolved over time, I’m inclined to think that the significance or implications of walking is constantly changing with time as well. What do you think are the differences between walking of the past and of the present?
My father often said that the only really new experience available is speed. My feeling is that life is a lot more similar to the past that we care to think.
You constantly challenge yourself to find new elements to incorporate into your practice. For example, you mentioned that you are experimenting with the contrast between motion and stillness by connecting video to painting and by placing video within a single frame. I think one can see it as having a similar effect to the display screens seen in airports. I’m curious to know if you have any plans to further technologically elaborate on the walking motion in the near future. How do you think the technique and theme of your “walkers” series will evolve down the line?
Obviously this magazine project focuses on the walking people project. Meanwhile I am also drawing and sculpting buildings and landscapes and animals. I draw people standing still and even rotating on the spot. Each technology suggests specific imagery and each subject matter suggests a technology. I often feel making art can be compared to cooking in that it’s the way the ingredients are combined and processed that is important as much as the initial ingredients. I use what I see around me, I don’t seek out new technology but rather I notice what is currently making up the shared world around us. I use languages that are already ubiquitous and normal. It is the shift of seeing these public languages used for personal poetic means that creates the excitement I am looking for.
Your “walkers” have been made by recording passers-by all over the world. While there are so many, can you tell us more about the walkers in each of the cities? Any interesting characteristics? Are there any cities that you found particularly memorable and why?
I like the differences. The saris and flip flops of Mumbai, the sports shorts and striped crop tops of Melbourne, the somber woollen coats and big shoulder bags of New York. The area around my studio in East London has become quite self-conscious and hip and I find that less appealing than more gritty, city zones. Jeans and t-shirts get tedious to draw and it is what I wear as well, so it’s nice to see something different. I spend more time worrying about catching the best moment in a person’s stride where the balance is good.
Is there a city you would like to examine further and eventually portray in your work?
If I had time I’d be happy to do this project in every city but that’s not really the point. I need a palette with which to work and a fresh palette helps me with new projects, rather than using the same old images. As I said, each time I set about drawing a group of people I get a different kind of drawing, but I would not undertake a city just for the sake of it.
All of your “walkers” are in profile. Of all the appearances a walker can take, I would like to hear more about why you chose to depict them in this way.
Like the Egyptians I am using the walking person image as a kind of sign or symbol, almost like language or hieroglyphics, and as such the side-on view is a much cleaner, clearer, easy to read image. I do draw people front-on as well and this has a very different quality, calmer but more confrontational. The relationship to the viewer becomes very different as we face the image full on. I find the dynamic of the striding person adds energy and direction to a picture - it makes composing complex groups exciting and rich.
Because walking is a very mundane form of human movement, you could have easily depicted any imaginary “walker” in your art. Your “walkers,” however, all come from definite sources. What is your reason for designating specific persons to your works, instead of drawing from an image of any walking person? And what is your reason for titling your works with the walkers’ names?
I’m not very good at making things up. There is an odd sense that a made up image is not as direct or personal. A generalisation is, in a sense, corrupt and opinionated. I make no judgment but try to draw what I see, what is realistic. By using real people I feel the image has a kick to it and a sense of real recognition - as if someone is actually there, like a shadow. Our bodies and brains work as highly evolved animals and our reactions are lightening quick and deeply effective. We can slowly rationalise our reactions but really enjoying art or music is done on a very fast and deep basis that is not easy to locate or explain. I don’t really know what I am doing but I have had a lot of experience of doing it. Like a chef I mix and experiment and build on success in a life long process of trial and error.
A decade has passed since you showcased your huge LED work at Seoul Square in 2009. You are soon returning to Seoul by introducing your work in the Dongdaemun and DDP area, which is a widely recognised landmark that has as large (possibly even larger) of a floating population than Seoul Square. When you imagine your work in situ and think about the landscape it will create in the area, what are your initial thoughts? What comes immediately?
Well, I am lucky to have shown often in Korea as I am supported by Kukje Gallery and I have also made museum shows and public projects over the years from Kimono down to Busan. The dynamic culture of Korea has been great to observe and be on the fringes of.
The monolith you will be installing depicts a runner instead of a walker. Running is also a very important human movement. And there is a very different feel to the motion than walking; the circumstances in which people run are different to those when people walk. As an artist, what do you think are the differences between walking and running?
Having drawn any number of people walking I noticed that we had also, by mistake almost, filmed people jogging past the camera. I set about making a series of jogging films and paintings noting how smooth and rhythmic the movement was, as well as of course being much faster. But joggers are dressed in jogging clothes and carry a very specific set of meanings. I was keen to get back to “normal” people but to keep the greater sense of movement and energy of the runners. I started experimenting with a very slow kind of running, the sort you do to show a driver that you are making an effort to cross the road or catch up with a friend, or show the teacher that you are nearly at your class. So street clothes but breaking into a slight jog. Although the movement is less common than walking and is slightly humorous, I have found it to be very useful and it has slowed me to make some rather different works - perhaps to pare the drawing down further as the movement is more pronounced and complex.
Movement is a very important element in your work. Not only do you portray people running, jogging, and walking, but you also depict airplanes flying and cars driving by.
I have dealt with movement over the years as much as I have colour or line. The world is in motion around us and we are usually moving through it. We know the world by movement and, if you think about it, not much is really still except a photograph. Movement allows me to make an artwork that is, I hope, engaging and easy to look at without the awkward feeling of not knowing quite what to think or what to look at. You can just watch the movement for a while and that will do. My pictures never have a beginning, and end, a narrative or a point to make; the movement is a kind of still, continuous movement, often created by algorithms to form an endlessly random picture.
As mentioned earlier on, the theme for the cover of Vogue Korea April issue is “walking.” But if you were to have a subtitle for the cover image, what would it be?
Oh I don’t do subtitles, it’s hard enough to think of a title for every work. I have never much like “untitled” which seems aggressively withholding, but one title will do.
I have used Passers-by, People, Promenade, Walking in New York. I have used names and imagined occupations of the depicted people and short descriptions of what they are wearing.
Could you please list ten things (words) that have most affected your work and practice?
I don’t like such dinner party lists. 5 favourite films! I look at signs and symbols in the city, particularly in shopping malls and airports and motorways. These places are functional and address you as a part of the crowd. Images become language and symbols, they have a great power to communicate and a logical visual base. I spend a great deal of time and get great joy, reassurance, help and energy from looking at art. Sometimes I think I make art so that I can look at and have the art that I really want. Recently I have been looking a lot at ancient art, particularly Egyptian art that is astounding in its beauty, humanity and clarity. I also feel close to a large number of artists making work now or at least in my lifetime, fellow passengers looking at the same world and coming up with their interpretations and solutions for me to look at and react to and even compete with.
I find parallels in music, and the abstractness and directness of music helps me to understand what I want to achieve when making art. My favourite is Bach.
What is the most important (both positive and negative) topic in the art world that’s affecting you today?
I try to avoid thinking too much about the art world; it’s very tiny anyway.