To recap, the first section of The Line takes an hour to walk, and there are only three sculptures on it. There are easier ways to see art.
Having said that, we've already passed two of the three best sculptures, and the next bit isn't a walk at all, so you could ask, why go on?
The Line skips Canning Town, where there's neither art nor anywhere to put it, and takes a ride on the DLR instead. Last year when the trail was inaugurated the alighting point was Royal Victoria, but now you get to ride one stop more to Custom House. And this is because the organisers have added a new work, the first to be specifically commissioned, which merits a slightly longer dockside stroll. Whether it's been worth the wait you'll have to judge when you see it.
Because the gateway station is different to before, be warned there aren't yet any obvious signs directing would-be visitors to the newly-installed location. Don't be fooled into thinking the giant cranes are part of the art show, they're not, they're the last remnants of heritage from when this area was the Royal Docks. Instead head down to the sleek white cruise ship moored up by the water's edge (it's a hotel, obviously) and turn right. You're about to pass four Line pieces in less than ten minutes - a considerably better strike ratio than before, but in a considerably more sanitised environment.
Inhibition Point - James Balmforth (2015, Corten and stainless steel, 300×39×39cm): This one's meant to "confront the viewer with the realities of force, gravity, balance and duration", whereas in reality it's a metal post with a big bite missing, just small enough to inhibit collapse. It wasn't really worth an excitable article in the Evening Standard last Monday. [photo]
Vulcan - Eduardo Paolozzi (1999, Bronze, 800×300×300cm): This one's impressive, a monumental statue of the god of fire, part man and part machine, revealing surrealist and cubist influences. What the clientèle of the neighbouring superbland restaurant make of it, I couldn't guess. [photo]
Work No. 800 - Martin Creed (2007, Steel I-beams, 145×29×1200cm): Martin presents us with a stack of three girders, a small one on a medium one on a large one. You could easily mistake it for somewhere to rest your coffee or your hot dog, purchased from the cluster of stalls alongside which exist to prey on cablecar customers wondering what on earth to do here. [photo]
Consolidator #654321 - Sterling Ruby (2009, Aluminium, 175×234×643cm): Is it a cannon or is it a coffin? That's the playful choice the sculptor is leaving with us here. And if you're wondering about the six-digit number, that's the hexadecimal code for the colour of the paint. [photo]
The Line's emphasis has fundamentally shifted here, being more about sculpture than about the trail. Also the majority of the Royal Docks quartet are geometric, hence perhaps less interesting, but crucially more resilient. This is a much busier location than the wilds of the Lea Valley, hence the need to locate artworks than can best resist vandalism, as well as the perils of small children attempting to climb all over them. Martin's girders have some graffiti chalked on them, which I'm fairly certain isn't part of the piece, and hints at the difficulties of curating an outdoor sculpture collection.
But for me the question has to be "why are we here?" The Greenwich Meridian, which we're purporting to be following, is a mile away, and the trail, such as it is, runs perpendicular. We've only got here by catching public transport, and we've got to catch a more expensive form of public transport to proceed. It would make more sense to position these four artworks on a longer trail down the Lea, except this doesn't yet exist. What the Royal Docks does have is waterside and public space, and authorities attempting to build a sense of place. And it also has the cablecar, which is the best way to reach the third section of The Line across the Thames. It's true, the cablecar is genuinely the best way to continue, but only because The Line's been specifically constructed like that.
If I might be heretical, I'd suggest you can skip that middle section of The Line, and take the train direct from Star Lane to North Greenwich. You'll only miss four bits of metal, and a brief not-very-interesting walk, and you'll save £3.50 in the process. Or take the cablecar anyway, I bet it's been ages since you last tried it.
The final section of The Line is a curve, indeed almost a full circle, around the tip of the Greenwich Peninsula. I've loved this walk for ages too, a mile-long jaunt round the back of the Dome looking out across the Thames, its traffic and its wildlife. Initially you'd meet very few people, but it's more popular these days, especially with imaginative cyclists. The Line's organisers have been economic/cunning here, incorporating two existing mega-sculptures into their walk and adding only two of their own, then adopting a third funded by the local development company. All of which means this section brings the most balanced reward - plenty of art, and plenty to see. Starting at the Thames Clippers pier...
Quantum Cloud - Antony Gormley (2000, Galvanised steel, 29×16×10m): One of the existing pieces, commissioned to deliver the Dome some millennial oomph, thousands of connected metal shards form the body of a man within an aura of uncertainty. It's great, but if you haven't seen this one before, where have you been? [photo]
Liberty Grip - Gary Hume (2008, Patinated and painted bronze and railway sleepers, 553×297×190cm): Installed for The Line, and not present in time for the grand opening last year, what we have here is three limbs cast in bronze with a bit of pink paint slapped on the severed bit. [photo]
A Slice of Reality - Richard Wilson (2000, Sliced vertical section of a Sand Dredger, 21×11×9m): Another turn-of-the-century favourite, this cross-section of ship doubles up as the artist's studio. Having been fortunate enough to clamber aboard during Open House, it's a most intriguing private hideaway. [photo]
Here - Thomson & Craighead (2013, Custom Signpost, 264×82×12cm):
It's been an hour since we last crossed the meridian, and here it is again, marked by a signpost indicating it's 24859 miles around the world and back again. Simple, but effective. [photo]
There is another large artwork here, specifically meridian-related, which sadly doesn't get a mention. It's beentrapped behind a fence since the Millennium Dome closed, unloved and overlooked, and only very recently restored to public access. It's called Living On The Line, a clever concept uniting cultures through geography and poetry. Each of the countries along the zero degrees line of longitude (and there are only eight) is represented by a verse or two etched into a circular granite slab in the ground, on either side of a paved line marking the meridian. A Simon Armitage stanza kicks things off for the United Kingdom, then it's France and Spain, and then a handful of African countries before the line hits the South Atlantic. The poems are mixed and varied, sometimes in their native language and sometimes in translation, and it's great to see minor nations like Mali and Togo given due representation.
Your breath was warm against my face
and suddenly I grew frightened
You whispered tenderly in my ear
and I knew the hour had come.
I dug my hands into my pockets
I dug on my heels
and walked and walked and walked...
like a little dog
he won't catch me again:
I lost him
in the naked streets of Algiers.
Méziane Ourad b. 1956
I think this millennial project deserves much wider attention, but it's had the misfortune to end up on the wrong side of a security divide and in the possession of a smothering owner. The Intercontinental Hotel opened here last Christmas, a pile of pallid towers facing the waterfront, and Living The Line now lies beyond the far side of its car park. It is possible to slip in past the barrier and wander across the turning circle, there's no sign denying admittance, but non-guests entering do so with a feeling of implied rebuttal. So I ignored that, and came to inspect the poetic panels and to stand astride the Dome's meridian, as I've ached to do since 2001. I think this would make a brilliant addition to The Line, it's so totally on the nail, but I can't imagine public access ever getting permission. The hotel seems obsessed by its security fence, which would need an additional pedestrian entrance cut through from the waterfront, but if you are one of the organisers, I'd urge you to give it a try. [10 photos]
Instead The Line ebbs out with one final artwork, and a startling one. It's easy to see from a distance but hard to reach, thanks again to the surfeit of security fences hereabouts. You need to wander off the marked trail, up a backroad, and spot the portal in the metal wall you might or might not be allowed through. One day it'll be flats, but for now...
A Bullet from a Shooting Star - Alex Chinneck (2015, Galvanised steel, height 35m): An upturned electricity pylon jammed into the earth, that's pretty spectacular. Paid for with developer money, and not here when The Line opened, but recently appropriated. [photo]
So that's The Line. It's not perfect and it's not always exciting, but it is a great excuse to walk parts of East London you may not have seen, and some of it is proper amazing. May it thrive and grow.
Stratford High Street → Star Lane: 3 artworks, 1 hour Star Lane → Custom House: 10 minutes, £1.50 Custom House → Dangleway Royal Docks: 4 artworks, 10 minutes Dangleway Royal Docks → Dangleway North Greenwich: 10 minutes, £3.50 Dangleway North Greenwich → North Greenwich: 5 artworks, 30 minutes