You are driving a Volvo. is one of five life-sized car sculptures Opie produced in 1996. These are stylised models of cars constructed from flat panels of plywood coated with thick, oil-based gloss paint. Blocks of tonally different paint colours on the car body create the optical illusion of the normal contours on the sides of a car. The windows are painted flat, light grey, giving the impression of allowing light to penetrate but in fact revealing nothing of the car’s interior. Tyres, lights, bumpers, door handles and other trimming details are represented in monotone blocks of realistically coloured paint. Number plates are indicated but bear no numbers. Tate’s car sculpture represents a Volvo 440. It is white. The other car models and colours are a red Volkswagen Polo (private collection, USA), a blue Subaru (Bob Van Orsouw Gallery, Zurich), a white Ford Cortina (private collection, Geneva) and a red Peugeot 205 (private collection, Turin). An artist’s book featuring some of these cars, titled Driving in the country, was produced in 1996 by the Centre de Création Contemporaine, Tours, during Opie’s residency at the Atelier Calder, Sache, France.
The cars belong to a series of modular sculptures, based on stylised representations of structures in the everyday world, which Opie began making in the mid 1990s. These include such architectural elements as churches, museums, offices, towers and unidentified ‘buildings’, as well as trees and, later, animals and people. You see an office building. 2, 3, 4 and 5 1996 (Tate T07208-T07211) are four scaled-down representations of office buildings. The artist’s intention is that car and office buildings may be installed together to create an environment in which the viewer becomes part of the scene, rather than remaining an observer from a distance. Another optional addition is a large-scale wall painting, such as There are hills in the distance (C) 1996 (Tate T07191), which represents a background landscape. This combination of six elements was installed in a room at Tate Modern when it opened in May 1998. Opie has explained:
In any exhibition situation you set up a narrative and you can choose how much you want to control it. The cars create a strong narrative, because they are basically body containers. One’s relationship to a car tends to be that you project yourself inside it and then go. The car seems to act quite well as a sort of narrator, as in a novel, that takes you through the rest of the exhibition. You project yourself into the car, pass the office buildings, go through a wood, pass a historical monument, and end up in a suburban house. That is the narrative. At the same time it is an art space full of sculptures and paintings. You are left with a situation where there is a conventional exhibition room in which the elements are balanced, but at the same time this narrative aspect is functioning.
(Quoted in Julian Opie 1997, p.3.)
Since the early 1990s Opie has presented his modular sculptures as commodities for the viewer’s consumption. Catalogues of his work are designed to resemble sales brochures (Julian Opie: Sculptures Films Paintings) and he uses titles which either seem to refer to prototypes (H 1991, Tate T06556) or to suggest that the viewer may wish to acquire the works and then rearrange them. Imagine you can order these 1993 (private collection) consists of free-standing rectangular concrete blocks painted different colours in seven versions, with seven suggested ways of setting them up from which the collector may select. Like the modular variations created by American artist Sol LeWitt (born 1928), such as Five Open Geometric Structures 1979 (Tate T07144), Opie’s earlier works are variations on geometric objects (in the guise of industrial models and prototypes). Through the mid 1990s Opie expanded the principles of modular variation into other kinds of structures and across artistic mediums. Works consisting of the same or similar images, with the same or similar titles, appear as sculptures, wall paintings, paintings, c-type and lambda prints, posters and videos. These works explore the formal qualities of the ‘generic’ image. Using the language of post-industrial modes of production, design and presentation, Opie questions how a generic image is formed, recognised and distinguished from another.
Julian Opie, exhibition catalogue, British Council 1997, pp.2-15, reproduced (colour) p.10
Julian Opie: Sculptures Films Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Lisson Gallery, London 2001, pp.12-13, reproduced (colour) p.13
Julian Opie, exhibition catalogue, Ikon, Birmingham 2001, reproduced (colour) p.11