in Features | 05 MAY 93
Featured in
Issue 10

Tunnel Vision

Julian Opie's new work

in Features | 05 MAY 93

Everything that Tintin travels in or on is the most advanced technological manifestation of its type: Italian sports car, electric train or swing-winged jet, each is rendered exactingly in precise and loving detail. When Tintin leaves the planet, he does so unhindered by the fact that space travel is yet to come. Reaching the moon in a rocket modelled on the results of German World War II jet research, Tintin takes it all in his stride, as confident as Hergé that space travel is a logical inevitability of technological progress. Tintin's acceptance of the world and his neutrality of stance are what mark him as the Modern Man: while his companions struggle with technology, blundering about in an attempt to try and make a world (of which they don't feel entirely in control) perform their bidding, Tintin is at home with the system as it invisibly performs its functions to serve his needs. The second quality that elevates Tintin as the Modernist par-excellence is that the world he moves in is an almost virtual world: it has no texture, no age and no decay. With Tintin, the sense of a place so real it is unreal is overpowering. Blocks of flat, uniform colour describe Tintin's world: Unwavering grey lines of constant thickness bound the forms of his own body as much as the objects he encounters. These graphic devices transform everything into the representation of an ideal, but an ideal that has been made concrete. Everything in his world is always new, always clean and always visible. In the Tintin scheme of things, even the most uncontrolled events, an exploding house or an erupting volcano, have a restraint and clarity that somehow renders them inescapably tangible: all is perfectly delineated.

For Tintin, the infrastructure of the modern world is a vehicle to adventure, for that, nominally at least, is his raison d'être. But what is ours? Long after the excitement of international travel has worn off, what is left after a century or so of massive investment in roads, railways and airports? We have the technology... but that is all. The systems that have been designed to facilitate movement have taken speed and efficiency as their goal and however much we may pretend, no one can remember what it is that people actually do along the way. You can travel to Paris from London in 45 minutes, get to work from the suburbs or the country quickly and efficiently by tube or train (if you live anywhere other than Britain) brunch at MacDonalds in the blink of an eye, and by the time you get home you have saved so much time that you just don't know what to do with it all and blow it in front of a television. All these structures purportedly service the vague kinds of activities that neatly supply the answers to questionnaires: Is it a) leisure, b) shopping, c) business or d) tourism? Yet each of these activities has been functionalised and streamlined to the point of meaninglessness. Tourism is a procession of coordinated movements from airport to hotel to place of historical interest and at each point nothing really happens. Business is exactly the same: commute, have meetings, write reports, commute. In Britain, especially, 'Business' seems to be something that people do as an end in itself; the product or service is irrelevant. Dotted around the outskirts of London - Acton is a good example - or any other large city are hopelessly optimistic 'business parks' almost entirely populated by companies that seem to do nothing but supply services and products to other businesses to help them in their aims of efficiency, greater productivity and becoming Modern. Lesson one of Modernism: the end is implicit in the means, just don't ask what it is.

Faced with a world embraced by structures that have mutated from being means to becoming ends in themselves, Julian Opie makes motorway journeys for pleasure and takes holiday snaps of the baggage reclaim hall at Heathrow airport. In doing this, in stepping back from the process and savouring the experience, he breaks one of the cardinal rules of the system: to go with the flow. So caught up in the snare of efficiency, systems have come to be designed that no longer base their structures on human needs and functions, as was the Bauhaus dream, but which, in the name of economics, require the adaptation of those needs for the smooth operation of the system as a whole. Imagine an H.E. Bateman cartoon: The Man who Sat Down to Dine at MacDonalds. It is unthinkable. Occasionally one sees people of a pre-50s generation ordering in a fast food restaurant with painful slowness. They haven't made up their mind what they want, they might even ask the opinion of the service staff. The uncomfortable feeling that ensues is created because they have broken the convention: everyone knows you have to order what you want as quickly as possible because whether you get served in five minutes or seven really matters. Everything in such places is designed to accomplish this: the synthetic materials (in the furnishings not the food-MacDonalds use only the highest quality natural ingredients...), the fluorescent primary colour schemes, the high gloss and the buzzing, over-lit spaces - all are designed to get you out as quickly as possible, befitting their function as refuelling stations for human machines.

Motorways function in a similar way: they are not intended to allow an enjoyable experience of travelling but to provide the most direct means to get somewhere. The motorway itself is not really a place: you can't stop on it or walk on it, it is only accessible by car and the relatively unchanging vista it presents is tedious in the extreme if you drive at anything under 70 miles an hour. Like a fast-food restaurant, there are few choices to be made - you can only turn off at predetermined interchanges. You take the Orient Express if you want pleasure and the ability to make meaningful decisions. The rationale of motorways has changed in the last 30 years: what they represented at their birth in the late 50s and early 60s was a notion of freedom for anyone who had a car, yet fairly soon, it may be that one will have to pay to travel on any road at all, simply to raise money to finance the roads themselves. Perhaps the age of the motorway is ending, and they have simply become too expensive. They will be remembered as the great monuments of our era, like the other historic feats of civil engineering: the pyramids and the Great Wall of China, no doubt vigorously opposed by local residents in their own age. Opie's motorway paintings encapsulate the driving experience, yet seem inexplicably odd because they focus on that which is not to be focussed on: the road as a place.

The motorway paintings and race-track sculptures developed out of the series of office and block sculptures that Opie made from 1990 to 1991. Both dealt, in part, with the arrangement of vistas, or rather a tunnelling of vision. The multiple glazed windows in the office structures allowed a succession of different views through to the interior and out the other side of the work to be glimpsed from different vantage points. The first of the block sculptures contained coloured planes on their interior, each colour corresponding with one of the lines of sight, as a way of colour coding of the viewpoints. The cut block sculptures re-configured this arrangement in a negative version where the channels of vision themselves became the work and the blocks simply provided the bulk to carve away the space necessary to make the tunnels. The volume of these sculptures was inherently redundant and their colour and surface texture was that of the typical gallery interior (fine finish plaster and matt white emulsion) and so they became invisible.

The logical extension of the block works was to remove the redundant bulk altogether, leaving only the tunnels of vision, and the road paintings do this - presenting a destination that is never attainable. Modern roads do not stop but merely circulate a bit. The driver is in a constant state of arriving: wherever you may stop, the road continues into the distance or around a bend, its objective always out of sight like the end of a rainbow. It is difficult to represent a road: there is the thing and the experience. The thing is not really defined. Trying to represent it is like trying to draw an electrical appliance and not being able to decide where it ends: at the power lead, the socket or somewhere in the National Grid. Opie's road paintings are a strange mixture of real and simulated experience: the blandness of endless grass verges and the incessant approach of white lines are all to close to the tedium of motorway driving, a tedium punctuated only by the occasional incident of bridges and intersections that loom into view from a speck on the horizon with an unerring sense of predictability. Yet the perfection and simplicity of the world they describe is closer to the simulated world of computer games. Driving itself is close to being a simulation: the exaggerated perspective of the motorway vista seen from the driving seat and the floating sensation which takes hold at high speed, make it seem that the car is standing still as the scenery passes by. The foreground remains constant while distant objects turn slowly to reveal views of their planes and three-dimensionality in minute increments of a degree.

Computer simulation itself involves a vanity in trying to recreate the world. Sitting down to build an object from scratch seems a futile exercise and the only reason that presents itself for doing this is a desire to have total control over the world of objects. The Italian Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello spent an inordinate amount of time on perspective studies. Staying up far into the night like a present day phosphor junkie, and much to the annoyance of his wife, Uccello attempted to recreate the world through perspective. Starting with small objects, such as goblets, he gradually worked his way up to full-blown, intriguingly unsuccessful, historical figure compositions. Are we now, bizarrely, reliving a Renaissance dream of control and a desire to re-invent the world? Or is it that we never let go of the aspirations in the first place: remember that Leonardo da Vinci was also a civil engineer. Today's computer graphics, as is visible from television advertising, are at a similar stage of development: it is the simple geometric objects such as bottles, cans and boxes that are beginning to appear as wholly computer generated objects. Computer graphics are often described as having no definable quality of finish. It is not that they do not have a finish, it is more that the qualities of finish they do have are hyper-generic. Wood is... woody, chrome never looked so shiny and plastic is in an element of its own. When, in low budget computer simulations, there is no attempt at photo-realistic rendering, the flatness of the screen colours is flatter than anything that can be imagined. More than this, computer graphics have the authority of the mass-produced object: they exist on the television screen, which, in its sense of distance and seamlessness, immediately endows them with the quality of being outside everyday life.

Finish has been an issue in Opie's work since the very beginning. Mimicking industrial methods of mass-production by hand, the sculpture has taken on the authoritarianism of production line processes as a way of understanding what it is that makes the modern Modern. The majority of the civic engineering projects undertaken in Britain during the 50s and 60s, born of post-war optimism, have failed to maintain their modernity. They have generally been poorly maintained and left to decay. Yet, their sense of optimism depended as much on their finish as anything else. In fact, their modernity is their finish. While stone and brick acquire 'character' with age and grime, concrete, glass and metal are emasculated by them. The signs of ageing and weathering are are reminders that the structures are mortal, but modernity does not allow that and depends on a pristine finish. In Opie's work it is the skin that has given meaning and reference to the forms they cover. Opie's recent building sculptures have the qualities of virtual objects.

Comparatively small in scale, the churches, castles and houses are painted a uniform gloss in sober shades of grey, green or blue: the kind of dour colours that are used to paint the hoardings around building works. The paint, erasing surface texture and detail, forms a homogenising skin that wipes out any streak of individualism left in the buildings, and takes them ever closer to a point where they embody the idea of a building far more than they can represent one. The model buildings used for the sculptures are generic types: 'country church', 'farmhouse' and so forth, and many of them are so generic that they look more like the illustrated keys used to mark places of interest in road maps than actual buildings. Some are made from model kits, while others are based on actual buildings but abstracted to become archetypal structures.

The construction kits themselves are those used for model railways, a great 19th century attempt to classify and give order to the world through a microcosm of timetables and signal boxes, in which the houses, churches and places of historical interest are all subservient details to the function of the system as a whole, which is to move trains around as efficiently as possible. The excitement felt for new forms of transport in the railway age has somehow lost its energy in the second half of the 20th century. When governments made their decision to invest in motorways instead of trains something was lost. No one has scale working models of motorway systems - perhaps they do not offer the same possibilities for complete control. Model racing tracks and computer games are not so much about roads as structures, but about an idea of the glamour of the racing driver - speed and danger in a world of pure driving for no purpose. Opie's racetrack sculptures are somewhere between the two. They lie on the floor cast out of standardised concrete units: the straight, the 45 degree curve, the overpass, but although the circuit resembles a racetrack it may equally be a stretch of orbital motorway. The construction technique is virtually the same. It becomes difficult to tell whether the objects are real things in their own right or simply representations of things. Opie's plywood house sculptures reflect this also: clusters of domestic buildings, appearing strangely unfamiliar under a coat of grey and cream gloss enamel, are repeated in the same configurations but in different sizes. This creates an inability to classify them or place them within categories of objects that have been seen before: the smallest ones look like toys, the medium-sized ones could conceivably be some kind of architectural model, while the largest are too large to be either. Seen together, the groups of houses become disorientating: each version modifies the others and re-contextualises them until it becomes impossible to say which refers to which. The smallest looks tiny in comparison to the largest, which, too big to be a model, seems completely out of sync with the world anyway. When Opie brought these references to older, more domestic forms of architecture to bear, as he has done with the new buildings and the earlier column sculptures comprised of accumulated strips of wooden mouldings, he made it apparent that the blandness of the 20th century is able to reach back and swallow up the past and turn it into a kind of muzak: all the ingredients that a culture is supposed to have are there, but the resulting product never quite becomes one - and that's the problem.