diamond geezer

 Saturday, February 09, 2013

These are fun. Appearing soon at a tube station near you.

That's not a maze, it's a labyrinth. The distinction is important, because mazes have a choice of route on the way to the centre whereas a labyrinth has only one. Start at the beginning, follow with your finger and you have to reach the middle if you stay on long enough. It's an allegory for a tube journey, that. Which is rather clever.

Labyrinth is part of the latest artwork on the London Underground, being installed across the network to celebrate its 150th anniversary. The plan is to stick a labyrinth on the wall at every one of London's 270 tube stations, and the first batch are already in place. All 270 designs will be different, but you'll always start at the red cross, and you're always trying to get to the middle. Something to do while you're waiting for your train, perhaps.

Each labyrinth will be numbered in the bottom right hand corner, in the same order as the station was visited during a world-record breaking Tube Challenge in 2009. Chesham's labyrinth will be number 1, Heathrow Terminal 5 will have number 270, and number 102 above is St James's Park, nearly halfway through.

Gallery of installed labyrinths, station by station

The project was commissioned by Art on the Underground, but it's artist Mark Wallinger's idea. Mark grew up with the Central line at the bottom of his garden, out in Chigwell, so has always had an affinity with the tube. I know this because I've watched the five minute video on the Art on the Underground website, which you ought to do too if you want to understand the project a little better. You'll see how the enamel plates are made, by hand, and where they stick the masking tape so the red paint goes on properly. But you won't get the true experience of finding one in a station from a video, press release or deskbound blog.

I went out in search of a labyrinth yesterday, only to discover that they're very hard to find. Only ten plaques have been installed so far, with the remainder due to go up over the next few months. All the lucky stations are in central London, places like Baker Street, Green Park and Bank. These stations are very busy, but more importantly they're very big. No clues are being given as to precisely where inside each station the labyrinth has been hung, so it takes effort, persistence and luck to find out where they are.

I tried Tottenham Court Road, but only in passing, and spotted nothing. I think that means I can say it's not in the entrance hall, nor on the escalators, nor on the southbound Northern platform, but even then I might have missed it. I didn't spot anything at Embankment either, but that may be because the place is a warren of platforms and connecting subways so there are far too many places to look. I only popped out quickly at Victoria in case the panel was on the adjacent platform, but seemingly not, so no luck there either. Thankfully I knew I could hit the jackpot at the station next door.

St James's Park is the station beneath TfL HQ, so it's not surprising that one of the first ten plaques has been installed there. And this one's easy to find because there are only two platforms and they're facing each other. I got lucky and stepped off at precisely the right spot, that's on the westbound District line platform near the Broadway exit. There it was on the wall, surrounded by a simple black frame, ready to be traced. I decided against that because it was rush hour and I would have been stared at, but once one's installed at Chigwell you can play with it to your heart's content.

There is going to be a group of people who make it their business to go around hunting some or all of these 270 labyrinths. And my experience suggests that this is going to be quite tricky. While wandering around Embankment looking for the labyrinth I often found myself wandering against the flow, because I was playing hide and seek with a 60cm square plaque rather than deliberately heading somewhere. Not here... check that tunnel... not there..., cross to that platform... nothing... how about back up these steps? This is loitering with intent, which is not something TfL normally likes you to do. How long before some art-inspired explorer gets stopped by a suspicious member of staff and gives the response "but I was only looking for the labyrinth"?

So let's assist your exploration with a list of the ten labyrinths already installed. I know where one of them is, and where three of them aren't, but maybe you can help me fill in the gaps. Just these first ten, though, the remainder you can track down by yourself.

Baker Street:
Embankment: In the ticket hall
Green Park:
King's Cross St Pancras: Old ticket hall near the top of the Northern line escalator
Oxford Circus: Main ticket hall
St James's Park: Westbound District line platform, near the Broadway exit
Tottenham Court Road: (not on the southbound Northern line platform)
Victoria: (not on the District line platforms)

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