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Julian Opie: A New Calgary Stroll

The new kids on the block in Calgary—Jeremy, Jennifer, Rod, Tina, Verity and Kris—arrived here in the entourage of the British artist Julian Opie, who is a Londoner, and stayed behind after he left a week ago for home. They are now permanent residents, out doing what city dwellers do—walking on the streets. However, they do not blend in with the crowd. They stride above it, suspended paradoxically in a state of perpetual motion.

In the urban landscape, movement, light and colour are what immediately attract the eye to their presence. Opie’s animated walking figures, rendered with minimal detail in the black line drawing that is a hallmark of the artist’s style, occupy a 24-foot-high, four-sided LED tower on the gritty edge of the downtown and Calgary’s East Village, a 49-acre district with river frontage that is now under development. The sculpture, a $650,000 commission by the Calgary Municipal Land Development Corporation for its Art in the Public Realm program, is called Promenade.

The first of two permanent artworks commissioned for the development, it’s on a patch of turf that, for the moment, is populated by gophers and jackrabbits, but will soon be graded and landscaped with junipers. Opie’s work was chosen from 10 proposals submitted to a competition by Canadian and international artists. Unlike most public art, Promenade has preceded the condos and apartment buildings that will be going up nearby. The artwork is, in fact, attracting investors to the area, says Susan Veres, CMLC vice-president of marketing communications.

Passersby on the street have clear views of the tower’s LED screens from the corridor of 4th Street S.E. and the flyover at 5th Avenue S.E. and, indeed, from north, south, east or west, as they walk or drive past, in the daytime or at night. The flat screens, which are brightest when viewed head on, are oriented to the cardinal points on the compass. Their background colour is yellow, against which Opie’s graphic figures are garbed in red, blue, black, white and grey. Although they constitute an urban social group—pedestrians—each faceless figure, which has a circle for a head that bobs slightly above its neckless shoulders, is an individual, walking with a characteristic gait and at a different speed. Each of them appears, almost magically, to be turning the corners and walking around the tower in a continuous flow of movement.

Opie has said that although there are more sophisticated systems for showing moving images, “LEDs allow you to see the still LEDs turn on and off while you see flowing movement at the same time. For me, this is exciting and the basis of the perception of movement.”

The figures seem to turn the corners, he says, because “the computer understands it as a flat screen, with four sides. As one figure disappears off the left of the flat screen, the same figure is coming in on the right. What it then appears to be is a sort of lighthouse effect: the figures are constantly walking around [the tower]. Because they are all walking at their own pace, they slightly overtake each other. One guy is a little faster than the others, so there are periods where they are all grouped together in a bunch and then they open up again. ”


Opie and I talked on the first day of his trip, when he was setting up and adjusting the piece. He had arrived with a computer program of five figures—three women, two men—and a laptop full of alternatives. A two-day stay in Calgary gave him a chance to see the work in situ and mull it over. On the second day, before the launch, he decided to add a sixth figure to close the gap created when the five others bunch together.

Each figure has a name and is based on someone Opie knows. Kris, the sixth figure, is Kris Emmerson, who was here to help install the work. He appears in Promenade as the white-shirted younger man with the long black ponytail, and he is an artist and animator who works in Opie’s studio in Shoreditch, in east London.

The other member of Opie’s team in Calgary, Jaime Cruz, works with Imago, a company in Barcelona that fabricates the LED screens and customizes them to accommodate Opie’s computer drawings. Cruz has worked with Opie on several projects. However, this is the first four-sided LED tower with rotating motion that Opie has made. The initial towers were two-sided, intended to perform, he says, “like a statue with a front and a back.” Opie then made a few round LED sculptures, one of them for a three-part work for the Shanghai Expo in 2010. This led him to think about how a sculpture with four sides might operate visually.

“My work often has this quality of being three-dimensional, but actually it’s flat, so it’s the flat taken into the three-dimensional—a bit like three-dimensional letters, like the Coca-Cola sign. It’s a flat, graphic word but it’s three-dimensional because it’s thick, so this work has that quality: four flat sides jammed together end up as a solid tower.”

Opie’s animations, which he makes on both LED and LCD screens, are among the most arresting works in a practice that is varied and inventive in the ways it plays with how we understand visual codes. His projects include painting, sculpture, prints, multiples and wall-mounted animations with music composed by the likes of Bryan Adams and James Last. (See his website at www.julianopie.com, where you can both watch and listen.)

His subjects are the traditional ones—standing figures, portraits, nudes, dancers, still lifes, landscapes—brought into the present in contemporary ways that embrace more than digital technology. His nudes, for example, are likely to be pole dancers and strippers or women undressing or undressed; they turn the sexual frisson of Manet’s Olympia up a notch, despite the fact that they are leggy constructions of lines and devoid of detail. Opie is a master of figural gesture.


Born in 1958, he studied art with Michael Craig-Martin, a conceptual artist, at Goldsmiths’ College in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Duchamp and Warhol are in the background of Opie’s work, while the British pop artist Patrick Caulfield, Craig-Martin, the Belgian cartoonist Hergé (creator of Tintin), and the great Japanese draftsmen and colour woodblock printmakers Hiroshige and Utamaro are more direct references. He looks as well at ancient Egyptian and Assyrian works (whose influence can be felt in the frieze-like Promenade), 18th-century British painting and Japanese anime. Like other 21st-century artists, Opie uses art history as an image bank, and mixes it up with images drawn from visual culture, like billboards and the public lavatory signs for women and men that inspired his stripped-down, neckless figures with empty circles for heads.

“I usually use what I’ve come across,” he says, “because those are the things that have excited me first hand. There’s also lots of room for invention. I love sci-fi, you know, parallel realities, ‘not here, not now.’ But in a way, all those things are really about is now and here, but seeing it by stepping aside. By seeing it as different, you can see more clearly what is around you.”

Opie’s first short animation grew out of his interest in life drawing. He made it at Goldsmiths’, after he noticed that successive drawings of a model suggested movement as the poses changed. “I’d been making drawings of people’s faces, and creating various simple movements by layering the drawings, making them blink and nod their heads. I’d also been drawing people in full length, in different positions. Looking at many drawings together, there was movement: flicking across them you get this simple animation.”

The walking figures, whose movement is natural and familiar, appear in series in several media, as do most of his subjects. Full standing figures first appeared in his work in the mid 1990s. Since then, he has made LED sculptures of walking figures for several cities around the world, from Seoul to St. Louis to Toronto to London. As much as anything he has done, they seem to embody the underlying focus of his work, a feeling that arises out of “one’s relationship with the world.”

“To me it’s fascinating, but it’s quite intangible,” Opie says. “I think that trying to describe what it’s like to be alive or what it’s like to like something or be scared of something is actually very tricky. If you set about it too literally, yeah, you can get a hold of it, but it sort of dies and loses anything other than a distant description. To really get the feel of it, to transmit the feel of things—what it feels like to see something and be excited—you have almost to distance yourself a little bit.

“I do try to allow my instincts to play because I think humans are all about instincts. You’ve got to inform them and you’ve got to guide them, but you’ve got to also give them room to play. I came here with a computer full of alternatives.”

This article was updated for correctness on April 27, 2012. The original text stated that Sian was the name of one of the figures in Promenade. The correct name of that figure is Tina.

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