Swam Amongst The Fishes

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We Swam Amongst The Fishes

Julian Opie

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Critical Review

Following the artist’s installation at Sadler’s Wells theatre, London and the Museum of Modern Art, Chicago, Julian Opie created his We Swam Amongst The Fishes series in 2003. The series shows a set of large-scale prints featuring various species of fish swimming in open spaces of water.

Opie depicts each scene in his characteristic graphic style that uses block colour, thick dark outlines and a flattened picture plane. Opie has created these images using digital photography and computer drawing programmes, a creative process he is well versed in and renowned for. He then chooses his favourite images and draws over the individual photographs on the computer to reduce and abstract the original image.

Inspired by a trip to Bali, this series is unusual for Opie in terms of subject matter but is representative of the artist’s desire to capture the world around him. Opie invites the viewer to step into each scene that he depicts, showing a view of the water from a diver’s perspective. Paired with the series title, the perspective of the diver is also emphasised by the way the fish swim in different directions and some appear to face outwards.

Throughout the series, Opie creates a sense of depth within each image by rendering the fish in various sizes and positioned in different angles. This is representative of Opie’s skill in creating depth and realism within an abstracted visual language, using flat colour, thick lines and simplified shapes.

Why is the We Swam Amongst The Fishes series important?

As a computer-generated set of images, Opie’s visual style is depersonalised to the point of commodification, whereby the artist’s touch is seemingly removed. These elements of realism combined with Opie’s slick, impersonal style in We Swam Amongst The Fishes work together to strike an interesting balance between the real and the imagined.

Each print in We Swam Amongst The Fishes is presented in a square-like format that appears like a window looking onto another world. This is also emphasised by Opie’s all-over composition that shows a dynamic variety of fish across the canvas. Indeed, Opie has commented on the way in which his work can be seen as an arena for imaginary journeys, “I think my world is about trying to be happy … I want the world to seem like the kind of place you’d want to escape to... Mundane things are just as exciting as all the things you might imagine escaping into.”

We Swam Amongst The Fishes is notable for each print’s flattened backdrops in varied colours of blue, representative of the sea. The world shown in these images are rendered without subtle detail, with no water reflections or ripples. The artificiality of the series is reminiscent of video game aesthetics, typical of Opie’s landscape work from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Opie thus encourages the viewer to step into a stylised representation of the world so as to question how we look at the real world we live in.

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