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.