Julian Opie speaks to LOOK Magazine. First published in 2014.
When looking at the world created by Julian Opie things appear clean and uncomplicated. Would you say this relates to the world as you perceive it, or would perhaps more simplicity be favourable?
First of all can I confirm that I have not created a world. My son's cereal box this morning stated that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand in the world. This is unimaginable and so is the rest of reality looked at in this way. Humans see in another way, they have a system of perception, involving eyes and light and brain and learnt experience. We start as babies with no ability to perceive and slowly learn to put a reality together that can function and keep us safe. In a sense this could be called drawing. I spend most of my time playing around with this function, following its patterns and seeing what can be done with it. My drawings are no more simple than most art. I have never set out to invent anything; rather I play with what I see, with what exists. If I want to draw something I need to find a way to do it. I do not just accept that as an artist I pick up a pencil. What is a pencil? What meaning does it have to use a pencil? The answers to these questions would have to be part of the final artwork. So the choice of a pencil is as much the meaning and feel of the artwork as that which is drawn with the pencil. I look around the world for means and languages with which to draw. The world of communication and depiction is often clean looking for reasons of clarity and mechanics. I have used road signs, maps and mosaics, computer screens, gravestones and LED's.
Reduction seems characteristic for your paintings. Where does this come from and what would you say you are concentrating on when you paint?
First of all I seldom paint. For me paint has a very strong historical reference that is hard to shift and has been used a great deal. As I explained, drawing is a form of reduction, of concentration and focus. In order to see, one must be blind to everything else or perhaps just bored! You can test this. If you sit on a train and stare straight down the centre isle of the carriage but focus on what you see outside the windows on both sides of the train and stop really looking at anything, you can become aware of the world outside the train, the landscape, as a sliding, flowing terrain; the world as a whole. It is simplified because you can not focus on a car number plate or a bird on a wire, all you can see is the shape of the world, it's colour and your own movement through it and your presence in it.
In the beginning of your career you worked with steel, panels, and paint. At some stage this shifted to a working with the computer. When and how did this shift come about?
As I progress I find new things to draw and new ways to draw them. As for most people, the computer has created a particularly large shift for me in the way I work. A whole new range of tools is offered. In a way there is nothing really new there but as a combined tool it is light years from how we used to work. It is not just about drawing with a computer pen on a graphics tablet; it's also about communication with fabricators, about access to images, about animation and also forms of electronic presentation. Computers, created and controlled by humans, have greatly affected the way the world looks and works and so that necessarily impacts on the way I make art and the way that art looks. Using the hand to create something is now a choice amongst many and I sometimes use that option when it makes sense.
How important was the continuous development of technology for your work? And how do you manage to stay at the forefront of the latest developments?
I seem to answer the next question with the last! If you stuck me on a desert island I would make sculptures from wet sand. It's the way I am. I doodle and play with images and materials. I don't see new technologies in a reverential manner, it's just available, familiar and often quite cool. Humans have always manipulated materials to become tools. From blown ochre to carved stone to mosaics and egg tempera to etched metal and blinking LED's. I am not interested in the latest technology but in the ways of drawing that I see in the world. I have made as many works in stone as in plastic and in paint as in pixels. In fact very new technologies are not good to use as the extraordinariness of the new gets in the way of looking at the work. LED's have been around for a long time now. They have a mood and a number of quite specific references and connections. LED's are usually used for purposes of information or control. LED's are authoritative and to be believed and obeyed. They shine like gold and have a magic hypnotic effect. These qualities allow a range of possibilities that say a framed watercolour would not. Not least they can simulate movement.
When did motion and movement start playing a role in your creations?
Ah ha! I have done it again; already addressed your question. I have always used motion as one of the possibilities of a drawing. Movement is inherent in most art as it is in life. Stillness is death and is unusual. I think my aim is to try to be realistic and making something move often seems a lot closer to reality than a still image. A blinking portrait is more obvious than one that does not blink, a landscape with flying birds and rippling water more realistic than a rigid one. In art school I made blinking portraits and many moving pictures but the modes of presenting moving images were very clunky. Looped cellulose film became hot and dusty and the projectors were noisy and needed a dark room. I built a giant zoetrope that could take your head off, if you got too close. I gave up and focused on still images that evoked movement, welding floating metal objects together that were painted in a fast flicking manner. Later I used highly reflective surfaces like glass and metal and plastic to stop the eye from holding the object still or I created large walk-through works that asked the viewer to provide the movement.
Walking down Tottenham Court Road in London in the late 80s I was staggered by the TV screens that all showed continuous moving screen savers. This was silent, smooth, continuous picture making. Unlike a lot of previous animation, it had an automatic quality, a natural quality in a mathematical sense and a real sense of space, not just depicted space but virtual space. Simply depicting what it is like to exist in space, to see around you and understand the relationship between yourself and your surrounding, to be present, was what I was trying to focus on in making the works I had been making. It seemed natural to first mimic the way this new language looked and then to actually use it. I have used computers to draw and animate and drive my moving works since then. First I used the cathode ray TV screens and then the liquid crystal display screens. I bought some "off the shelf", LED shop display banners and programmed scrolling words to accompany some landscapes that I had drawn. The scrolling words spelled out the sounds you might hear when looking at the view. In Korea I sat in a taxi at some traffic lights and noticed the electronic price meter displayed an animated galloping horse to symbolize the passing time and distance and rising fee. It was a small step to commission a Japanese company to make some larger screens to depict moving versions of the drawings I had been doing of people.
In 2000 you were asked to create the cover for the British band Blur, for which you even won a Grammy! Did their music inspire you?
Five years later one of your works went on tour with U2. How important is music for you when you work?
I only play music when I work on long, physical, repetitive projects. I use the music as a way of staying focused and calm. I often listen to spa music or even just bird sounds or waves on the shore. My lovely wife, who is a musician, says this is rather pathetic. There are new digital radio stations catering for these needs.
However I also use sound in some artworks. I have paired images with sounds when the possibility arose. Early animations I made seemed eerily silent apart from the clacking of the projector so I asked a musician friend to write a piece of easy listening music to accompany the film. I wanted a film that was really just an animated picture, no narrative or beginning or end. The music had to have this endless quality too. Again computers have helped greatly in being able to create endless looped soundtracks. I have commissioned music from Max Richter and Bryan Adams, Paul English by and Saint Etienne. In each case I asked for a repeatable clip that could play forever to create a mood and a soundscape for a picture. I have also used natural sounds, though digitally mixed, usually for landscapes.
Over the years you and your work have gained worldwide recognition. What does this mean to you? And what are some of the most memorable opportunities and works that how grown out of this acknowledgment?
I am not a private artist. For me, part of making an artwork is showing it. Making art and hiding it would be like talking to myself, which I don't do. I always assume an audience when I make a work. When I studied art I had no idea that there was an art world or even that it might be possible to make a living making art or to exhibit in galleries. I came at it from the other side. I simply wanted to make objects that I would then display and people would look at. In the beginning this was tutors and other students. At college we were encouraged to make mini exhibitions and I also pinned up works in the halls and lavatories. As opportunities have arisen I have taken them and moulded my current interests to best suit the possibilities that the world offers. In the past, artists would have been able to show their work in churches and palaces. National art academies were set up in the 18th Century and now we have galleries and museums. I also welcome the chance to use other methods of showing the work. The way of showing the work and the surroundings have a huge impact on what you can do and how things are read. An engraved stone panel reads very differently if presented in a quiet garden than in a shopping mall or hotel lobby. An LED panel reads one way in a collector's home and another in Paradeplatz. I have tried to locate and use all the different ways and places of placing art works into the world and I am not hierarchical. A CD cover, poster or invite card each have their own qualities and can be as useful as a museum show or commission in a town centre.
In 2007 you already realised a public art piece in Zurich, not too far from the new PKZ building, on Paradeplatz. What does it feel like to return to Zurich and work on yet another such a considerable project?
Now you are creating a LED-wall for PKZ. Would you describe yourself as a fashion-conscious person?
Have you done any former work related to fashion, perhaps for a brand or fashion house, in the past?
No, fashion means nothing to me. What interests me is the way the world looks and the way people present themselves. When I draw people I use their clothes and accessories as much as their bodies and looks to depict them and make them seem real. I love the way humans create themselves from a pretty limited range of attributes and although each one seems to be a type they are also always different. Finding a way to depict this duality is central to the way I draw and think. Dressing up is very human of course as no other animals do this. When I draw animals I nearly always draw groups of them. Humans differentiate themselves and are individual. I have done some collaboration with clothes stores; T-shirts and so on. I am working on a set of 15 T-shirts with Uniqlo and MoMA New York at the moment in fact. I have placed art works on other department stores over the years.
Office buildings and department stores are the face of towns as much as government buildings and parks. They are private but also have a public role. The human eye reads subtle differences in a flash. The role of an image, it's value as a material, it's permanence and function are all part of it's meaning. A war memorial, a statue of a leader, an advert or a road sign are all images but all have very different impacts and demand different reactions. I like to mix these up and make them part of my work.
Do you see a connection between art and fashion in our time? If so, has this shifted in recent years?
I am the wrong person to ask.
What other large art projects are you currently working on that your fans could travel to see?
My fans? That 's what Bryan Adams says. I try to keep up a fairly constant world coverage. All my activities are outlined on my website and there is also a link to an online shop there. This year I will be showing in Berlin, Seoul and Krakow. In the UK, I will have shows in Bath and Durham and my daughter's school in North London.
I am working on public projects in California, London, Taipei, Antwerp, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and of course Zurich.