If you’ve walked past the National Gallery of Victoria recently, you might have noticed a few changes. Two monolithic LED pillars beam figures of virtual pedestrians onto the street, and a school of digital carp swim in the iconic Waterwall.
Inside, the Great Hall has been transformed into a mini metropolis, complete with 13-metre-tall skyscrapers reaching up to the glass ceiling. Beyond that, a galloping horse in the Grollo Equiset Garden, and a group of LED crows pecking and walking and defecating under the garden’s crop of trees. And for how long has that little sculpture boy been pissing into the moat?
These bright, irreverent artistic interventions are the work of Julian Opie, a British artist who rose to prominence as part of the New British Sculpture movement alongside contemporaries Anish Kapoor, Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon. Even if you’re not familiar with the movement – which, in the 1980s, rebelled against minimalism and pioneered a return to traditional (if not rejuvenated) techniques – you’ve still probably seen Opie’s work.
You might know him for his highly recognisable outline figures, a style that has absconded art practice to influence graphic design and pop culture; you might know him for his high-profile representation at Britain’s Lisson Gallery, where he exhibits alongside artists such as Ai Weiwei and Marina Abramović; or you might simply know him for the cover he designed for Blur’s The Best Of album in 2000.
Despite bursting onto the global scene almost immediately after graduating from art school in the 1980s – and despite having a father who was born in Adelaide – Opie has yet to have a major exhibition in Australia. Until now.
The current Julian Opie exhibition at the NGV is a huge coup for the gallery, not only because it’s a first for Australia, but because of how comprehensive it is. The seeds for the exhibition were planted around three years ago, when the NGV first approached Opie with an offer to completely overhaul its spaces as he saw fit. As an artist whose practice centres around pushing the boundaries of artistic formulas, the offer proved too enticing to resist.
“[Opie] has a reputation for going beyond what an artist should be interested in, and he was excited when we approached him with the idea of the exhibition bleeding out from the gallery,” NGV senior curator of contemporary art, Simon Maidment, tells Broadsheet. “The show actually reverberates out beyond the four walls of the gallery itself. The banner outside the gallery is an artwork just as much as the space is an artwork.”
Much of the exhibited work has been made in the years since Maidment first approached Opie, specifically with the gallery in mind. There is also a lot of pre-existing work – dating right back to the beginning of his practice in the ’80s – but much of that has been reconfigured for the NGV, housed in more traditional spaces. Most of these are screen-based works influenced by video games such as Flight Simulator.
One of the pieces made especially for the NGV is based on images by local photographer Tobias Titz of people walking through Collingwood and St Kilda, transformed into Opie’s characteristic, stripped-back graphic style. You might even recognise yourself in one of these works – though faces are hidden and nondescript, the clothing is at times strikingly detailed.
Julian Opie is at the NGV until February 17, 2019.
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