CARJACKED (After Julian Opie)
Julian Opie’s BMW Art Car is the latest offspring of his seminal series Imagine You Are Driving. The image of an empty expanse of road disappearing into the distance recurs in several paintings (made using acrylic on wood, 1993-4), sculptures (a scaled up version of a child’s toy racing track made in concrete, 1993, but also three dimensional sculptures of a yellow, blue, and red car, 2004), large vinyl prints (mounted on aluminium stretchers in the manner of paintings, 1997), screen prints (made from hand-cut stencils based on photographs that Opie altered on a computer, 1998-99), and videos (“To be shown on monitor or projected”, 1993).
Even to the untrained eye, it is obvious that the many iterations of Imagine You Are Driving remediate the aesthetics of early racing games. The clean design, made of white lines that construct a vanishing point, evokes classics such as Pole Position (Atari, 1982) and its tridimensional successor, Virtua Racing (Sega, 1992). Opie’s modus operandi is informed by a logic of subtraction: he originally took photographs of his subject matter - in this case, driving landscapes - and digitally altered the photographs. The final images - constructed through a process of elimination and distillation - have produced a new aesthetic, a novel visual language situated at the intersection between the Fine Arts and Graphic Design. Interestingly, Opie’s process mirrors the work of game designers: after all, a simulation is a simplified version of “reality” operating on binary, transparent rules.
Visually speaking, his BMW is both playful and powerful, a toy for a boy who will never grow old. Opie cleverly reminds us that, no matter how expensive the vehicle we own, highway travel will remain as anonymous and monotonous as ever. Both the mechanical and digital car distance us from the world - we race through our landscapes so quickly that they become almost abstract. The TV screen, the computer monitor, the windscreen separate us from the sights, sounds, smells, and temperature of the tangible world.
Opie’s deceptively simple game-like aesthetics were discussed, among the others, by Tate critic Elizabeth Manchester (2002):
The world referred to in this image, coupled with Opie’s title, suggests computer driving games in which the participant goes on a virtual journey. Much of Opie’s work of the late 1990s simulates the symbolic landscape of computer games and children’s picture books and encourages the viewer to journey into a stylised representation of the world, emptied of human presence. [...] These statements suggest that the processes of his work have an idealising or utopic function. If computer games provide a contemporary arena for imaginary journeys, an escape from ‘mundane’ everyday realities, Opie’s use of this imagery would seem to draw attention to its paradoxically blank and alienating qualities.
Most racing games are devoid of human presence. Pedestrians are not simulated because pedestrians do not matter. Moreover, the simulation turns the human operator into a machine. The virtual car and the human driver are united in symbiosis: the player turns into a cyborg performing the imaginary act of driving with plastic steering wheel. But where are we going? We are on a road to a virtual nowhere. We “travel” through synthetic landscapes made of bland blue sky and featureless green fields. Is Opie’s iconography truly “utopian”, as suggested by Manchester? We disagree. These boring artificial landscapes are utterly dystopic. A facade of matte colors masquerading hellish, desolate, polluted wastelands. The world that cars created. Computer games do not offer an escape from ‘mundane’ everyday realities: after all, they are permeated by the same ideology that dominates the “Real”.
The commodified nature of driving is both acknowledged and celebrated by Opie, whose most famous catalog, published in 2001 by the Lisson Gallery, in London, is designed as a mail-order catalogue, listing the different formats and prices for a set of artworks.
Imagine You Are Driving.
Imagine You Are Driving the Ultimate Driving Machine.
Imagine You Are Driving a 1997 M3 BMW.
Manchester, Elizabeth “Julian Opie. Imagine You Are Driving, 1998-1998 Tate. URL.
Image credit: Julian Opie, Imagine You Are Driving, 1998-9, screenprint on paper, 611 x 860 mm, Tate Collection.