REVIEW / Driving on the road to nowhere . . .: Julian Opie is running on empty. But, says Andrew Graham-Dixon, that's not necessarily a bad thing

The experience is familiar. You are driving along the motorway. You have been driving for hours but it might have been only minutes because everything seems the same as it did when you started. The view changes, but only at the periphery of your vision, since your attention is focused on the road that stretches before you. The unchanging tarmac strip, marked by evenly spaced white lines, narrows as it recedes towards the horizon. It has taken on hypnotic, transfixing qualities. Once you reach the horizon, you know what you will see. You will see another road aiming you at another horizon under another sky. But still you drive on.

Driving, now, has ceased to be about getting anywhere. The point of driving has become, simply, to drive. Things begin to feel faintly unreal. The experience is both pleasant and unpleasant. You enjoy the sense of temporary suspension from the real world, the distinctive unreality of motorway driving that makes it feel like playing a game: it is almost as if the windscreen were a video screen and the landscape through which you move just a digitalised illusion. And you guiltily regret the addiction to such a bland and impersonal experience. Still you keep driving, keep deferring the moment when you have to stop the car and the world turns real once again.

Imagine you are driving, advises the collective title of Julian Opie's new paintings. Hung at the start of his Hayward Gallery retrospective, they amount to a statement of the artist's driving concerns. Their style is nothing much to write home about. Opie's technique is self-consciously flat and dumb, modelled on the impersonal, homogenised quality of computer game graphics, and just to make sure the point is lost on no one the paintings share the gallery with a pair of television monitors which themselves computer-graphically simulate the motorway driving experience. Infinite possibilities are simultaneously proposed and denied by these endlessly shifting images of the same experience. Opie indicates that the promise of the open road is an empty one and his images suggest that while you can drive for ever you will always remain in the same place. The pictures are emblems of a sense of limitation.

Opie's art is affectless but it can also be unpredictably touching because its impeccable cool is often shot through with intense nostalgia. His endless motorway tracts and his fuzzily photo-realist pictures of night-driving, headlights and tail-lights sparkling in black voids, distantly recall older and more spiritually optimistic pictures of wide-open spaces. Caspar David Friedrich painted grand coastal vistas to suggest God's immanence in the world. Mark Rothko painted dark voids shimmering with spiritual possibility. Julian Opie paints the M40 - the implication being that this is what the Sublime has come down to, in the modern world. Maybe now that nature's vastness can be so easily traversed across a network of arterial roads, it has less of a hold on our imagination than it used to. The modern epiphany, Opie suggests, has a closed-circuit quality to it. It is a temporary dream-like enthralment to the artificial feel of much modern experience. Motorway driving is just one of its forms.

Opie's art is full of echoes of much earlier Modernist art and architecture. Thinking 3D, he makes sculptures that look like diminished versions of the buildings of Le Corbusier, that evoke the white reliefs of Ben Nicholson or the brightly coloured grids of Mondrian. But the art historical references are knowing and ironic and they are not just references, either, to the world of art. One of the things that Opie's sculptures characteristically do is note the degree to which the forms invented by artists of the Modernist avant-garde have been adopted into the vernacular of the modern world. The brute insolence of making a sculpture that looks more or less exactly like an Ikea shelving unit is meant, presumably, to remark on the brute insolence with which Ikea shelving units have, themselves, been adapted from the grid-like structures of early Modernism. Opie is a canny observer of the manifold ways in which the old ideals once invested in certain forms and colours (utopian beliefs in social progress, say) have now simply become the templates for mass-produced furniture.

Opie is in many respects an old- fashioned realist. Picasso once said that the sculptor's ambition should be to make a sheep that is more like a sheep than a real sheep, and Opie might be said to have brought a similar ambition to bear on very different sorts of object. He makes sculptures that are more like fridge- freezer cabinets than real fridge- freezer cabinets, sculptures that are more like open-plan office cubicles than real open-plan office cubicles, sculptures that are more like airport customs queue-flow-control structures or the electric sliding doors on Inter-City trains than the real things.

His realism has the character of a paradox, however, since it is evident that what fascinates Opie about modern reality is precisely how unreal it often feels. He seems fascinated by places that are almost non-places because they have been made with such studied attention to their own impersonality. The same is true of the things that interest Opie: what seems to interest him about them is the way in which the uniformity of their structures and materials has turned them all into variants of the same design ideal. Opie quietly observes the homogenisation of the world.

His most distinctively bland constructions - small, unenterable houses made of glass and white- painted wood, like useless prefabs; empty display cases of glass and steel, like certain types of drinks vending machines - are at once simple and gnomic. A room full of Opie's sculptures amounts to a Platonic amalgam of the experience of a day spent in airport lounges and baggage reclaim areas and tube trains and shopping malls - all those corners of the world where you can't tell if you're in Nebraska or Nice (or Neasden).

Opie's work is seductive because it is so alive to the aesthetic that is its subject: it knows the blend of pleasure and alienation that somewhere like Heathrow (certainly the greatest single influence on Opie) can provide. Moving through an installation of Opie's work is like moving through a modern airport: it is to feel both pleasantly and unpleasantly removed from reality, in a zone of transit where what you do or who you are has become both threateningly and relievingly unimportant. The emptiness of the experience is calming but it is still emptiness (like driving for the sake of driving). Afterwards, you want to talk to somebody, to do something that feels, well, just a bit more real. Which is a compliment of sorts to the work.

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor