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Julian Opie
Crowd. 4., 2019
LED double-sided monolith

The distinctive style of Julian Opie’s sculptures, paintings and films is known throughout the world. Always exploring different techniques both cutting edge and ancient, he plays with ways of seeing through reinterpreting the vocabulary of everyday life.

In this new work, created especially for the Eden Project, a small group of people walk together but remain independent – creating a monument of a crowd or a flock. Opie writes, ‘Walking is the most natural and commonly seen form of human movement and also what makes us different from most other animals. An individual’s gait is particular and as revealing as your handwriting or voice.’

Artist statement

I have visited, stayed and played in Cornwall all my life. My ancestors came from there and I have drawn any number of artworks inspired by the coast and hills. The Eden Project is now an integral part of Cornish culture and I’m really proud and happy to have a large artwork sited there.

Looking back, I have drawn a lot of walking people. It is the most natural and commonly seen form of human movement and also what makes us different from most other animals. An individual’s gait is particular and as revealing as your handwriting or voice. Like ancient Greek or Egyptian striding statues the human body makes sense while walking and has a grace and sense of dynamic purpose. I first used the image of a side-on walking figure because I wanted to make a moving, walking statue. I filmed a friend on a walking machine at the local gym, broke the film down into single frames and chose a section that provided a double stride that could be looped to create an endless walk. Since then I have experimented with dance, running, crawling and viewing the walker from different angles, but I come back to the simple image of someone walking past you, a stranger who is unaware of you and will soon be gone but can be noticed and studied as they go.

I drew friends and colleagues on a walking machine in the studio and then I took the camera out onto the street and filmed passers-by in various parts of town. People in a park look very different from those in the financial district or shopping high street. Speed, purpose, accoutrements, costume, all change radically and give different moods and colours. I have even drawn people walking in the rain.

The 50-odd drawings needed to make a film provide a huge resource, a palette of figures in every stage of a stride. This allows me to carefully compose group images of crowds. Like a sentence made of words, the group paintings can be rewritten in various ways. The dynamic of all the people moving in one direction is very different from a crisscrossing scene. When they are animated I can make the models walk on the spot or walk across the screen, walk in groups together with the camera panning along with them or have them crisscrossing each other. In this new work created especially for the Eden Project a small crowd of people walk together but remain independent. They create a monument of a crowd or a flock. They are not dead heroes or vaulted politicians, just passers-by captured one day on a street set next to random other characters. The accidents of dress and posture and gait threw up a random, rich set of variants that I could not have invented.

LED panels carry an urban authority, usually giving precise information or dispensing traffic commands. The brick plinth speaks of drive-in restaurants or garage forecourts while also referring to high plinths of city monuments. I have drawn the figures in the language of the sign, a universal and immediate language unburdened by details but remaining specific and individual nonetheless. I hope that visitors will feel at ease with the fellow travellers and enjoy watching their endless, individual and group movement.

About the artist

With public commissions from Seoul to New York, Luxembourg to Zurich and an uninterrupted flow of large museum exhibitions internationally, the work of Julian Opie is known throughout the world. Opie’s distinctive formal language is instantly recognisable and reflects his artistic preoccupation with the idea of representation, and the means by which images are perceived and understood.

‘Everything you see is a trick of the light,’ Opie writes. ‘Light bouncing into your eye, light casting shadows, creating depth, shapes, colours. Turn off the light and it’s all gone. We use vision as a means of survival and it’s essential to take it for granted in order to function, but awareness allows us to look at looking and by extension look at ourselves and be aware of our presence. Drawing, drawing out the way that process feels and works, brings the awareness into the present and into the real world, the exterior world.’

Always exploring different techniques both cutting edge and ancient, Opie plays with ways of seeing through reinterpreting the vocabulary of everyday life; his reductive style evokes both a visual and spatial experience of the world around us. Taking influence from classical portraiture, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Japanese woodblock prints, as well as public signage, information boards and traffic signs, the artist connects the clean visual language of modern life with the fundamentals of art history.

Find out more on the Julian Opie website

Portrait courtesy of Julian Opie and Alan Cristea Gallery, London. Crowd. 4. courtesy of Julian Opie.