A series of texts written for the catalogue accompanying Opie's 2019 solo exhibition at Opera City Gallery, Tokyo.
There is a large light box in the entrance hall of Toulouse airport indicating the route to arrivals with an image of a black plane on a pure yellow background. As you come into the dark lobby from the bright sunshine of the south of France, the image is very powerful, astounding even, though mundane at the same time.
The technology behind it is advanced, the flat LED lights, the high-resolution inkjet printing on nylon stretched across a lightweight, extruded aluminium frame. It’s as awe inspiring as a golden altarpiece with its almost literally uplifting image of a rising plane. Of course at the same time it’s just another backlit sign, but take that out of context and I thought it might be possible to rediscover the sense of amazement and visual disbelief that I briefly felt as I hurried past and snapped a photo of my phone.
We have spent over a year tracking down the right technology. I often feel that searching for the right way to build things is a form of drawing in itself, a similar process of trial and error, experimentation, compromise and orchestration.
When travelling, my eye is drawn to the language of signage and, in particular, the colour coding. I’m quite colour blind and I find the strong, primary, contrasting colour system used in safety signage easy to read and somehow exciting.
Motorway signs and fire equipment use colour as functional code with no thought of decoration. It’s colour as language - as maths. Colour is decorative and evocative though, so there is a clash of purpose and effect. I own some painted wooden Egyptian funerary models of animals, and I note they are painted also on the underneath, which cannot be seen. The purpose, as I understand it, was to provide foodstuff for the afterlife in a very functional way. Once painted the models were packed and buried. I want the pictures to have that sense of functionality and logic.
What is really going on when you look at a picture? Recognition, reading, your eye following a line, brain reacting to colour and reference, interpreting distance, material, noting similarities, evoking memories and making judgments. This is also how we read and exist in the world; it’s how we experience our surroundings and it’s all condensed and refined into a picture. Once there - once the process of looking and reading through the vehicle of a picture has been built - it can be enjoyed as a language that is outside experienced reality, no longer another thing in the world but now a picture.
Sight is no longer just a mechanism of survival, but a feast in the same way that noises (which reveal prey or warn of predators or approaching vehicles) can become, can be perceived, as music and enjoyed if they are listened to in the right way. To help this process, humans have invented all sorts of techniques to codify, abstract and remove or elevate the processes of seeing and listening. Musical instruments with set notes, chords and scales; pictorial systems such as composition, perspective, collage, reflection and layering, implied and real movement; tricks really, to fool the brain, to mystify, confuse and remove from the rest of reality. The tricks are justified by the revealing of a secret place that can be read and shared - where communication can occur.
I draw with a thick line. I draw with as thick a line as I can manage. As the line gets thicker it becomes more concrete in itself. It is not just describing the edge of something but is an actual thing, like a stick. It becomes more difficult to draw and I’m forced into many compromises, losing fingers and event feet and necks. But the line becomes more taut and object-like, a sign for the depicted thing rather than a description.
When something becomes a picture it slips out of our reality and enters another world of language, dreams, imagination, memory – but it can still be present in the real world as materials and surfaces. A perceived face in the rocks or animal in the clouds lifts away, breaks the surface and joins with something inside us. It’s not always a pleasant sensation and can be frightening, but it can also be joyous, exciting or calming as it gives inner reality the space to exist outside of your body. Art can take this role, though it’s a dangerous area to tread, full of pitfalls, clichés and tedious depressions.
When I see a plastic bottle on a beach my eyes and thoughts are drawn to it against my will. I don’t want it to be there but I also realise that if I was the survivor of an air crash or apocalypse the sight would be a huge relief, signifying nearby civilization. One small sign that stands out from all the surrounding nature in such a forceful way. In the 1970s the artist Ed Ruscha made some realistic fiberglass boulders and left them out in the desert for people to come across, or more likely not notice. That work made a huge impact on me in the way it bought one world of language up against and over the reality of nature, placing a drawing on the drawn.
I’m guessing our brains, our bodies, read every situation, place and object in terms of safety, danger, potential reward. Before we have thought anything through we have assessed it. Given how much we see in reality, first and second hand, our interpretation and instinctive recognition is far too complex to fully understand or interpret, but the strong feelings and reactions can be played with and orchestrated through a process of experiment. Trial situations can be set up where the elements are controlled and adjusted.
Observation is a defence mechanism for me, a distancing. A task becomes a game and surroundings a view, the world a language. Exhibitions and commissions allow that the results of this process can then go back out into the world. I can place a statue of an animated galloping horse in a field or a bronze standing figure in a public gallery.
Any crowd anywhere offers a rich and varied palette of characters. Colours and shapes, clothes and accessories, hairstyles vary. Yet each portrait can be understood as the same thing. Like notes on a piano this allows me to compose pictures with a range of chosen figures. Animals function in a different way. They tend to read as the same character repeated. If I draw a bird ten times it seems to be a flock of birds rather than one repeated. This is not true of people. When I make sculptures of animals they are always in groups whereas humans can work either way. So with a group of elements and a set of parameters I set something in motion. I try not to add anything that is illogical or unnecessary but allow myself to play with all the variables that are inherent. For instance, if each figure in a crowd scene is denoted by a colour, as instructions on a safety sign often are, then there is no reason that the character must retain the same colours when it re-enters the picture plane. Thus as the characters in the composed crowd scene re-cross the picture plane, they are offered a possible range of colours to choose from and another layer of complexity is achieved without really adding anything.
The material that is used speaks as loudly as the image that it creates, but it’s a less predictable language. Images are like words in that we recognise them fast and share their interpretation. It’s possible to write in hieroglyphics or emoticons, maps and plans, but how does felt-tip compare to type, or chalk, or beaten lead inserted into carved limestone?
Making a drawing from 8mm bronze sheet carries a very particular set of references and creates a mood, affects meaning. I wanted the resulting works to look and feel like traditional statues. I even used stone plinths. Then drawing people that were hanging around on the street outside set those grandiose materials in balance. It’s not just historical reference though; it’s also the physical experience of being close to a hard, heavy, cold material. Beyond that there is the sense of its permanence, its intrinsic cost. It’s not the mind that reads this so much as the body.
There is a small park I pass through on my way to the studio where a crowd of crows hang out. They are rowdy and brimming with intelligence and energy, and are so black that they appear to be silhouettes, drawings against the green grass. I read about them and then filmed them, discovering that they are much smarter than I thought. It’s an insult to call someone “bird brained” and I remember it was thought that to keep themselves light, birds had compromised on brain weight. But it turns out that their brains are wired quite differently to mammals and they are very clever indeed. Crows have been seen using traffic light timing to dart under waiting cars and place nuts that are then cracked when the lights change.
In order to bring that energy and life into my drawings I found that three or four basic movements were needed. I created a random program that chose the next movement and set each bird into action. By having five of the same screens the random movements create an endless syncopated rhythm this is very bird like I think.
LED screens are very bright and eye-catching; in fact I feel that they are the modern equivalent of shiny gold. Until recently they have been too low resolution to be used for entertainment, and are usually used instead for urgent and important official information. They carry authority, telling you the time of your train or when to cross the street. The last thing you expect of them is gentle beauty.
Where I live birds are the last free animals that seem fairly oblivious to us. They cross political boundaries, dodge traffic, are close but impossible to touch. There is a long history of depicting noble birds from Egyptian carvings and Roman wall friezes
Each work is a kind of magic trick performed. I need props and some kind of a story. Next I can set about trying to pull off the transformation that was suggested possibly by earlier experiments or observations in the world. Quite what will come out is somewhat unpredictable, dependent on the ingredients and accidents of the materials and the moment. The way a shadow falls, a useful element like power cables or birds in the sky, a material that double references, may end up being the most successful element of the work. I can set up the situation in which such things - such magic - can perhaps happen and then try to do it again.
It may not feel like it but looking is actually a process. We read and interpret the world rather than directly apprehending it. When a branch casts a shadow there is another layer to this process and it’s possible to see the shadow as a picture of the branch. I add more layers of process between the thing in the world, the bird or building and the watching eye and understanding brain. I record its shadows, translate its colours, trace and cut its outline. All in the hope of veering close to the experience of being in a place, of pinning down what it feels like to see.
Each work is part of an ongoing project. There are a number of these that intercept and split on occasion. Sometimes I’ll think of or notice something to add to the project to make a new work, and sometimes I actively seek a way forwards. It’s not always good to get too much new input - better to drip feed new material and techniques so as not to be lost or overwhelmed at the possibilities. I might keep an observation in store for some years before I need it or find a way to use it. I have watched the movement of birds on the ground for years, realising there was something there, but only the combination of LED technology and a project in a museum garden bought the actual work together, while a similar project with ducks and pigeons did not quite make it.
Tossing scraps of bread into a French river caused a flurry of tiny fish to appear and swarm. Seen from above they made an ever-changing pattern that had elements of musical notes and TV static. They made a flat plane and, above all, looked possible to draw. Like passing pedestrians, each one came and went, but the overall crowd remained. Fish however can move across the canvas, up and down as well as side to side, so compositionally they are more flexible than people. I remembered a carp pond in an urban greenhouse near by home and filmed for an afternoon from a tripod suspended over the pond. Unlike the twisting, frantic minnows, the carp are heavy and slow. They interact, rubbing and bumping. Carp ponds are meditative and the movement soothing.
I think a lot about soothing. By leading the eye or the ear on a calming journey you become aware of the manipulation. Taking a step back you can both recogise and also immerse into the spa like quality of physical effect. Stopping on a walk and listening only to the complex sound of a stream or the many birds in a forest, allows a kind of internal drawing or following that is similar to looking at an artwork. The complexity and spatial quality of the sound expands and creates a space that matches the nature around you and places you inside it. The fact that the spa music or motorway lavatory soundtrack is manipulative cheapens the experience in a way, but also clarifies its role - like a high street reference in a painting. By putting the carp in a spa pond their beauty becomes normalised and cultured, they are captured and forced to make a composition like a recorded sleep CD of rain or waves.