Julian Opie speaks to Soma Das on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai in 2012.
Is there a particular theme for your upcoming exhibition?
I make exhibitions in response to the venue - the architecture and the setting of the gallery or museum or public space. Having said that, I am moving through ideas and projects all the time and when I have a show to do it will of course reflect my current interests and enthusiasms.
Making art is like mining. You dig and see what you find, and if it's good you keep digging in that direction. At the moment I am expanding into new areas of portraiture while also spending a lot of time making landscapes. The Mumbai exhibition will show both these themes and at points these merge. The landscape project is all about walking - walking through space. It is the view outwards, from the body and the individual. The paintings of people walking are the view from the outside looking back at people. The rest of the works are portraits of faces.
What inspired you to exhibit in India and showcase a special series on Mumbai walkers? How much of research, shooting, etc, went into it?
I was not inspired to show in Mumbai I was asked! As I said, a show is a fortuitous moment, one hopes. Whatever I am working on offers various possibilities and when I started to plan the show I immediately thought to expand a project I had started in London, which is to photograph strangers on the street and make paintings of them. A person in full stride has a certain narrative and glorious dynamic about them. The striding figure has a long artistic tradition dating back to Assyria and Egypt. People on the street are not posing and are oblivious to me. They smoke and telephone and text and carry bags and move on past, never to be seen again. I first drew people in the city of London and then in the rain outside my studio. I thought it would be ideal to draw people on the streets of Mumbai and see what contrasts and similarities arose. Sakshi Gallery helped me hire a photographer, Naiyer Ghufran, and under my direction he took some hundreds of photos of people walking in Mumbai. Over the summer I drew 3 of these and they became the paintings that will be in the show. I often work very last minute, which is stressful but means that the shows are fresh and specifically designed for the space.
What are your observations of Mumbai and Mumbaikars? Are there certain similarities or differences between them and people living in your city?
I like to draw and explore rather than judge and sum things up. The light is clearly different in Mumbai than where I live but there are subtle differences in the way people hold themselves. I notice a lot more hand gesturing in Mumbai but that does not come across much in my pictures. Of course clothes are often different while mobile phones and plastic bags are universal. I am not trying to generalise or make any kind of point, as I said I am looking and picturing and thinking and talking about looking.
What the highlights of the upcoming exhibition?
There is a large new picture of my wife!
Can you give us a bit of background about yourself and take us through your art journey?
I started exhibiting in London and Europe and America at the age of 24 and now I am 53 years old, so this would take too long to answer. My mining has taken me in various directions but I see it all as a single project in a way and find myself circling back on issues that I have dealt with many times in different ways. New ideas find echoes in early works but of course my life has changed as have available technologies and resources.
How did you get interested in art? What inspires your artworks?
The most asked question is always "where do you get your inspiration from?". Once a school child asked what pets I had. A much easier question to answer. I have always been interested in art long before I knew that it was possible to actually be an artist. I have drawn and sculpted and painted every day since I was about eleven years old. Each work is a reaction to the successes and failures of the last. It's a thrilling and absorbing process that I can't wait to get back to. I have always loved to look at and think about other peoples art too. It makes little difference to me when the art was made. I feel as engaged in Roman portrait busts as I do in Japanese Manga or 17th Century Dutch landscape paintings. When I can I go and look at all these things and even collect some of it so I can look at it even more. I go through different obsessions and interests of course. At the moment it's Egyptian and Roman art that fascinates me most. My mother always drew and sketched and we had reproductions of paintings around the house. Art has always seemed a natural thing to me like singing or going for a walk.
Your artworks are characterised by minimalism; what attracted you to it?
I don't really agree with that statement or even understand it.
Is there a certain message you are trying to convey the viewer through your artworks? Are there certain concerns you are trying to highlight?
No. I make what I think will look great in response to what excites me in the world. I have an idea, usually based on a previous idea, and I try to see it through. In the process of seeing it through, it usually becomes something else. Presenting an artwork is in a sense a conversation with an imagined audience and of course I am playing with preconceptions and references all the time.
What attracted you to the walking figure?
I hope I have covered that.
Can you tell us which artists have influenced you?
This would also take too long. Sol LeWitt is a role model in terms of his way of dealing with the art world and making and exhibiting work. I grew up in Oxford where there are great historical collections and architecture and also a very important contemporary museum that was curated by Nicholas Serota - now director of Tate - during my school years. I was taught by a great Anglo American artist called Michael Craig-Martin who taught me how to combine my interests and gave me the confidence to proceed. I started exhibiting at a time when the main focus was not on Britain even though there were some interesting things going on. That has changed but I don't feel particularly focused on Britain. Having said that, in the last few years I have become very wrapped up in British portraiture of the 17th and 18th centuries. This was a small golden age in British art that comes as a wonderful discovery for me.