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Art & artists

Going underground: art, history and the people’s railway

— December 2014

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Wanstead © 2014 Thierry Bal

Mark Wallinger created 270 artworks for the London Underground and took a deep look at its history in the process

Labyrinth: A Journey Through London’s Underground by Mark Wallinger, edited by Louis Coysh

The new book Labyrinth: A Journey through London’s Underground  by 2007 Turner Prize-winner Mark Wallinger is aptly titled. It chronicles his 270 artworks installed permanently in the labyrinthine network of tube stations that form the London Underground system. Wallinger, known for his fascination with London’s public transport system, was commissioned in 2011 by Transport for London for the ‘Art on the Underground’ series, to mark its 150th anniversary in 2013.

In this book essays by Will Self, Tamsin Dillon and Christian Wolmar, give context to the subject.  There are 520 illustrations by photographer Thierry Bal that document the project and show the visual presence of ‘Labyrinth’, which draws on the language of maps, at every one of the 270 tube stations. Wallinger, in conversation with Marina Warner, discusses the concept of his ‘Labyrinth’ series. In addition, the history of each station is revealed.

Wallinger’s first work for the London Underground was Angel in 1997, a seven minutes and 20 seconds video projection. In conversation with Marina Warner, Wallinger explains the initial ideas for Angel. The interview is a revelatory exposition of Wallinger’s approach to new projects and it builds an understanding of his motivation for ‘Labyrinth’.

‘Labyrinth’ has followed Angel (1997), When Parallel Lines Meet at Infinity (2001), a meditation on time and space, and Going Underground (2008), a continuing artist-covers series for the pocket Tube map.  Wallinger states that the ‘Labyrinth’ title was taken from a quote by Socrates ‘Then it seemedlike falling into a labyrinth’, from Plato’s dialogue Euthydemus (c.384BC), which continues ‘We thought we were at the finish but our way bent round and we found ourselves, as it were, back at the beginning, and just as far from that which we were seeking at first’. It is a description that will strike a note with anyone who has travelled on London’s tube system, weaving back and forth on different lines to reach a destination. The simple graphics of the tube map (conceived by Harry Beck in 1931) hide the complexities of each train journey. According to Wallinger, each labyrinth acts ‘as a mental map, a representation of the orientation and contemplation which are the everyday experience of millions of Londoners…’.

In the Preface, Tamsin Dillon, Head of ‘Art on the Underground’ from 2005 to 2014, unlocks the puzzle of Wallinger’s unique, circular Labyrinth design. The 270-pieces of artwork are created in vitreous enamel – the material used for signs by London Underground – each identical in size and shape. There are 11 design families, each with a different name, such as ‘Chamfered’, ‘Cretan’, ‘Medieval’ and ‘Organic’. One of the 11 designs is assigned to each station.

For instance, Westminster station has ‘Medieval’, whose design was inspired by the crenellated floor labyrinth, 12.9 metres in diameter, in Chartres cathedral, a beautiful, rather mysterious piece of art. Wallinger first saw it when visiting Chartres 30 years ago, on a bike ride through France. He describes it as ‘a kind of Gothic representation of a spiritual journey’. It conjures up a sense of history and place. Wallinger has given the tube station at Chigwell, the place where he grew up, the same design. He has, as far as possible, used his own mental associations with stations – he knows the system so well he doesn’t need a tube map – to choose the type of design a station warranted.

The essays are highly readable. In ‘Down the rabbit hole’ Will Self remembers his childhood journeys to school, from ages 8 to 12, taken from East Finchley to Hampstead stations (a complicated route), with ‘a swoop through the U-bend of the Northern line’. And he recalls not just the train journey but also, at Hampstead, the deepest station in underground network, the ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ lifts dating before the Second World War. These took him from the bowels of the station platform to the street level, whilst testing every traveller’s stomach’s constitution. His memories will trigger much from readers who had a London childhood.

Journalist and railway historian Christian Wolmar contributes an essay ‘On the people’s railway’. It takes the reader on a ‘journey’ through the history of London’s railway system, from the world’s first underground railway, the Metropolitan Line (giving its name to ‘metros’ across the world), which opened on 10 January 1863 and ran from Paddington to Farringdon. On the first day, 30,000 people were recorded travelling. Later rail extensions connected ‘village’ stations outside London such as Hammersmith, Putney and Wimbledon, all now firmly part of the urban sprawl.

 To look at, Labyrinth: A Journey through London’s Underground, is a beautiful work of art, carefully crafted, edited and illustrated – but he has included much more. This is a book that will fascinate Londoners who travel daily on the tube, historians of London and its railway network, photography enthusiasts, and everyone with an interest in contemporary art in a public space.

Labyrinth: A Journey Through London’s Underground  by Mark Wallinger, edited by Louis Coysh is published by Art/Books (October 2014). £24.99 (hbk). ISBN 978-1-908970-16-9


Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian

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