Julian Opie speaks to Yitiao Art about his exhibition at Lisson Gallery, Beijing.
You’ve drawn inspirations from a wide range of sources, from history to the modern world. Is there a specific childhood memory/story that has influenced the way you create art? What do you consider to be the most important part in your practice?
Well, that is two questions. To answer the first: I am 64 years old next week and really I don’t remember so much about my childhood. My family had paintings on the wall, mostly reproductions of English post-war art, and I remember staring at these and imagining myself in the spaces depicted. I grew up in Oxford and at secondary school I would wander the amazing and famous local art museums, both historical and contemporary, with headphones on.
There was also an anthropological museum in Oxford that fascinated me, full of objects and statues from around the world. I did not really think about creating art, I just drew things all the time. It was a habit and a way of thinking and having fun.
The second question is also hard to answer. There are many cases in making an artwork. It is a path and as such it cannot have a more or less important part; it all needs to be travelled. In fact, the whole process of making art is a continuous path with dead ends and sudden breakthroughs and a circling back to previous projects. There is often a moment when I suddenly think of a possible thing that might work but it’s quite likely this will get rejected as ridiculous the next day. If not, there is then a long process of adjustment and experimentation before something can get made. Once I feel convinced enough to really dive into a project, to find models and materials and processes, then there is usually a large number of works that can be made and these become apparent and get built in a slow way with the help of many other people.
People or the crowd has been one of the key motifs of your practice. What are the things you’d like to capture from them?
Until the mid 1990s I did not draw people. I remember a review of a big show I did in 1993 that complained that there were no people represented in the exhibition. I consciously looked for a way to draw people. I was drawing animals and buildings and cars but people were more tricky. I needed a language and a recognisable system. I saw a sign for a man on a lavatory door and I then bought a male and female sign and drew some of my friends over this sign on the computer, pushing and pulling the simple forms of the sign to match the models. The results pleased me, and I set about, in signage black and white, drawing everyone I met. I then zoomed in and applied the same logic to faces. Waiting at the school gates in my car to pick up my children I noticed the passing pedestrians through the windscreen, and I realised that here was an endless supply of people in active dynamic poses. I soon realised that I could animate these people into moving drawings. I have repeated this process across the world, expanding my palette of humans and finding different compositions, colours and styles.
Your current show in Beijing presents several bodies of works. If you have to highlight only one series, what would that be and why?
The exhibition is an experience, a landscape that unfolds as you walk through the space. Like a movie, it has different parts that are timed to surprise and engage. The North gallery deals with a project based on dancing figures and the South gallery is a pastoral scene where similar bodies lounge on the floor surrounded by images of landscapes. The two spaces allowed me to explore various techniques. There are Roman-style mosaics and surprisingly similar LED digital screens, both drawing dancers with coloured pixels. These and the accompanying computer cut vinyl paintings use powerful and very material systems of picture making taken from urban architecture, modern and ancient. They play with movement and colour and composition and refer to YouTube videos and TikTok dances with a dance music soundtrack. All these elements must be in balance to create a pleasing and possible visual experience.
In contrast the South Gallery is calm and silent. The landscapes presented as garage forecourt petrol- sign style back-lit panels glow in the distance while relaxed figures are built of stainless-steel urban handrails. The materials are familiar and your body knows how to interpret and navigate them but the personal human subject matter is at odds with this common universal language. This combination is central to making a connection and a shock of recognition and discovery.
There is a clear contrast between the mosaic paintings and the pixelated LED screens. Apart from the very different techniques, what are other differences and similarities you see in these two media?
I already touched on this. Despite the intervening centuries both these systems of depiction are very similar. The imagery is highly affected by the material. Your eye and brain perceive the stones and the individual lights as very present and separate parts and yet magically the combination creates a convincing reality on another, but very connected, plane. You see and sense stone but you also feel the fluid movement of the dancer. You comprehend static flashing lights but also feel your body follow the rhythm.
You don’t seem to be active on social media. How did you come across the shuffle dance on Tik-Tok which became one of your inspirations behind the works in this show? What are the differences between the shuffle dancing figures and the ones depicted in your previous works, such as ballet dancers?
The shuffle dance just jumped out at me as something I could use. The energy and simple repetition was both drawable and also new and full of optimism. I actually can’t remember how I came across it - I should look up my browser history. The ballet project is of course connected, and I also did an earlier project using simple disco dancing, but this shuffle dance was very particular and outside the usual mood of art, I felt. Likewise, the music has a quality that is both moving and evocative and also very trashy and down to earth. I like this combination.
What would you say is the biggest challenge when you try to realize your works? Has the pandemic changed the way you look at the world?
The greatest challenge is not getting scared. The second greatest challenge is actually making something. It’s much harder than it looks. I have nothing new to say on the Pandemic.