In the new issue of the Times Literary Supplement (20th March 2015), I have reviewed Mark Wallinger’s new book Labyrinth: A Journey Through London’s Underground. The piece was edited down a bit for print. Below is the unedited text for those interested.
Louise Coysh, editor
A journey through London’s underground
by Mark Wallinger
320pp. Art/Books Publishing. £24.99.
978 1 908970 16 9
In 2010, Banksy’s agent placed an advertisement inside London Bridge station for his new film Exit Through the Gift Shop. The print depicted a young boy praying in front of a brush and bucket under a halo of dripping paint. Transport for London (TfL) refused to run the advert unless the dripping paint was removed. Two days after it was placed, sans halo, Banksy physically painted the halo back on the piece. TfL then removed the advert from the station, stating that it had been “defaced”. This situation is a good indication of how TfL engages with art: dissent and difference have no place in the London Underground. Mark Wallinger’s new book Labyrinth: A Journey Through London’s Underground is a handsome piece of corporate merchandise hiding behind a cadaver of democratic historicity.
The project pitch was relatively straightforward. Wallinger was commissioned by Art on the Underground to install pieces celebrating the 150th anniversary of the tube. He decided to create 270 framed labyrinths in eleven stylistic variations, baked into black and white vitreous enamel. One was placed at each tube station in London. Wallinger’s choice of the labyrinth, rather than a maze, as his starting point is telling. In a transcribed conversation with Marina Warner that appears at the beginning of the book, he explains that he chose the form of the labyrinth because it is a condensed straight line, rather than a maze where one encounters dead-ends and potentially gets lost. TfL certainly do not want anyone getting lost in the tube: lost people, like unattended baggage or unsolicited art, is dangerous.
The installation never engendered much interest, perhaps because of a suspicion that the labyrinths, sanitised of any offending historic or aesthetic elements, might themselves be an advert. Or perhaps they were simply difficult to distinguish from the rest of the subterranean signage. As Wallinger explained to Will Self (who also wrote the foreword) in conversation at the London Review of Books, he had little say in where the art was placed. Flipping through the book, it is hard not to wonder how far that conspiracy stretches. In that context, Wallinger’s stated intent to stay close to TfL’s aesthetic, their roundel, their typeface, their brand, even to the point of having the company that makes TfL’s sings produce the prints, is disconcerting to say the least. Unsurprisingly, part of the funding for this project was provided by JCDecaux, the largest outdoor advertising corporation in the world.
The bulk of the text was adapted from Wikipedia entries about individual tube stations. Though the entries are loaded with fascinating detail and are remarkably up to date, this is more a repository of corralled records than an exercise in artistic flexing or critical creativity. Luckily the entries are paired with energetic photographs by Thierry Bal that drift between architectural and street photography. One can feel Bal struggling to make the labyrinths more stimulating, squeezing himself into contorted corners, using mirrors, and framing passing passengers in awkward spontaneous moments of self-awareness. Bal’s strained efforts to photograph all 270 labyrinths in an interesting way is actually a more luring piece of art than the labyrinths themselves.
However, Bals photos are also frustrating. It is obvious many of the photos were taken with a tripod, the use of which is expressly forbidden by TfL. As is “loitering” in stations. As is selling photos of stations one has captured. Bal’s photos then, however beautifully rendered, only serve to reinforce the fact that the tube today is one of the least democratic spaces in London, contrary to Tasmin Dillon’s comment in the preface that it is “one of the last truly democratic civil spaces”. The truth of the matter is that tube is no longer the participatory environment it once was.
For an exhibition celebrating 150 years of history, Wallinger’s pieces are conspicuously present tense. Once again scrambling to save the installation from itself, a contribution appears from Christian Wolmer at the end of the book – because that is where history goes, right before the index – where Wolmer praises the democratic nature of this innovative and inexpensive public transport network in a way only a historian could. Wolmer teases us by giving us glimpses behind the façade of the system: ghost stations, socialist histories, competing historical narratives, and tells us such anomalies make the tube a labyrinth. He meant a maze of course, since the labyrinth, with its single path in and out, has no room for “anomalies”, especially in today’s “political climate”. The contemporary tube is just a sterling chute.
Self buried a barb in the foreword for the book that serves as a useful hook. He suggests that, “it is in the conflict between perceiving the city as a labyrinth and experiencing the city as a maze that we discover the limits of our freedom.” It is obvious Wallinger is an anorak at heart and that he made a compromise for privileged access to private space that an artist could never engage with otherwise. I would venture to guess that Wallinger was as frustrated working through the commission as I was reading about it. Labyrinth is a cobbled bludgeon of colour and data that brings a bit of life to the exhibition but is ultimately more of a reflection of the unrelenting corporatisation of public infrastructure than the innovative art book it could have been – the book that Banksy would have made perhaps.