NGV Triennale. 2020

Julian Opie speaks to Tony Ellwood, director of the National Gallery of Victoria, on the event of Opie's new Melbourne based public commission 'Australian Birds'. 

 

Tony Ellwood: Thinking back to Crows. (2018) the animated LED screen-based crows you presented at the NGV in 2018, this is not the first time that birds in public, human-occupied spaces have provided a source of inspiration for your work. What is it about this subject that you find so engaging?

 

Julian Opie: I have used birds before but mostly as distant flying elements in a landscape animating an open sky. Any sky looks better and deeper with birds in it, though a plane with a contrail will also do. The crows were different in that they made the work themselves and stood alone as statues.

 

On my way to work I pass through a small urban park where a group - a ‘murder’ - of crows are always hanging around on the grass. They are rowdy and jet black, and somehow seem tough and streetwise. Being so black they appear almost as silhouettes of themselves, like flat, flashing drawings, repeats of a single bird in different poses.

 

Every now and then something catches my eye, stands out from normal life as a usable, separate language either looking like art or looking like it could become art, and I usually take a photograph. I returned to the park with a long lens on an SLR still and video camera, and got down on the ground at bird level. I can only draw front-on really as this turns the object into a sign of itself while remaining realistic; a road sign of a deer would not be drawn from an angle. Once concentrated on and seen up close, I realised how smart and hyper alive these animals were. Bickering and communicating, reacting to everything around them including passing people. I filmed for an hour or so and then broke the films down into a set of typical movements that could be looped. Enough variety to suggest reality and life and be typically “crow-like”, but simple enough that the movements could be sewn together in any random order. I find that the bare minimum is a good place to stop, it allows easy reading and flexibility but you also don’t want to flatten out the character - so it’s a delicate balance.

 

I read a bit about crows and new discoveries on how bird’s brains work. Contrary to old opinion, it seems the lightweight brains of some birds are actually very powerful and wired very differently to ours. The two sides of their brains don’t communicate in the way ours do, each eye reporting to only one separate side. Crows have been noted to watch traffic lights and use the colour coding to help them safely place nuts under car tyres to crack them and then retrieve the opened nut.

 

In the end I found four basic movements that I could capture, draw and play with: walking, pecking, turning the head and pooing. I drew the key animation frames and my assistants filled in the necessary fifty frames a second for smooth movement. Then we wrote code for each bird to randomly pick one of the four movements, giving an automated but natural feel to the set of five.

 

The work uses their natural and highly recognisable movements and character, and of course their form, but they are displayed in the authoritative and highly urban technological language of signage LED. Many birds share our living space and, thanks to flight, are largely free to ignore us and safely cross borders and carry on their natural behaviour as usual. Not many wild animals can do this anymore, and we are left sharing our space with domesticated animals and a few hardy rodents. Even insects seem to have largely given up on us, but birds remain wild and independent.

 

TE: This new commission Australian birds.  (2020) includes seagulls, pigeons and ibis, all familiar species throughout Australia’s urban landscape. What is your personal connection to Australia, and how has a greater sense of place influenced your work? 

 

JO: Australia, and its urban and outback myths and history, were a large part of my childhood. My Australian father, Roger Opie would hoist the Australian flag outside our holiday home every day, and held onto a noticeable Australian accent and vocabulary despite spending all his adult life in the UK.

 

Our tin mining ancestors left Cornwall to mine bauxite in Munta, in the outback of South Australia in the mid 19th century. The next generation moved South to Adelaide. In the 50s and 60s, travel between the UK and Australia was not easy and, although I have family there, it was only when I was invited to participate in the Sydney Biennale in the 90s that I began to get to know Australia. I did a print residency in Darwin that allowed some travel to Arnhem Land, a second biennale with a probably ill advised trip to Broken Hill alone in a small rental car, and then some recent trips for my show at NGV.

 

On the first visit to Melbourne, I took my wife Aniela and son Paul on a roadtrip to the outback and back down to Adelaide to see my father’s house. And then back along the great coastal road trying out a little surfing and always falling further in love with all things Australian. Once the NGV show was installed my eldest daughter Elena and I flew to Alice Springs, hired a Ute and two swags and headed out to camp and walk the outback which was quite magical. It must be hard for Australians to imagine how exciting and different the huge landscapes, open spaces and wild nature of Australia is for visitors from small, cold, crowded islands. Leaving the car to follow a giant iguana or a pack of kangaroos, passing beneath gum trees with hanging koalas all felt extraordinary yet strangely familiar due to those childhood stories. It seems to me that animals are generally underrated and ignored in such a terrible way, also in art, and while drawing people has become central to my work for the last twenty years I also draw any animals that I can find ways to use. I never use stock photos as I want a more direct relationship with what I actually saw. This keeps a sense of starting from the very beginning, an observation and a drawing from reality then transformed by techniques and technologies, composing and then installing. An artwork that comes from actual experience and reflects that reality into the eye-line of the audience like a series of mirrors. 

 

When NGV asked me to make a work for the traffic islands in front of the museum based on the crows work, it seemed obvious to stay local and gather images of the birds I had seen in and around Melbourne, giving a sense of logic and normality to the work.

 

TE: The presentation of work outside of the gallery space and within the broader public realm is becoming an increasingly familiar aspect of your artistic practice. Do you see Australian birds an extension of, or departure from, your gallery-based work?

 

For me a work is not finished until it’s installed. It may end up temporarily in a gallery or permanently in a home or a museum or public space, and I may or may not have control over its placement, but a work is always seen in the context of where you’re viewing it - even if that is your phone. The trick is to be able to marry the showing options on offer with the interests and work in progress that I am engaged and interested in. When I get invited to do a show or a commission I look to the current projects I am engaged in and the works I would like to make, in order to find a solution. It becomes an opportunity to bring to life one of the possible ideas I had in mind.

 

Some commissions and shows have allowed me to move into projects that would not have existed otherwise, and have pushed me to new, more specific and complex solutions. Without the NGV commission I may have made another bird work like the crows, in fact I recently showed a large animated work based on pigeons in an exhibition in Tokyo, but I would never have engaged in such a broad range of interlocking animations and bird types. When working on museum shows and public commissions a certain level of scale and funding becomes possible, allowing a more ambitious approach, in fact this is one of the largest and most complex works I have made. I only really make works to try out new ideas; I only have a rough idea at the beginning as to what the ingredients will be, and even less of an idea as to the final solutions and composition. It can be hard to explain to commissioners that any artwork is a process and a result of experimenting and refining ideas, rather than the production of a ready made proposal. Australian birds started with an assumption of using LED double sided signs depicting indiginous wildlife, but the composition and layout, the type of birds and what they do, has developed over the period of making.

 

TE: The work skilfully challenges traditional notions of public art and sculpture through the incorporation of LED matrix boards, often associated with advertising and urban signage. Can you speak to the technical development of this work, considering the inherent challenges that public art presents?

 

JO: In the late 80s I visited Japan and Korea and was very excited by the culture - old and new. One of the things that particularly struck me was the signage. Perhaps echoing traditional banners and flags, this Asian signage had a particular set of colours and used what were new technologies back then. Glowing streets full of backlit vinyl signs and everywhere animated LED screens. It was as if the static signs of Europe had sprung to life. Arrows on escalators rolled forwards and words on notice boards flashed and scrolled. In a taxi in Korea an animated horse galloped to indicate that the meter was ticking; while in Taiwan I saw the stop/start pedestrian traffic signs depict an animated man walking. I jumped at the chance to make my drawings move, something I had attempted in the past but had never developed as there was no satisfactory way of displaying the movement, other than tedious darkened rooms and clacking, dusty projectors.

 

The thing about LED is that the actual mechanism is sculptural and has a very physical surface, unlike projection screens and, later, plasma and LCD screens that are neutral and somehow blank, invisible, passive as materials. LED is more like wood or iron in its form, and the fact that you can see the on/off glass (glass back then, plastic now) bulbs and metal frame gave me an object I could sculpt with, as well as a moving image that could be seen clearly even in direct sunlight. LEDs depict movement so well but also confound that movement by clearly revealing the basic trick of animation; instead of having real movement they statically show consecutive still images as each LED clearly comes on and goes off.

 

Jenny Holzer had shown the power of contrasting authoritative LED information boards with poetic, contradictory and personal statements. I found that there was a natural humour and dynamic friction when using this strong, public and commanding language, to show what were obviously personal, casual and uncertain films. Like drawings of kittens made in painted, yellow-line road markings or tanks depicted in embroidery.

 

For me a work is not finished until it’s installed. It may end up temporarily in a gallery or permanently in a home or a museum or public space, and I may or may not have control over its placement, but a work is always seen in the context of where you’re viewing it - even if that is your phone. The trick is to be able to marry the showing options on offer with the interests and work in progress that I am engaged and interested in. When I get invited to do a show or a commission I look to the current projects I am engaged in and the works I would like to make, in order to find a solution. It becomes an opportunity to bring to life one of the possible ideas I had in mind.

 

Some commissions and shows have allowed me to move into projects that would not have existed otherwise, and have pushed me to new, more specific and complex solutions. Without the NGV commission I may have made another bird work like the crows, in fact I recently showed a large animated work based on pigeons in an exhibition in Tokyo, but I would never have engaged in such a broad range of interlocking animations and bird types. When working on museum shows and public commissions a certain level of scale and funding becomes possible, allowing a more ambitious approach, in fact this is one of the largest and most complex works I have made. I only really make works to try out new ideas; I only have a rough idea at the beginning as to what the ingredients will be, and even less of an idea as to the final solutions and composition. It can be hard to explain to commissioners that any artwork is a process and a result of experimenting and refining ideas, rather than the production of a ready made proposal. Australian birds started with an assumption of using LED double sided signs depicting indiginous wildlife, but the composition and layout, the type of birds and what they do, has developed over the period of making.

 

TE: The work skilfully challenges traditional notions of public art and sculpture through the incorporation of LED matrix boards, often associated with advertising and urban signage. Can you speak to the technical development of this work, considering the inherent challenges that public art presents?

 

JO: In the late 80s I visited Japan and Korea and was very excited by the culture - old and new. One of the things that particularly struck me was the signage. Perhaps echoing traditional banners and flags, this Asian signage had a particular set of colours and used what were new technologies back then. Glowing streets full of backlit vinyl signs and everywhere animated LED screens. It was as if the static signs of Europe had sprung to life. Arrows on escalators rolled forwards and words on notice boards flashed and scrolled. In a taxi in Korea an animated horse galloped to indicate that the meter was ticking; while in Taiwan I saw the stop/start pedestrian traffic signs depict an animated man walking. I jumped at the chance to make my drawings move, something I had attempted in the past but had never developed as there was no satisfactory way of displaying the movement, other than tedious darkened rooms and clacking, dusty projectors.

 

The thing about LED is that the actual mechanism is sculptural and has a very physical surface, unlike projection screens and, later, plasma and LCD screens that are neutral and somehow blank, invisible, passive as materials. LED is more like wood or iron in its form, and the fact that you can see the on/off glass (glass back then, plastic now) bulbs and metal frame gave me an object I could sculpt with, as well as a moving image that could be seen clearly even in direct sunlight. LEDs depict movement so well but also confound that movement by clearly revealing the basic trick of animation; instead of having real movement they statically show consecutive still images as each LED clearly comes on and goes off.

 

Jenny Holzer had shown the power of contrasting authoritative LED information boards with poetic, contradictory and personal statements. I found that there was a natural humour and dynamic friction when using this strong, public and commanding language, to show what were obviously personal, casual and uncertain films. Like drawings of kittens made in painted, yellow-line road markings or tanks depicted in embroidery.

 

July 1, 2020