They are not mazes (confusing, exasperating, easy to get lost in) but labyrinths (one way in, one way out) said the artist Mark Wallinger as he revealed details of 270 black and white enamel artworks that will forever hang in London’s tube stations.
The Labyrinth project is two years in the making and follows an approach by London Underground to fulfil the network’s largest ever art commission in what is its 150th birthday year.
Wallinger said he was honoured to get the commission, especially since he was brought up close to the Central line in Chigwell and fondly remembers waving at tube drivers to try and get a toot and then falling asleep every night to the duh-dum-duh-dum of the trains.
“There is something particularly cherishable about the tube in that millions of people put their trust in it every day, millions are hugger mugger together on it, people fall asleep among strangers – that suggests a special kind of affection. To make something that will be noticeable or become part of the furniture is a great opportunity.”
Each tube station will have a square enamel panel 60cm by 60cm with a different labyrinth on it, made by the company which does all the network’s other enamel signs. Ten were installed on Thursday at the central London stations St James’s Park, Baker Street, Bank, Embankment, Green Park, King’s Cross St Pancras, Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road, Victoria and Westminster.
By the summer all 270 will be in place and Wallinger admitted it may bring out the geek in tube enthusiasts as he has numbered them according to the route taken on the 2009 record breaking Tube Challenge.
The Tube Challenge is the name accepted by the Guinness Book of Records for those keen, slightly mad people who attempt to visit every station in the fastest possible time. So when Andi James, Martin Hazel and Steve Wilson set a record (overtaken in 2011) of 16 hours, 44 minutes and 16 seconds they began at the end of the Metropolitan line in Chesham and finished at Heathrow Terminal 5.
Wallinger said he was inspired by tube icons – the Harry Beck designed tube map and the network’s familiar roundels. An early idea was to use circular facing mirrors on platforms to create infinitive reflections. “That was impractical as it turns out,” he said. “But I was wedded to the idea of circles.”
From that came the idea of mazes and labyrinths and the strength of the latter was that there is only one way in and one way out, unlike mazes which set out to confuse with their tricks and dead ends. “As long as you keep going in a labyrinth you will come to your centre,” he said. Each work will have a red cross on it, representing a start here.
The labyrinths are made but only half have been assigned to the stations with more decisions pending. In his head for the St James’s Park work was a tripartite theme, he said, what with it being bounded by The Mall, Horse Guard’s and Birdcage Walk. “As far as I can I try to match them up but there are stations I haven’t been on or even heard of.”
Wallinger is one of the UK’s best known artists, winning the Turner Prize in 2007 for State Britain, his recreation of Brian Haw’s Parliament Square protest down the central galleries of Tate Britain. Or people might remember him dressing as a bear and wandering round Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie for his 1999 Fourth Plinth sculpture Ecce Homo.
He is also a vocal public art enthusiast although his idea of installing a 50-metre white horse at Ebbsfleet remains stalled because of a lack of funding.
Tamsin Dillon, head of Art on the Underground, said the tube system represented one of the best public spaces for art in the UK. “Something like 4 million people every day have an opportunity to encounter the art works that we commission with a billion people, every year, using the network.”
Wallinger follows in a noble tradition of artists producing work for the underground. Look up at the network’s headquarters in St James’s Park and you will see reliefs by Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henry Moore. Then there are the 1930s posters by artists including Man Ray, Paul Nash and Edward Wadsworth. And since 2000 there has been the Art on the Underground project which has featured works by Cindy Sherman, Jeremy Deller and last year Michael Landy who collected stories of underground acts of kindness.
The announcement was made at LU’s headquarters above St James’s Park station – an event for which there were, appropriately, minor delays. The network’s managing director, Mike Brown, calmly explained that smoke had been sucked into a vent shaft at Victoria tube station necessitating a mass evacuation during rush hour. “I’m sorry if you got caught out in that. At least it wasn’t raining,” he said.
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