Julian Opie discusses his solo exhibition at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai in 2012.
Tell us a little bit about your interest in India? What are you expecting from your second exhibition here?
I first came to India for the Delhi triennial and I have been in love with it since then. My family and I physically miss India when we are not there. Why? The sounds and smells and colour and heat - the way people interact, the food, the rural architecture, the music. Having said that I don't choose where I show, or rather I choose amongst the things that are offered. So when Sakshi gallery asked me to make an exhibition (my second in fact) I was happy to accept. Mumbai is a large and important city and there seems to be plenty of interest in art and Sakshi is a dynamic gallery with a beautiful space. What am I expecting ? Some visitors I suppose and a chance to hang my works.
How many exhibits will be displayed in India? Is the entire suite inspired by India?
On entering from the street you will see the main inner door flanked by two moving statues. Greek temples had statues holding up the architecture and Indian carved temples have figures guarding doors - In these two works an endless stream of animated people walk across two computer screens. This walking theme is continued in the main room. My plan - these things can change of course once installation begins - is to hang three large paintings of full length figures walking in the London rain on the left side of the gallery and three large paintings of people walking in the Mumbai sun on the right side of the gallery. I have drawn a large number of people walking as have so many artists from the past. The dynamic pose of striding gives an energy and sense of purpose to the painting. People reveal a lot about themselves in the way they walk and recently I have taken to going out on the street and taking images of strangers as they pass. We have a lot of rain and people react to it in a particular way - huddling, rushing, cowering, and holding on tight to bags and umbrellas. There is something a little heroic and grim and melancholic that I like. When planning the Mumbai show, although I did not have a lot of time, I thought it would be a great contrast to draw people on the streets there and see what differences and similarities arose. I arranged for a local photographer to take pictures on the streets of Mumbai and these are the result. Once I have drawn the figures on the computer I send the file to a plastics factory who cut sheets of pre coloured plastic that are glued in layers on a vinyl canvas. So, six of these paintings, two men and four women. The next room is head portraits. These are made in the same vinyl technique but are slower in mood and darker. I have recently been drawing people with heavy lighting inspired by old masters and Manga both of which I collect. The people depicted are friends and family though I sometimes make commissioned portraits. There are five of these. The next room breaks the human theme and will show five landscape paintings and one landscape film, all depicting France where I escape to when I can. These are inspired by walking through the countryside, by google earth and GPS maps, by computer games and 17th Century Dutch landscape painting. A series of 72 paintings fade one to the next while my wife Aniela Opie sings a composition by Emmy award winning film composer Paul Englishby. The last room will pick up the walking theme again but on a smaller scale and include an animated painting of a single figure endlessly walking on the spot. Three more works I think.
Please tell us about the conceptualisation of your animated painting inspired by Google maps.
I don't conceptualise, I draw. I try out ideas that seem possible at any one time with the methods I have at my disposal. One way of making a landscape film is make elements within the painting move. I have done a lot of this, making birds fly and flowers wave in the wind. Sliding frame by frame through google maps and walking in the country myself made me think that another kind of movement could be achieved by simply showing a series of paintings with some twenty steps in between each frame.
When did you move from facial to full-length portraits?
Actually it was the other way around. I had been drawing buildings and animals for some time and always searching for a way to represent people. Then I bought some lavatory signs for men and women and superimposed an image of an acquaintance on top of one of these - after some experimenting I found I could make a sign for anyone. A circle for the head and simple lines for the limbs and clothes. They looked like the model but also like a symbol for any person. It was some time later that I decided to zoom in on the face and apply the same kind of logic to the features. However as I clear out my studio basementI I find that I did draw people in a similar style in my school days - so nothing is new.
Please tell us something about your choice of medium. How did you come to work with vinyl and computer-manipulation?
I use what I see around me and for that matter I see around me those things that I use. Drawing faces and simple line figures helped me to notice Roman mosaics. Vinyl backlit street signs in 1980's America gave me a language with which to draw my images which till then had mimicked this kind of commercial look using artists paints. I always use the most straight forward thinking that I can manage. If a computer speeds things up then that's what I do but if it needs to be done by hand then that's OK too.
I read in an essay by Sandy Nairne that you once offered artworks for sale from a catalogue. Please tell us something about this.
People tend to think the art world is set in one particular way - the way it is now - but it is constantly changing like everything else. Old masters took commissions from the church or from the aristocracy. They used available techniques, tapestry and fresco and mosaic and oil paints and they charged in an appropriate manner. Now we have galleries and museums and collectors and art fairs - and all of that is fine but I like to confuse things and mix things up - it's all part of the meaning of a work - who owns it ? who wants it ? how much did it cost to make ? when was it made ? all these things effect the way we read things and are there to be manipulated and drawn with as much as the different qualities of paints.
It has been said that your art "cuts back to the essentials"; it has also been called "minimalist". Do you subscribe to these readings? Is that how you envision your exhibits?
Minimalism was an art movement that happened before I was an artist. Making art is like running with your eyes shut, you must take risks and rely on your instincts. Keeping things as simple as possible makes this more possible. I try to stick to what I know and if it works without something then I leave it out. However many of my works are very complicated and detailed. You can be essential and baroque I think. People often say I look like my work. There is no escaping your own smell and whatever I do my work tends to look the same in some way.
It has also been referred to as subversive, because it is "affirmative". Thoughts?
This is not the kind of thing I think about much. I do not set out to be subversive but if something seems worth making I make it even if I worry that perhaps I should not. In order to make a picture I need to understand something and I need to love it too. Making art is an affirmative gesture I think, even if it is miserable or critical, it is an engagement. I do like to tease my imagined audience, to play with expectations and brain-eye coordination.