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    Posted on 30 October 2012

    ‘This modern world is a mix of pain and pleasure’

    British artist Julian Opie talks about his solo exhibition based on walkers on Mumbai’s streets

    Sunaina Kumar

    Man in T-shirt with newspaper

    Woman in sari and flip flops

    When superstar artists show in the country, usually they come, show works they have exhibited elsewhere, and go back. However, British artist Julian Opie chose to do things differently for his solo exhibition in Mumbai, which opened at Sakshi Gallery last week. He created a series of works inspired by India, based on walkers on Mumbai streets as part of his global ‘People Walking’ series.

    Julian Opie

    Opie’s art is built on contradictions. There is a distance that he puts between the artist, the subject and the viewer. His figures are often rendered featureless in flat colours with nothing to distinguish them from the many faces in a crowd. And yet, the viewer ends up interacting with these people and building stories for them. Who is the faceless woman in the flowing fuchsia sari, and what of the pot-bellied man with a newspaper in his hand? These are people from the streets of Mumbai, they are one of a crowd and yet they are distinct.

    As part of the New British Sculpture movement, Opie’s art is a synthesis of pop and kitsch, play of colour, wit and humour and an investigation of the idea of representation. His pared down minimalist style is immediately recognisable. Using digital technology, Opie draws from a variety of influences such as billboard signs, classical portraiture and Japanese woodblock prints.

    What inspired your series ‘People Walking’?
    It is related to the depiction of the human as a dynamic, striding figure with a sense of purpose. I see that in ancient Abyssinian war panels and also ancient Egyptian art. After I made one of those figures, it didn’t seem like enough, something about the dynamic stride across the canvas gave it a quality that made it seem to carry the painting. I’ve always drawn people in classical pose, very conscious, formal. But this walking dynamic had a different, more modern quality to it. These people on the walls, don’t know you are here as a viewer, they don’t care about you, they’re like strangers, just people out there, and this feels more exciting than the intimacy of a model.

    You have depicted people from city streets across the world as part of the ‘People Walking’ series. Is there a commonality, a shared humanity you are looking for?
    Being an artist is like running with your eyes closed, you need to keep the momentum and speed, but you don’t really know where you’re going. I plan to take this series to Beijing next. It’s interesting to me how location and people have a recognisable quality. It comes out in ways you wouldn’t expect, so when I was asked to do the show here, I thought rather than just bring my wares to show here, I should perhaps try to gather some material. But we didn’t have much time. I hired a photographer and explained exactly what I needed and he went out on the streets of Mumbai and sent back a lot of material.

    What did you gather from the raw material in India?
    The colours on one side of the gallery suite with the Indian paintings are hot, there’s bright sunlight, toes of people are showing in their flip flops. In London, it’s muted colours, everything is blue and grey. The garments of people here, especially the saris move in a wonderfully descriptive way, whereas in London, it’s always raining and people hold themselves tight. It’s not like I’m an expert on Mumbai or I have much to say, but this gives me the opportunity to draw out subtleties and share them.

    You take a lot of pictures — what quality do you look for in a photograph to convert it into art?
    I do take a lot of pictures, the way everybody does now. Images are everywhere. I had an exhibition in Shanghai recently and everybody was taking pictures of the exhibition and information was flying away from the building to other places. I’m interested in this. What you catch in your net is a massive amount of information. Perhaps the artist’s job is more of a stripping down — the question for an artist now is what do you throw away?

    You have been inspired by advertising, billboard and popular art. What is the advantage of working with these materials?
    I would like to make work that feels like it is made of the surrounding world, not transported from somewhere else, and sometimes that makes people feel it’s familiar, for me it’s about plunging into the familiar and finding something special in it rather than saying I reject the familiar, normal life. I’m not interested in inventing new techniques but in the ones that already exist. So, when I’m moving through the world I’m looking at how imagery exists in road signs and in advertising.

    Your art is arresting but not designed to immediately appeal. In other words it’s not ‘pretty’. Comments?
    You can’t make something too nice, it has to have a balance of qualities. It also needs to appeal in a human way to draw you in, so a mixture of push and pull is important. There are elements in my art which are perhaps repulsive and put people off, perhaps there are people who stop there and say I’m repulsed by plastic and advertising and road signs. This is not beauty for me. Beauty is sunlight on water, or a loved one’s face. But for me beauty lies in all of these areas and one informs the other, if you only have sunlight on water, you are denying the rubbish that’s floating in the water. That’s not the way this modern world is, this modern world is a mix of pain and pleasure.

    You sometimes draw figures without facial features, or fingers. The Indian man you have drawn with a newspaper has a head but no neck. Why is that?
    I don’t want people to think it’s strange, I want the image to look as normal as possible, but if I draw their fingers and their face, several things happen, one is they look much more conventional, and as such much less noticeable. The other thing is it slows things down , the whole image loses its sense of dynamism. We’re all trained to focus on the face of a person, and by taking that away, the viewer is forced to read all the other information.

    You are known to devour different forms of art every day, what are you currently engaged with?
    Currently I’m spending a lot of time with 17th and 18th century French and Dutch paintings, the late pre-modern period. In my country, there is a very strong 19th century romantic myth of the artist as a struggling genius, arriving at the studio slightly mad, perhaps drunk, waiting for inspiration and then rushing to the canvas to express himself. This myth is held with affection but we all know the dangers of romanticism. I’m much more interested in the 18th century idea of the artist, where art is a job, a work, a process, and something which can be revisited and looked at over the years as a development. In the 18th century, artists had big workshops with many assistants who were also artists. There were hardly any art schools at the time, these workshops would be run as academies. You learn with the artists and then set up on your own.

    The exhibition is on at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, till November 21.

    Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

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    Posted on 30 October 2012



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