You might think that the underground would be the last place to find some of most high-calibre artists from around the world looking to showcase their latest creative pieces. However, art on the underground is becoming more popular providing the perfect platform to engage with a large audience as well as enriching a passenger’s journey. With most of the world's population living and working in urban locations; metros, undergrounds and subways are becoming the focal point for emerging artistic talent.
We have selected some of the best locations from around the globe which present an impressive array of visual and audio art to deliver a range of messgaes - political, expressive, celebratory and historic. Whatever the story, these daily commuters can interact with some of the most immersive and talented creations in our urban spaces, reimagining the spaces that we connect with everyday.
London’s Underground network is a central part of the city's infrastructure connecting London's commuters and residents almost 24 hours a day. The Metropolitan Line was the first underground railway in the world to open in 1863. 11 lines now carry 1.34 billion passengers and 4.8 million passengers a day (figures correct of 2015-16). This allows artists the opportunity to engage with millions of Tube travelers everyday. Launched in 2000, Art on the Underground is an organisation which joins the debate about how art can influence social spaces. Working on behalf of the London Underground it is responsible for commissioning high-profile contemporary art for underground services to be enjoyed by London's ridership.
For the celebration of the underground’s 150th anniversary in 2013, one of the UK’s leading contemporary artists Mark Wallinger was asked to create a spectrum of one off pieces to be displayed at every London underground station. The end result saw 270 individual labrinyth designs which have now become a permanent fabric at the stations. Wallinger's main insight was to make a poetic link between the Tube’s wealth of history and the individual journeys that are taken everyday on such a vast network. The final design forges a link between the inconic London Underground brand – the roundel and Harry Beck’s Tube map. For Wallinger, the labyrinth is a fitting analogy for the millions of journeys that are made across the Tube network every day.
Last month saw Zineb Sedira showcase her art and music Underline for the Victoria Line displayed at King’s Cross St Pancras, Euston, Highbury & Islington and Brixton. The project, titled ‘Collecting Lines’, is a poetic reflection on networks, mapping and movement which explores the Victoria line from unique and often unfamiliar perspectives. A triptych video at Euston station, called ‘South to North – North to South’, follows the full distance of the line’s subterranean route filmed from a train driver's perspective. The work captures the movement, distance and velocity inside the tube tunnels. Brixton and Highbury & Islington stations feature large-scale photographic works of the ceiling at Victoria station, which is covered with coloured cables and pipes.
Another artistic debut will be made on London Underground the beginning of next year. Artist Matthew Raw has been commissioned to build on London Underground’s rich heritage of ceramics. The project will involve the production of more than a thousand hand-made tiles as part of the refurbishment and remodelling of a commercial unit at the entrance to Seven Sisters Underground Station which has been empty for more than ten years. Prior to the completion of the works in early 2017, the space will be equipped with a kiln to invite station staff, local residents and community groups to learn the techniques used in the project and create smaller ceramic objects. This technique will involve colouring blocks of plain white clay with body stain and mixing together different combinations before they are sized, rolled, moulded, cut, dried, fired and glazed. The unique final designs will be covered on the exterior of the building.
Since the construction of Lisbon’s first metro service in the 1950s, art has been a core element of its design. It was originally developed to improve the experience for the traveller. For the first stage of the metro, artist Maria Keil was commissioned over a span of 25 years to decorate 19 of the original stations. Her work comprises of the revival of traditional Portuguese art of glazed painted tiles - azulejo. In 1988, with the opening of the line extensions Sete Rios, Colégio Militar and Entrecampos, Cidade Universitária, another artistic development began. The Chairman at the time, Pestana Bastos strongly believed that art should be a central part of the decoration of the stations. He wanted the public spaces to use work from renowned artists to revive traditional artistic practices in the region. Now the Lisbon metro is a spectacle for its visitors decorated with oceans, olives, literature, engraved stones, trees, sculptures, ceramics and oil paintings.
Is Sweden’s underground the best designed public space in Europe? Beneath the Swedish capital is a colourful array of new art. It has been referred to as the world’s longest art gallery with 90 out of the 100 stations along the 110km of tunnelling adorned with paintings, installations, mosaics and sculptures by 150 artists since the 1950s. It captures the European cultural boom which expresses a combination of political upheaval and postmodern uncertainty. This art initiative began after many believed that art had to be accessible to the wider community. The Guardian interviewed artist Fredrik Landegren who painted the Fruängen station ten years ago. “Art was very political in Sweden in the 1970s. If there was not a strong message behind your work, there was little chance you’d be offered a job on the subway. But I think that was the case with art throughout Europe. It changed in the 1980s when things became much more about individualism and later post-modernism.”
Munich’s U-Bahn is an artistic triumph. Full of bold, colourful and iconic designs, each station has an individual sense of place. In the 1980s, Rolf Schirmer, a member of the city’s subway planning council wrote that transit stations should help inspire a positive mood for subway riders. “The use of artistic elements should help make a passenger’s wait more pleasant, something that cannot generally be said of subterranean, mostly artificially lit, spaces. This already indicates what a subway station should not be... aggressive, dreary, or oppressive”. Large metal panels, vibrant coloured block tiles, postcards, maps, paintings, ceiling mirrors and photographs have brought a new found energy into the underground compared with the original banal design which was constructed following the 1972 olympics.
The LA Metro has been in working operation since 1992. Now more than 250 artists have been able to showcase their work either temporarily or permanently along its stations. The state displays some of the most innovative designs to provide a visual sense of place. The walls feature a combination of photography, posters as well as live performances to engage with individuals and communities in the region. 5% of its metro budget is reserved for its art and LA metro now organsies their own art tours once a month.
Moscow’s metro is one of the most extravagant and decadent designs ever seen in an underground. Designed under Soviet rule, the stations were built to be luxurious palaces for the people. One interpretation was that the previous USSR ruler Josef Stalin demanded for the ceiling’s designs to be so lavish that passengers would look to the skies like they would to him. Decked in expansive marble with high ceilings and chandeliers, many of Moscow’s stations are incredible spectacles visited by tourists across the globe. Some of the art includes marble and bronze statues, stained-glass windows and countless mosaics made with glass, marble and granite in a grand style. Additionally, there are images of the former revolutionary and historical characters, their victories, sports, industry, agriculture, and warfare, as well as common Soviet people. However, after Stalin’s death in 1953 and the process of destaliniastion took hold of the country, his images were gradually withdrawn from the Moscow Metro. Sculptures were taken to storage facilities, and mosaics were removed. New stations that were built during this time do not feature any of the excessive designs but many of the old Soviet stations can still be marvelled at today.
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