Art and the London Tube seem inextricably linked. Notwithstanding the long running ‘Art on the Underground’ campaign, the Tube has long been a fertile site for creative minds. From Simon Patterson’s 1992 lithograph ‘The Great Bear’, which brilliantly intervened on that most iconic of Tube visualisations, Harry Beck’s schematic transit map, to Mark Wallinger’s ‘Labyrinth’ series, artists have long engaged with the very particular psychological and metaphorical reverberations of the Underground. Here, Will Stokes examines that psycho-geographic resonance, positing the Tube as London’s subconscious: “blood vessels in the veins of a great creature, pumped around beneath its streets”…
Posted, eyes front, along the dreamy ramparts Of escalators ascending and descending
To a monotonous slight rocking in the works, We were moved along, upstanding. Seamus Heaney, ‘District and Circle’
I remember hearing a rumour at school that beneath the grounds there existed an old network of tunnels, allowing secret (or at least rain-safe) access to various buildings across the campus for those who could navigate them. It was the stuff of myth and mystery, imagining what – or who – might be beneath your feet at any moment. It is with this same sense of intrigue that I have come to regard the London Underground, having disciplined myself to overcome a perhaps fatigued familiarity, in light of this year’s 150th anniversary, and truly admire the Tube as a realm in itself. It is a domain of pure, metallic urban austerity and geographical disorientation; of ruthless ow and efficiency garnished with lurid colour, tungsten lighting, sweat, noise and wind. By entering the dominion of the Tube one not only agrees to relinquish all contact with the outside world, but also to temporarily exist in impossibly close proximity with a cross-section of people we shall never encounter in quite the same way again. This is a completely integral aspect of life in London, yet almost entirely separate from life on the surface.
The Underground remains, whether we acknowledge it or not, wondrously mysterious. David Ashford describes the Tube in his essay ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ as “one of the earliest modernist spaces […] a prominent symbol of urban alienation – but one that remains peculiarly open to forgotten places with tremendous myth- making potential.” Curiously, however– and despite its “myth-making potential”– the Underground confronts its passengers with a soberingly palpable distillation of many of London’s cultural characteristics: its thrumming ebb and flow of activity and relentless motion, the (literally) unspoken code of behaviour hovering between all kinds of passengers, its pace, its indifference, its aggression. One needs only to look up and down the carriage one is sitting in to see plethoric signifiers of the city’s cultural spectrum, thrown together in a tiny galloping capsule and usually all facing one another. It is a kind of dreamlike cultural face off , yet mutually and curiously submissive, as if nobody dares try and assert any dominance in such a neutral, sacrosanct space.
The London Underground was developed as no more than a transitory system of access to the ‘real’ London, but this function has been so categorically superseded over the course of the twentieth century that the Tube has taken on an identity of its own as an entirely detached London– yet London it unmistakably remains. In this sense, entering the Tube is like entering London’s subconscious. It is a state of subterranean dreaming, one that remains as perpetuated by those who populate it as by its aesthetic.
I visited the Wiltshire studio of contemporary British painter Anna Simmons to talk about what drew her to depict the environment of the Underground in much of her work. “It was the Jubilee Line… the fact is those stations are all very special,” she says, “very interesting spaces; extraordinary spaces. Canada Water is an incredible station: I’d go back there again and again…Westminster is kind of an amazing thing on its own. It’s funny: that I’ve tried to paint it and I’ve done drawings of it, and they’ve never worked… almost as if it’s such a work of art that there’s nothing more to be said. And it’s very artificial light, of course. I feel that maybe I should spend a year being in that place: I often think ‘I must be here more’ in Westminster, because it’s so fascinating.”
Beginning at Liverpool Street, [photographer Dags Webb and] I ventured below ground to explore the Tube in its unadorned glory, from a visual rather than a functional perspective, experiencing its platforms and passageways’ rare moments of serenity between waves of travellers, where shy visual themes expose themselves. It’s a land of symmetry and reflection, immaculate design and beauty.
This aesthetic viewpoint is interesting and contentious, considering that the Tube has from its conception been so closely associated with art and design. From Edward Johnston’s original typeface in 1915 to the early posters that earned London Transport a reputation as one of the cultural arbiters of the modern age; from the introduction of ‘Poems On e Underground’ in 1986 to Mark Wallinger’s recently commissioned commemorative work ‘Labyrinth’–even the tiled legions of Sherlock Holmes profiles greeting passengers o the train at Baker Street, the Underground has really never been without its creative ornamentation. It’s a bipartite union of engineering and cultural phenomena, but far from being seen as juxtaposition it seems more in danger of coming across as gratuitous and even superfluous. How far, we might ask, does adorning the Tube network actually detract from its inherent visual grace in an attempt to make it ‘pretty’? Is it not enough to celebrate the creativity of the Underground as its own artistic entity? Simmons comments: “I feel that if we only look with our real eyes, it’s there; the glory of it is there, all the time. But perhaps people can’t [see]. Perhaps they need to have some extra thing there to make them feel better about it.”
I should say that I am by no means trying to assert the redundancy of art and design on the Tube network: one could, after all, say this of any architectural space that has artistic additions – even paintings in a room – but perhaps in the Tube we do indeed find a fascinating microcosm; a lesson in the appreciation of form and line and structure in all the purity of their dialogue, nestled amid cacophonic visual distractions.
What makes the Underground unique in this respect, however, is the fact that most of the time its passengers enter with a view to switching off , minimising interactions with their environment in a state of near-sedation. I personally have nowhere else seen so many people nod off while standing up. We do, in fact, usually prefer to concertedly not think about the particulars of where we actually are when on an Underground train. How long, for instance, do we need to be sitting in a static train between stations to begin wondering how many tons of earth are actually on top of us, or quite how snugly our train really fits into its tunnel? I should imagine that the carriage atmosphere on the Northern Line between Waterloo and Embankment would shift somewhat following a casual announcement declaring “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re just being held at a red signal directly beneath the River ames and will hopefully be on the move shortly”.
To be in the Tube is indeed to plug into London’s subconscious: blood vessels in the veins of a great creature, pumped around beneath its streets until we resurface to continue in our contribution to the life of the city. We are carried through the labyrinth of the Tube by such a relentless current that we rarely take a moment to look around us and, before we even have a chance of finding it beautiful, simply acknowledge what it actually is. “I find it constantly beautiful”, Simmons tells me. “…because everyone’s ‘asleep’, that makes me much more awake, and then I think that when you’re in that awakened state, you see things as beautiful that normally people wouldn’t say are beautiful at all. Everything is a pattern, and somehow of deep significance, though you can’t say what the significance is. It’s somehow so meaningful, and wonderful. at’s the thing: it’s always there but it’s only sometimes that you really feel it – that you are there.’
Similarly, in the final section of Heaney’s ‘District and Circle’ we bear witness to a strikingly intense interaction with the very environment of the Tube:
So deeper into it, crowd-swept, strap-hanging, My lofted arm a-swivel like a flail, My father’s glazed face in my own waning And craning… Again the growl Of shutting doors, the jolt and one-off treble Of iron on iron, then a long centrifugal Haulage of speed through every dragging socket.
And so by night and day to be transported Through galleried earth with them, the only relict Of all that I belonged to, hurtled forward, Reflecting in a window mirror-backed By blasted weeping rock-walls. Flicker-lit.
I include this because Heaney’s speaker iterates an interesting challenge: how much time do we spend thinking about where we are going to be next, instead of understanding where we actually are? An average of half an hour on the underground every day comes to just over a solid week of subterranean travel per year: time that, it would appear, can either be spent in a state of sensation or sedation. In this way it would seem that riding the Underground occasionally offers what may perhaps be called an exercise in presence: a rare opportunity in London to practise more nearly being where one is.
-SEAMUS HEANEY, ‘DISTRICT AND CIRCLE’ FROM DISTRICT AND CIRCLE, FABER AND FABER, 2006