On ViewLisson Gallery
Julian Opie: OP.VR@LISSON/London
March 3–April 15, 2023
According to artist Julian Opie (b. 1958), there’s a complete shift in the way people understand imagery today. Often, Opie notices viewers reaching for their pockets in search of their phones, in hopes of documenting the art they observe. Yet, with work that incorporates virtual reality (VR), photographs can’t be taken because the work isn’t truly there. Those who are curious about the implications of this are invited to fasten their portable headsets and immerse themselves in Opie’s unique take on VR. In a show titled OP.VR@LISSON/London currently open at Lisson Gallery in London, the renowned artist is showcasing both virtual reality and non-VR works in a groundbreaking multiroom experience, blending the body, architecture, and space in a manner that forces the viewer to focus on the story unfolding before them. In addition, Opie has also revisited older works—repurposing drawings, sculptures, and installations to mirror the VR he’s expertly crafted.
In the gallery space, different rooms take on different meanings. One room features several flat, painted wood and aluminum works that either hang flush to the wall or stand on pedestals, and which become animated installations of people walking when viewed through the VR headset: colorful yet featureless figures choreographed in passing as they move down the street. In another room, Dance 2 step 2. (2022) depicts animated bodies performing moves reminiscent of those one might find on TikTok, where people record themselves for public consumption, dancing in their homes or backyards. High-energy, simple dance moves like these, documented in repetition, have helped Opie bring the VR to life. The artist animated four or five seconds of the dance, working with models (among them his daughter, who is a professional dancer) to achieve a precise aesthetic, then created a loop and incorporated sound for an encompassing effect. The resulting animation, of a featureless, four-person dance troupe moving their bodies nearly in sync in front of a vibrant, solid background, suggests a troupe comprised of the everyperson. The artist uses traditional paintings—moving canvases in the VR experience—and LED screens to make the works come alive, while the looped dancers create a mesmerizing effect from which viewers can hardly look away.
The public moves through the back of the gallery into a large courtyard, which houses Opie’s architectural works: a VR blend of old and new buildings. The artist crafted Bastide 2 (2021) out of steel, five meters tall, and not unlike a children’s climbing area—but also evocative of a drawing in space. The black lines that comprise the work recall French architecture of the Middle Ages, which Opie has reinterpreted as spatial sculpture. Then, in the gallery basement, viewers confront a series of works suggestive of landscape painting; again, they hang on the wall so they read as paintings but are made from aluminum, nylon, and lights. Angular shapes resemble road signs, and their light boxes amplify the punchy, simplified images that are akin to business logos. The black, blue, green, and gray color selection illustrates the country road by which the work is inspired—a scene from rural France—leaving the viewer dwelling on the stark contrast between the personal and the corporate. Linger for a moment, and you might expect a BP or Shell station to appear.
The exhibition continues through a smaller courtyard that houses an entirely new project composed of three-dimensional sculptures called Figures (2022). While traditionally Opie has drawn the human form as a flat image, he takes a different approach here. Inspired by traditional Indonesian sculptures—those with a similar flat-drawn quality—Opie’s bodies are bent at the knees and elbows, honing in on their resilience and flexibility. During the COVID-19 lockdown, Opie observed people gathering in parks, folding themselves into compelling shapes in order to maintain distance from each other as they browsed their phones, read books, and engaged in conversation. He photographed his observations, documented additional models in his studio, and 3D-scanned the figures before bending them into 3D tubes. The works, Opie explains, are “a bit like a fancy bike rack and a bit like a people lying on the grass in an idyllic pastoral scene.” It is up to the viewer to decide.
While VR brought ample possibilities to the exhibition, the artist stood firm in his desire to avoid the extraordinary and instead create a new experience without sweeping viewers into an entirely new dimension. In OP.VR@LISSON/London, Opie has still placed his sculptures on the floor, and installed paintings and installations on the walls. He kept the entry and exit signs on the gallery doors in view, and the ceiling spotlights intact. While Lisson is showing VR for the first time in its fifty-year history, both gallery and artist seem to be in agreement—the most effective way to experience art is to walk around a space.