It must be one of the biggest pieces of public art in Britain. It’s seen by around five million people a day yet it hardly impinges on the awareness of most of them. Mark Wallinger’s Labyrinth is arguably the most significant commission ever undertaken by Art on the Underground, Transport for London’s arts programme.
Marking the 150th anniversary of the London Underground in 2013, Labyrinth is a distributed artwork, featuring a piece of graphic artwork installed at every station on the London Underground artwork. The complete set of 270 actually took until 2014 to complete. They’re not exactly a secret; there’s a book and an extensive web presence for the project, so you might already be familiar with it. But a surprising number of people I speak to are completely unaware of it, so as it’s a favourite of mine, I thought it was about time I featured it here.
Superficially, the artworks are similar, each one featuring a circular labyrinth rendered in black and white on vitreous enamel, the same material used to make signs on the Underground, and indeed the wider railway network. Each has a small red cross marking the start (and end) point of the labyrinth. Labyrinths are distinct from mazes; through them runs only a single path without the dead-ends and multiple choice junctions that characterise a maze. A maze is something designed to get lost in, while a labyrinth is a journey. The long, twisting route takes the traveller from the entrance to the centre, and then back out again. The earliest labyrinths were designed as a form of pilgrimage, a chance to reflect while walking, and there is a famous example on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France, dating from the 13th Century.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Wallinger felt that the labyrinth was a suitable reflection of the millions of journeys undertaken daily by passengers on the London Underground.
Wallinger (1959-) is an artist across several media who won the Turner Prize in 2007 for an in-gallery recreation of a Westminster political protest. He is one of the artists who have had an artwork displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, and has form with the London Underground. His 1997 artwork Angel is a film featuring Wallinger on the escalator at Angel station. Here’s an excerpt on YouTube:
The Labyrinth artworks, while not exactly hidden, are nevertheless not always easy to find. They are not particularly large and can be mounted anywhere in the station. Sometimes they are on the platforms, sometimes in the ticket hall, sometimes at the top of the escalators down to platform level.
Most passengers pass them by without a second glance, a secret hidden in plain sight. Yet they are beautifully tactile objects. Vitreous enamel has a lovely feel, encouraging people to trace the path through the labyrinth with their fingers. As you do so, you can’t help but reflect on the hundreds, thousands (hundreds of thousands by now? More?) passengers who have done so before you. Why did they stop to do it? Were they here specifically to see the labyrinth, or were they new to the Underground and therefore more aware of their surroundings than a daily commuter? Was their train delayed one day leading them to seek a distraction? Did they suddenly notice the artwork after passing it by on countless other occasions? For the solitary function of tracing a path through a labyrinth, as an artwork it is an experience which is surprisingly connective to the lives of others.
Each of the Labyrinth artworks is unique, though they fit into some broad categories (Medieval, woodcut-style, organic etc). Each one is individually numbered in Wallinger’s hand, at first giving the impression of a limited edition run of art prints. But the numbers hold a deeper meaning, recording the order through which stations were passed in the 2009 Guinness World Record ‘Tube Challenge’, the record for the fastest time taken to pass through every single station on the London Underground network (although that record has been beaten since). The concept of a numbered series of maps with one at each station, encourages the “collection” of them all by some, and if you look online you can find several Flickr or Tumblr series dedicated to the artworks.
London Underground doesn’t make it easy for collectors though. Because there are always refurbishment works underway somewhere on the Underground, it seems, there are occasions when individual Labyrinth artworks are temporarily removed. Art on the Underground’s Labyrinth page keeps visitors up to date with the current situation. At the moment, the Labyrinths at Barbican, Bromley on Bow, Charing Cross, Moorgate and West Acton are not on display.
It would be very difficult to visit all the Labyrinth artworks in a single day in any case, but the fact that all 270 are rarely (if ever?) on display at any one time makes it impossible for most of the time anyway. It lends an elusive temporality to the artwork, the sense that it varies slightly over time as individual labyrinths are removed and reinstalled.
As a thoroughly 21st Century art project, not only is there a book supporting the project but also a dedicated section of TfL’s Art on the Underground webpages.
One question that hasn’t really come up so far is what would happen if any new Underground stations were opened now that the Labyrinth project has been completed. Would TfL go back to Wallinger for Labyrinth 271? In fact, Labyrinth settles one argument; the status of the new Elizabeth line as part of the TfL rail network. TfL seems to be pursuing a strategy of treating it as though it is a new Tube line, even though it is clearly the first line of something different altogether, a Crossrail network (if anyone has any sense), with bigger and longer lines, and longer trains than you’d ever see on the Underground. Aside from bizarre design decisions like having Elizabeth line roundels at station entrances instead of more general network name roundels as happens with the Underground, the other way you can be sure that the Elizabeth line isn’t the same thing as the Underground is that there are no Labyrinths at its stations, except where it calls at those it shares with existing Underground lines.
Bibliography / Further Reading
Coysh, Louise (editor) (2014): Labyrinth: A Journey Through London’s Underground by Mark Wallinger. Art/Books, London