Julian Opie discusses walking, landscape and other influences on the occasion of a British Council tour of his 2012 series Winter to venues in India.
Would you call yourself a "walking artist"? Could you talk about the importance of walking in your art?
I try to avoid admitting my job in public. If pushed I usually say I make sculpture as this sounds less presumptuous than an artist. Since I began making art I have seen movement as an integral part of any artwork. As much as decisions about colour or material and subject matter, movement is a telling part of reality and life. How can you depict the world realistically without including movement? When a human moves they reveal so much about themselves and come to life. When you move through the world you understand depth and solidity. There is walking but also driving and flying and trains and running. There is the view in front and the view to the side. There is movement through the city, through the forest and out at sea. There are humans and animals and so many other kinds of movement. I have drawn flying birds and vapor trails of passing planes, waving grass and passing boats, smiling mouths and twinkling lights. In the past, artists had to infer this movement but with new technology I can introduce this movement to paintings and even sculptures.
In Winter I have chosen a particular way of describing the world and movement though it. It is said that we do not perceive movement, we see a series of still changing images and our brain intuits movement. Certainly as I walk through space I register the changing surroundings in stages, a building is closer, a dog further away and in this way I navigate and place myself within the space. I thought that by drawing a series of traditional horizontal landscapes that depicted a series of moments on a circular walk I could make an endless, moving, three dimensional portrait of a small part of the world. I chose a part of the world - that I love and that lends itself to being drawn - in the Loire valley in central France. I took a photograph every twenty paces on a circular walk as the light was fading on a misty winter's day. By showing the images sequentially on a gallery wall, or on an LCD screen, your mind can surge from one empty image to the next, recreating the walk in your mind. At least that was the plan.
Could you tell us a little bit about your process for paring down an image to its most basic/minimalist essence?
People often assume that the starting point is a photograph but this is not the case. The stating point is an observation of the real world or sometimes an idea inspired by someone else's artwork, or a combination of the two. I lived for years with some of these observations, building on them, coming back to them, reusing and refining them. I use photography as a notebook and a mirror to bring the images and the information into my studio and onto my computer screen. My screen then becomes a window, a mirror, a telescope and a video recorder. When I was young I used to close one eye and draw over my reflection in a mirror and, in this way, I taught myself how to draw. I now do the same with the use of a camera, a computer and a graphics tablet. It has always seemed logical to me to do as little as possible to achieve the maximum of reality and effect. Making art is sailing without a map or compass so any rules are welcome. Rule number 1: make it as realistic as possible. Rule number 2: use as little as possible to achieve this. There are other rules but it's also true that I like to break the rules.
Could you tell us a little bit about your greatest art influences?
Off the top of my head:
Egyptian wall painting, stone and wooden sculpture.
Roman mosaics, statuary and wall painting.
17th and 18th Century European portraiture in oils, marble and miniatures; in particular, Van Dyck, Lely, Kneller, Johnson, Jervas, Ramsay, Reynolds, Romney, Houdon, Largillière, Nattier, Boucher, Smart, Cooper.
18th and early 19th C silhouettes; in particular Edouart, Brown.
Native American Indian beadwork and painting.
18th and 19th C Japanese woodblock Ukyoi prints; in particular Utamaro, Hiroshige, Haronobu.
18th C porcelain statuettes; in particular, Meissen.
19th C Pre-Modernism, Impressionism and Post Impressionism; in particular, Monet and Van Gogh.
Late 19th C and early 20th C Modernism; Léger, Magritte, De Chirico.
Futurism; in particular, Severini and Balla.
Minimalism; in particular, LeWitt, Andre, Smithson, Reich, Albers, Boetti, Irwin, Burden.
Pop Art; in particular Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Ramos.
Many of my contemporaries.
Cartoons; in particular Herge (creator of Tin Tin).
Manga; in particular Studio Ghibli.
Fair Ground art.
Road, shop and public signage.
Could you tell us about your experience as one of the artists who are a part of the New British Sculpture movement?
I went to college and carried on making art. I started exhibiting with the Lisson Gallery and was associated with other sculptors of the time, mostly some ten years older than myself. This was very helpful for me in terms of group shows in which I was included. Since then I have really worked fairly independently of any specific movement.
Your work ranges from portraits and postcards to sculptures and LED installations, what inspires you and what do you plan to expand to next? Could you also tell us a bit about your approach?
I follow projects where they lead me like a miner following a seam of gold. Whatever technologies or subject matter I have noticed tends to feed into my current projects. I see the world as a series of pallets from which to choose and draw. I am often asked to make projects and exhibitions and when these seem of interest I bend my current ideas to these ends and find the combination is a dynamic one.
When one reads about your work, big names like Bryan Adams, U2 etc. come up. How does it feel contributing to people from another creative field? Do their ideas and thought processes play an important part while making your commissioned artwork or do you still tend to work in your own rhythm and style?
I take projects from all over as long as they allow the artwork to function in a pure way - I tend to avoid collaborations but follow my own path. Since my interests and subject matters are wide it's often possible to adapt a project to fulfill others' needs.
Do you think that, with the advent of computer aided design, the fields of contemporary art and commercial design have opened up to more artists who do not really hail from an artistic background?
I would question what is an 'artistic background'. An interest in other people's art and an engagement with visual language always seems very important always. An education allows us to apply and integrate our own ideas and discuss things with other people through the work. Computers certainly bring technologies into my reach, which would otherwise have had to be farmed out. I can print my own catalogues and paintings but I still rely on skilled craftspeople in many cases. The computer is a great drawing tool and of course a great communicator.
Bringing your work to India, do you feel it would inspire a change in the way people observe art here? Do you plan to collaborate with Indian artists and their styles?
As I said I don't usually use collaboration as part of my work unless you mean looking at other people's work. One can only dream of inspiring other people but not presume it. I would love to come and draw the Indian landscape one day, I particularly love the yellow colours. I have undertaken a drawing project of people walking in Mumbai which I exhibited in 2012.