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Platforms for Art: The London Tube!!

Posted by
on February 27, 2014 at 07:19 PM

The Tube is integral to life in London. In my visit there in November 2013, I came across a curious kind of artwork mounted unobtrusively on a wall of every station I alighted on. An abstract work, made in stark black and white, caught one’s eye by its sheer starkness as large multi-coloured Christmasy advertisements and notices about plays, musicals and events jostled with each other to grab commuter eyeballs. A little research revealed that 2013 is being celebrated as the 150th year of the London Underground, and that the stunning black-and-white artwork is part of the celebratory projects. Titled Labyrinth, it is created by artist Mark Wallinger, a 1999 Turner prize-winner (won for his sculpture, Ecce Homo, commissioned for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London) and one of UK’s leading contemporary artists. It is a project managed and curated by Louise Coysh, Curator for Art on the Underground, from the Arts department of the London Underground.  

© Courtesy of the writer

The London Underground, popularly known as the Tube because of the round tunnels through which the trains navigate the vast city of London and its immediate neighbourhood - began operation on January 10, 1863, the first of its kind in the world and the fourth longest today. It connects 270 stations, 402 kilometers (half of which are above the ground) with 11 colour-coded lines. The schematic Tube Map, designed by Harry Beck in 1931, was voted the national design icon in 2006. A number of these pocket Tube Maps have become collectibles. Sixteen artists, including Tracey Emin, were commissioned to do special editions during the London Olympics that required Londoners to travel to Stratford, all the way to east London, where most of the stadia were situated. There were 18 million copies of the Emin Map, released in June 2012, just before the Olympics were due to begin!

The Labyrinth - appropriate as the name is to describe the complex maze of railway lines that criss-cross the nether regions of London, links every station of the Tube network with 270 unique and individual artworks that explore the Tube’s rich history of graphic language ‘to sit comfortably alongside the two of its major design icons, the roundel and Harry Beck’s Tube map, and yet stands out as a new symbol marking the Tube’s 150th year’.  For instance, the round Labyrinth quietly echoes the Roundel of the Underground’s signage. At a universal level, though, the ancient labyrinth symbol has been found all over the world in different forms. Dating back over 4000 years, it transcends religions, time and cultures and is a universal symbol representing the journey into the inner self.

Wallinger has been fascinated by journeys, whether physical, imaginative or spiritual, throughout his career. He is no stranger to trains – his family home in Chigwell, Essex, was close to the Central line and the rumble of passing trains was always in the background. The Tube provided him with a connection from the countryside to the complexities and possibilities of the metropolis. This personal relationship with the Underground has informed his interest in public transport and fuelled a fascination with the idea of being ‘transported’ in an imaginative or spiritual sense. The beautifully preserved pavement labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, France, was visited by Wallinger as a young man. It is popularly assumed that this labyrinth symbolized the long tortuous path that pilgrims would have followed to visit this, and other shrines and cathedrals, during the medieval period. The image made a long-lasting impact on Wallinger, and was the inspiration behind the labyrinth ‘design families’ (Medieval, Organic, Cretan, Woodcut, Native American, Emboss) that he has used in his commission. The Medieval style can be seen at Westminster station, artwork 101/270.

This idea gave rise to the ancient symbol that lies at the heart of this commission: the labyrinth, which represents this idea of the spiritual journey in many different traditions across the globe. Each of Wallinger’s Labyrinth-s is linked to one other by its common graphic characteristics, but stands out by its own unique ‘labyrinth’ and bearing a different number as well, written by the artist himself. All are rendered in bold deep black and red and screen-printed on white vitreous enamel, the same material used for the Underground’s signage. The entrance of the Labyrinth is marked by a red ‘X’, and is a cue to enter the pathway, inviting the viewer to trace the path to the centre and out again – much like the traveler’s own journeys. The artworks have been conceived so that no two artworks bear the same path. Wallinger comments, “Mostly we go about our business, journeying to work on the Tube and return home along a prescribed route. The seeming chaos of the rush hour is really just the mass of individuals following the thread of their lives home. Labyrinth is a symbol of both the individual sense one makes of one’s encounters with the Tube and a mental space or something more contemplative. The journeys we take on the Underground are unique to each of us.’ The 270 Labyrinth-s were installed across the Underground stations over the first six months of 2013. The location of the artworks is different at each station, encouraging people to seek them out. In one’s own regular boarding and alighting stations, the labyrinth has already become a familiar symbol that marks the start and seals the end of the day for the Londoner.


Originally, the terms ‘maze’ and ‘labyrinth’ were interchangeable. In modern times, though, they have come to mean slightly different things. The difference between the two is simple: a maze offers choices; it is a puzzle, full of tricks and false turnings where one can easily get lost. A labyrinth may look similar to a maze, but if one follows the path, it contains only one route to the centre and then out again, despite its twists and turns. Unlike mazes, labyrinths offer no choices along the way; the only decision is whether to enter and trust the path.

Designer : Mark Wallinger
Photography :Courtesy the writer

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