National Gallery of Victoria. 2018

Opie reflects on observations from the natural world, urban landscape and ancient history that have influenced his artworks, in a text first published in the National Gallery of Victoria's magazine on the occasion of his major 2018 solo exhibition. 

 

I’ve read that in terms of weight ratio, crows have bigger brains than us. They have been seen using passing traffic to crack nuts and timing this with the traffic lights. They can even fly upside down to impress their mates. 

 

On the way to my studio I always pass the same bunch of rowdy, haughty, jet-black crows. They are so black that they appear as silhouettes against the bright green grass of the scruffy, urban park. They peck and stroll and squawk and pretend not to notice me. They are utterly normal but also mythic. I watch them each morning as I pass and eventually I spent a morning filming them with a telescopic lens and saw how intelligent and aware they are. They noticed every passer-by, judging them and keeping the appropriate distance. They casually communicated with each other and used their beaks as accurate tools. In them I saw the interactions of children in a playground or teenagers in the piazza, cool and independent but communicative and full of life and consciousness. I think I felt some of this rub off on me. By drawing them I could have some of their qualities, capture them and pass it on. I have animated them to peck and turn and walk and shit, just enough to bring them to life, to pass for real birds, to make you feel what I felt.

In the mid 1980’s in Tokyo I stepped onto an escalator and noticed that next to the handrail was a small LED display showing a moving arrow going in the direction of the rising steps. This seemed very new and modern. The drawn arrow moved with me in real time. A symbol that climbed the stairs with me and spoke to me, an optical illusion since it did not really move, the lights just went on an off, but then what is perception but an optical illusion? On Italian highways there are synchronised lights daisy chained to create what seems to be one light moving down the road ahead of you. It’s said that we don’t actually perceive movement but rather we see a series of incrementally changing stills.

Sitting in my parked car having arrived early at school pick up time. This is pre mobile phones so I’m just looking at the street and noticing the passing people on the pavement. A constant flow in both directions. Each person a mass of decisions and style and attributes with a destination and only a fleeting moment in front of me but combined, they create a constant flowing crowd. Each random person would be great to draw, better than I could ever invent. 

Eating a picnic on the banks of a wide French river, crumbs drop into the water and soon a mass of tiny fish gather. Flattened by the surface of the water they seem to make a moving, scribbled pattern. 

Any one fish is not there for long I suppose but the cloud remains as a rough circle until the crumbs have gone. Fish swimming against the flow of a fast stream create a different pattern, and big fish in a pond rub against each other and glide back and forth. It’s the type of movement that I see (and that is tellingly fish like) as much as their simple forms. 

Outside my Berlin hotel was a bronze statue of a 19th century statesman on horseback on a high stone plinth. It’s big but pretty much ignored amidst the grand architecture. He rides down the street forever, a black silhouette that feels present and realistic but also abstract and out of place - like a dream. I made that Berlin exhibition years ago but the statue must still be there, I can picture it. That picture is a drawing in a way. If I went back my drawing could fit over the statue or maybe it’s actually different from how I remember, pointing the other way perhaps. Maybe you have seen it or something like it, so it’s a drawing we share. There are many such shared drawings that can be played with and used as a common language.

On my way through Death Valley in Nevada I got out of the car and walked towards a small canyon leading back into the rock face. As I left the full sun of the open desert and entered the narrowing, shaded crevasse I felt a huge change. Things seemed to slow down and I became aware of the space I was in. I felt private and reassured and self aware and excited at what might be around the next corner. They say that after driving a car for a while your body boundaries extend to the edges of the vehicle, allowing you to navigate tight spaces. Like a cat’s whiskers my sense of space told me where the canyon walls were and I became increasingly aware of my own body in return. Narrow medieval streets, New York avenues, tunnels and public lavatories give a similar intense experience as you move from open, public, edgeless space into defined, navigable space almost as if you feel a reflection of yourself bounced from the tight walls. Bats and whales use sonar and other animals use electric fields to draw the space around them, they build an inner model that allows them to navigate and hunt and hide. As humans we use vision mostly, but vision combined with movement - ours and that of the prey. These days there are a lot of variants available with the increased speed of vehicles and the possibility of making the world around us appear to move through film. Computer games and VR goggles can completely mimic and confuse these processes. Art can intercede in the midst of this interpreting, recognising and reacting process, where memory and sense and reading builds the reality we perceive.

I employed an Australian photographer to take hundreds of shots of passing pedestrians in various locations around Melbourne. The rules he followed were simple; camera at waist height perpendicular to the crowd, level ground and as un-noticed as possible using a long lens. I slowly eliminated most of the resulting photographs and set about drawing the remaining figures. I draw using a graphic program that allows me to bend thick lines over the photograph and fill the gaps with flat colour. A gang of characters emerged, caught in mid stride, going about their business with bags or phones or cold drinks. Their random, momentary decisions became frozen into a set piece, a logo and symbol drawn in the most emphatic and generalised way I could manage while sticking to the details of what I saw. Symbols and hieroglyphs, images and road signs perform similar tasks of turning objects and people into a language that is specific enough to describe but general enough to be read. These words can be combined to form sentences just as the people combine to form crowds. Walkways and pavements turn pedestrians into lines of text, read left to right. I laser cut the drawings from aluminium sheet that was anodised matt black, like a typeface.

I don’t have anything particular to say with the artworks or any message that I’m trying to get across. I work because it feels necessary and exciting and gives me a way of dealing with and using the world I see around me. The aim is to make something that looks really good, that is exciting and pleasing to look at, that is alive and new and visible. You can put materials together and gather information and images, but to bring it to life requires practice and perseverance, trial and error. I’m not claiming to succeed but that’s my aim. It’s not necessary to make anything in order to see this kind of magic as it is all around us, but there is the exciting possibility of showing what you have seen to others and of making something new that defines and focuses the experience. I don’t know what I will be making, I just keep mixing and adding and stirring and adjusting the parameters and rules and find that I arrive at certain points where some things can be made for a while. 

It’s easy to forget the real magic of a photograph. Time frozen. The present becomes the past and remains there as we move on. There is something deathly in art, in a good way - the Egyptians painted eyes on their coffins so the dead could continue to look out at the world. Wealthy people invited friends to visit their prepared and decorated tombs. I like to visit graveyards, I like the stillness and the miniaturised architecture and I have seen many useful techniques there. Bronze inlaid in stone; gold leaf on polished black granite; the language of memorials made to last and be looked at as time passes.

On a recent trip to Cairo I was struck by the density of billboard advertising above the town. It felt like the skyline was solid photography and made me think of how dense the imagery must have been on the carved and painted buildings of the ancient past. The architecture must have been alive with imagery and colour. The billboards use electric lighting but the Egyptians relied on shallow carving to cast dramatic shadows from the desert sun, and then painted rich flat colours into the stone relief to confound the eye and create floating scenes of life and death.

As you enter Toulouse airport and your eyes adjust to the relative darkness you are confronted with a super bright, yellow, backlit light-box indicating the departure gates. A simple black graphic drawing of a rising airplane is set on a pure, yellow background. It’s just a normal, functional sign giving directions but is in fact as magnificent as a gilded baroque altarpiece. 

All good art involves movement. Usually the movement is of the viewer’s eye as it travels around and across the artwork - cleverly guided by the artist. This is the timing and rhythm of the work that holds you there. With sculpture it’s also the movement of the viewer, combined with the reading of the work. Making the work itself move is a cheap trick but it’s also generous in a way, offering an easy melody to follow. The danger is that it introduces a narrative that is then inevitably dominating and boring. To avoid narrative, it’s better if the movement is endless and repetitive. Sunlight on water, circling gulls, the view from a train are a constant kind of movement that isn’t boring, because you are not waiting for it to change. 

November 1, 2018