Why Read Labyrinth: A Journey Through London’s Underground by Mark Wallinger

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Labyrinth Book Mark Wallinger

Mark Wallinger, Labyrinth A Journey Through London’s Underground. Copyright image by Art Books Publishing Ltd, used with permission, all rights reserved.

Turner prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger knows the London Underground system, or the ‘Tube’, as many of us call it, like the back of his hand. It is one of the best-loved and most well-known brands on the planet. The Underground is the lifeblood of the capital that keeps us moving.

Wallinger’s latest publication, Labyrinth: A Journey Through London’s Underground, takes us on a fascinating ride through each station on the network as the artist explains the rationale behind his latest major permanent artworks, known collectively as Labyrinth.

Mark Wallinger – Artist and Sculptor

Mark Wallinger (b.1959) is one of the UK’s finest and most well-respected contemporary artists whose work appears in the collections of many of the world’s finest galleries and museums. He is probably best known for his sculpture, Ecce Homo, created in 1991, the first artwork to occupy the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Labyrinth – Ancient Symbol Represents Spiritual and Imaginative Voyages

London Underground Roundel

The London Underground Roundel. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Labyrinth: A Journey Through London’s Underground explores a major public art project. Commissioned in 2013, by Art on the Underground, to celebrate 150 years of the London Underground system, Labyrinth is series of 270 unique designs on vitreous enamel, one for each station in the system.

Chesham, at the far end of the Metropolitan Line, is number 1, and Heathrow Terminal 5, on the Piccadilly Line, is number 270. Wallinger’s labyrinths are rapidly becoming as memorable as the London Underground roundel and Harry Beck’s Tube map.

The labyrinth, an ancient symbol representing spiritual and imaginative voyages, represents our countless journeys made on the Underground. You enter the network at one end and you come out at the other. That ‘end’ could be anywhere in the system. It might be the next stop along, or it might be an hour’s journey involving one or more trains. You might take a wrong train here or there, but eventually you will emerge from the labyrinth!

Labyrinth: The Book

Edited by Louise Coysh, Senior Curator for Art on the Underground, Labyrinth: A Journey Through London’s Underground includes a preface by Tamsin Dillon, previously Head of Art on the Underground from 2005 to 2014. Several original essays, by writers, academics and historians, expand and develop the theme. Contributors include novelist Will Self, writer and academic Marina Warner, and transport historian Christian Wolmar.

Wallinger’s book is a record of every labyrinth. Outstanding photographs by Belgian photographer Thierry Bal show each artwork in situ. Wallinger gives us a brief outline of the history of each station and surrounding district. He also offers the thoughts of passengers, railway workers and local residents, making us re-examine something – the labyrinth – that is so much a part of our daily lives that we almost take it for granted.

Preston Road Station

Labyrinth at Preston Road

The Preston Road Labyrinth. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Wallinger tells us Preston Road, my local station, opened on 21st May 1908, at a time when Preston Road was just a quiet rural district. Originally called ‘Preston Road Halt for Uxendon and Kenton,’ the station, with two wooden platforms and a small ticket office, opened in time for the 1908 Olympic Games.

Electrification of the line followed two years later, and by 1931 Preston Road had become a well-developed residential suburb with new station re-built on the other side of the road.

Editor Louise Coysh Speaks Exclusively to Decoded Arts

Louise Coysh is Senior Curator for Art on the Underground. Recent projects include Wallinger’s Labyrinth (2013); Big Ben by Sarah Morris (2012) and Linear by Dryden Goodwin (2010). Ms Coysh has been Project Curator at London’s Serpentine Gallery, commissioning editor for AN Magazine and a member of the steering committee of Visual Arts North East (VANE).

Decoded Arts: Presumably you and Mark discussed how to capture the essence of the underground in one work of art. How did you come up with the idea of the labyrinth?

Louise Coysh: Art on the Underground was seeking to deliver a major commission to celebrate London Underground’s 150th anniversary in 2013. We knew we wanted to develop an ambitious intervention for London that would have an impact across the entire network.

We therefore needed an experienced artist able to understand the magnitude of this highly public opportunity, who would be interested in and sensitive in terms of engaging with the Tube’s diverse audience. Mark Wallinger was our only choice and we approached him with an open brief.

As a Londoner the Tube is close to Wallinger’s heart, with ideas of being ‘transported’ in a spiritual sense that run throughout his work evolving from his early Underground experiences. He had also used the Tube (independently of Art on the Underground) as a site for two previous works, Angel (1997) and When Parallel Lines Meet at Infinity (1998), set on the Circle line.

In terms of exploring and developing the idea, this was a process that Mark took on with great commitment. Our role at Art on the Underground was to guide him through the complexities of the Underground.

Mark really set his own challenge – how to make something visual that complimented rather than competed with the Underground’s graphic language (the Roundel, Harry Beck’s Tube map) which had the possibility to work at all 270 stations on the network?

Decoded Arts: You are an acknowledged expert in this field, but when you were editing this book did you discover anything new that really surprised you?

Louise Coysh: I’m continually fascinated by the different ways in which artists respond to the Tube. It’s deeply satisfying to see the ways in which people react to the artworks they encounter. The Underground constantly surprises me, reflecting the complex and layered city it serves.

Take a station like Barking, (District and Hammersmith & City Line), notable past residents include the explorer Captain James Cook, prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and Dr Thomas Barnardo, founder of the children’s homes and World Cup winning England and West Ham United captain Bobby Moore. In 1905, Barnardo was carried in a funeral cortège on an Underground train, one of only two occasions this is known to have happened.

Labyrinth at Harrow-on-the-Hill

Harrow-on-the-Hill Labyrinth. Copyright image by Art Books Publishing Ltd, all rights reserved.

Decoded Arts: Do you see underground stations as purely functional or do you see them as personalities, as individual characters?

Louise Coysh: Absolutely, each station has its own unique biography and life. Some stations have perhaps fared better in terms of the Company’s investment in design at a given period. Stations by architect Charles Holden such as Southgate and Cockfosters from the early thirties are incredible spaces, with real attention to detail both under and above ground. I also love the visionary concrete modernist bus shelter above Newbury Park station designed by Oliver Hill in 1937 but not opened until 1949.

Decoded Arts: How did you decide which design would fit which station?

Louise Coysh: The choice of which Labyrinth design for each station was made by Mark Wallinger, informed by a combination of personal knowledge or associations of a given place or intuition, such as his choice of the ‘medieval’ Labyrinth design at Westminster in reference to the Abbey or the ethereal ‘emboss’ design reflecting the station’s name at Angel.

Decoded Arts: What do you hope readers will get from this book?

Louise Coysh: Whether it’s a fascination with the Tube Challenge route, station histories or wanting an insight into Wallinger’s artistic practice, the book is intended to allow the reader to dive in, at any page and choose their own journey. Labyrinth is both an accessible yet multi-layered project and this book acts as a guide to this major permanent artwork and the labyrinthine Underground network.

Labyrinth – Compelling Reading

Labyrinth: A Journey Through London’s Underground is a compelling and authoritative read. With over 300 pages and more than 500 colour and black and white illustrations, it is a remarkable record of the Labyrinth project and a celebration of our unique and wonderful London Underground.

Published by Art Books Publishing Ltd., Labyrinth: A Journey Through London’s Underground is produced in association with Art on the Underground.

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