by Isabella Lill
When I found out that Pitzhanger Manor, my local art gallery, announced they were opening an exhibition of the work of Julian Opie, I was ecstatic. A major exhibition of an artist I love in my own backyard was a bright spot at the end of what was promising to be another very dull few months. I saw myself in my artsiest outfit with an overpriced coffee, wandering around the gallery floor. But, when the government announced a seemingly indefinite third lockdown, the announced opening date for the exhibition — 18 March 2021 — increasingly started to reflect a severe case of wishful thinking on the part of the curators, a case confirmed when the exhibition date was postponed to months after. Granted, it also reflected my own naivety for thinking I could write a review of an artist without the shadow of the pandemic and the resulting precariousness of the art world looming large over my thoughts. However, while I was mournfully scrolling through Opie’s website, I came to realise that, although he has never directly addressed the pandemic, his art resonates with my personal experience of it better than any other artist’s has.
‘Village’, a continuous computer animation of the winding streets of an imaginary French town, is Opie’s latest project designed in his classic and brutally graphical style. Opie’s eerily empty city centre was originally released online in April 2020: it could have easily been taken straight out of many people’s first lockdown experiences. Watching it at my desk a few months after it was released added an undeniable layer of poignancy to the experience. However, when considering that this piece would have been months in the making, and probably started well before the pandemic had hit European shores, ‘Village’ began to seem more and more like a work of clairvoyance. It is remarkable just how distinctly the aesthetic of a small French village can be conjured from a palette of just a few sun-kissed colours and the pixelated suggestion of exposed wooden beams. The enduring magic of Opie’s style lies in his ability to evoke the complexity of reality through blisteringly simple design. The viewer of ‘Village’ sees the town from eye-level as they sail through its labyrinthine streets; music that is both ghostly and ambient plays in the background. The video’s length — almost a full hour — added to its poignancy when I first sat down and watched it soon after it was released. Although I did not watch all of it (and I doubt anyone has), 20 minutes was more than enough time to grasp the sense of endlessness and emptiness that Opie is trying to evoke. It is hard to distinguish one street from another, and it was only when I watched back a second time that I realized the video looped back on itself and repeated the same path after only a few minutes. The feeling of fruitless repetition, at dissonance with the fairytale aesthetic of a traditional Bordeaux town, spoke very strongly to my personal experience of day-to-day life in the pandemic here in Oxford, when its picturesque streets were deserted save for a lone jogger.
Looking back through Opie’s oeuvre, though, it becomes obvious that ‘Village’ was not the work of a fortune teller but an artist with good timing. The motifs and conceptualizations that make him so relevant to our position now are themes he has been grappling with since the beginning of his career. His website’s description of ‘Village’ reveals that the concept was developed from Imagine you are walking, one in a series of six screen-prints he made in the 1990s in which the viewer is placed in a narrow alleyway between encroaching grey blocks. The scale of these blocks remains elusive; the lack of detail on the slabs makes it impossible to tell whether they represent structures that are building-sized or human height. Opie’s habit of pairing playful familiarity with visual simplicity can sometimes result in vagueness, but it is also the style that threads his ranging subject matter together. Although the physicality of the world’s exterior looks suspiciously unchanged, it is unsurprising that the subtleties of Opie’s art begin to register more profoundly in a time of deeply-felt disorientation. He has always been a creator who fully embraces the art in the quotidian, and that hasn’t changed, even though life now is far from normal.
At the beginning of his career, accusations of “kitschness” were initially thrown Opie’s way. But the concept of “kitsch”, with all its ranging connotations, is something Opie has embraced with open arms. His work comments pointedly on the art world’s difficult relationship to accessibility. Opie works in the simple language of cartoons and adverts: his creations are flat, reified outlines made flesh through their three-dimensionality or their animation. There is no disguising of the subject in an Opie painting: a landscape is landscape, and a chicken is a chicken. The supposed boundaries between “high” and “low” art have been rejected in their entirety. From 2012 onwards his work has been populated by paintings and animations of people walking. The sheer number of these walking figures (well over a hundred) that can be seen when scrolling back through the digital archive of Opie’s work points to an artistic obsession. For years at a time, it seems like Opie painted nothing else but these figures. To me, their charm comes from the fact that these cartoon men and women never fail to look like the people we see walking down the street, right down to the finest pixel. Often his figures are staring down at their phones as they walk, their earphones plugged in, utterly oblivious to the world around them. The appeal of Opie is, as Jonathan Watkins puts it, his belief that ‘there is nothing inherent in art that makes it different to anything else’ — that art no longer has to be “unique” or “visual” or even an “object”. His art lies in experience or, more often, in the emptiness of experience, making him the kind of artist who can reflect the pandemic experience without seeming painfully contrived.
Ordinary people are Opie’s ideal audience as well as his ideal subject. In a 2003 interview with the Guardian’s Dominic Murphy, Opie speaks of trying to put the viewer at ease: ‘I wanted to defuse that moment of suspicion so that people are given the chance to enter the work visually before worrying about whether it is art or whether they are supposed to like it.’ His animations of figures endlessly walking have been projected across buildings in Indianapolis, Paris, and Hong Kong, mirroring the exact situation of their viewers: people making their way through a busy city with places to go.
One of the criticisms of kitsch — or its latest synonym, “Instagrammable” — is its commercialism. It is undeniable that a perk of the cartoonish simplicity of Opie’s style is that it can be very easily slapped onto a hoodie and sold for a hefty price, and, admittedly, one is also more likely to see Opie’s figures projected onto a skyscraper rather than a municipal building. The first time I saw an Opie street was in 2015, as part of the ‘Lumiere London’ festival. His animation/sculpture ‘Shaida Walking’ was installed at Carnaby Street, London’s hub of boutique designer fashion. Shaida’s skin-tight skinny jeans and high ponytail fit right in. But, no matter how apparently commercial an artist is, it is important to dissect where the impulse to call them “kitsch” comes from. The fact that most wings in major art museums are named after the billionaires who paid for them shows the ridiculousness of dividing up “high” or “low” art on the basis of money. As Jonathan Watkins elucidates in his exploration of Opie’s work, if an alien came down to earth ‘[they] would have no understanding of the hierarchy that builds up from kitsch to those revered products of human ingenuity we call masterpieces’. It becomes clear that calling art “kitsch” is criticizing its accessibility.
It has become evident during our many lockdowns that the most successful museums or websites are those that have fully embraced the necessity of public accessibility. Being the artistic visionary that I am, I had already used Google’s 360° virtual reality tours of museums before its explosion of popularity in the summer of 2020. Of course, its success can be somewhat attributed to brute strength, given that no art gallery in the world could possibly compete with the resources or the reach of the biggest technology giant on the planet. The gut instinct of many, including me, is to balk at the idea that Google might just be more effective about getting people to consume art than the Tate or the MoMA. (It is also undeniably infantilizing to be rewarded badges like ‘Art Inspector’ and ‘Connections Explorer’ when I click on an Yves Klein painting.) But Google achieves what many major players in the art world have not: making online art fun.
I have often struggled to connect to art through a screen. Because I enjoy going to art exhibitions —and generally being slightly pretentious — I feel as if I should also like BBC art documentaries and digital tours of Tate Modern exhibitions. But each time after I give a video a chance, I cannot help but wish I had seen the art in person instead of on my laptop. When a piece of art is designed to be seen in person, it takes a great deal of technological expertise and curatorial magic to make its existence online add to, rather than detract from, the experience of viewing it. Why Opie’s ‘Village’ manages to be an exception still slightly eludes me. Although it would have been nice to view it on the big screen as the centerpiece of the exhibition at my local gallery, I suspect that it wouldn’t have sparked quite the same level of contemplation. Maybe, just maybe, this internet thing isn’t quite so bad after all.
ISABELLA LILL reads English at St Peter’s College. Every single day she wonders if Annie is OK, are you OK Annie?
Art by Sam Griffiths