A text written by Julian Opie to accompany his solo exhibition at Krobath Gallery, Vienna in 2022.
Last summer we were stuck in town and I began to notice the people lounging around in the London parks. Their bodies took a variety of positions that were both evocative and very human. Each group looked classic in some way and reminded me of Manet’s famous painting. Our bodies and limbs and the effects of gravity and balance mean there are a certain number of positions possible where we can relax and interact at the same time.
Pretending to text on my phone I took surreptitious photos of the groups.
I asked four young people to come to the studio with a range of casual clothes and take up the positions I had seen in the parks. We took photographs of them from all sides and I set about trying to draw them with a series of straight lines, as if they were pieces of furniture.
It proved very difficult. I am used to tracing and copying photos as flat images, but this was different. We called the models back and used an iPhone app to scan their bodies, which worked much better, avoiding the distortions of photography and giving a lot more information. Still it was tricky, and I had to repeatedly get my assistants to turn my drawings into 3D computer models that I could spin and adjust. Each of the four models took up the various poses I had noticed in their different outfits, and a group of around 24 figures began to emerge. I planned to put these into picnic style groups with contrasting poses.
I placed these statues in a virtual gallery and used VR goggles to enter the space with them. The programme allowed me to see all 24 statues and to move them around into my preferred groups of four. Previous statues have always been flat like extruded drawings and this allowed me to cut them from flat sheet material like plywood and aluminium, more recently using straight lines to build from steel I-beams and wooden bars. But square cut materials were not working with these figures that bent in various directions. It’s hard to explain but you can cut and angle a square tube in one direction, creating a mitred corner, but as soon as you twist this the corner goes out of line and won’t work. The only solution was to switch to round tube which can twist cleanly in any direction. This was a revelation. I became aware of round tube everywhere. As handrails on the stairs down to the underground painted gloss black. As barriers at the football stadium painted gloss white. Stainless steel hoops on the pavement to lock up your bike. With this round tube technology, I could manage almost any angle and also create curved lines.
For some years I have been looking at wooden statues from Indonesia from the late 18th, 19th and early 20th century. These were made by tribal people of the Austronesian culture across Borneo and Sulawesi, Vietnam and Sumba. They are very frontal, but in some cases I noted that the knees were bent and began to find some where the whole body was folded into a squatting position. It was this that suggested to me the possibility of breaking the flat method I had always used. I began to look at the people around me in a different way, noticing their poses and how their limbs allow for various solutions and complex planar folds. In the airport I noticed people leaning and crouching against the wall and this gave me the idea for an alternate set of figures where both the floor and the wall are used as supports for the figures.
Usually an artist puts paintings or sculptures into a gallery space, and they are looked at by the audience. I wanted to people the space with images of the audience itself. I planned to inhabit the gallery as if it were a public park or a waiting room.