In recent years, Mark Wallinger has emerged as the go-to guy for a certain kind of public art commission – for projects that are smart and thoughtful, but also fun and lighthearted: a breezy, accessible, avowedly populist kind of conceptualism. He’s a logical choice for Transport for London, to help celebrate 150 years of the Underground; yet, unfortunately, the resulting multi-part piece, ‘Labyrinth’, turns out to be something of a disappointment.
The work consists of 270 black-and-white, wall-mounted enamel designs of circular labyrinths, a different one installed at each tube stop (though currently there are only ten up in central stations, the remainder being rolled out by summer). Not mazes, note, but labyrinths: the distinction being that the latter feature no branching pathways, but only one looping, dizzyingly circumlocutory route that eventually leads to its center. But while such designs may carry a pleasantly art-historical, medieval-ish flavour, they aren’t actually a very good analogy for commuters’ tube journeys across London – the ostensible idea of the piece – which inevitably tend to involve numerous intersections and divergent choices.
Of course, there’s fun to be had in searching out individual works: next to the control room at Oxford Circus, or by a telephone kiosk in Baker Street, or on the platform itself at St James’s Park. But their placement feels rather cursory, secondary to other signage concerns – only the King’s Cross piece, in one of the main foyers, occupies the space well. Above all, the biggest let-down is the way their surfaces are unexpectedly flat, as it would have been nice if the designs were embossed, creating a channel for the finger to trace along – a physical experience, a bodily process, of travelling from red ‘X’ to center. Without that sense, the works feel not only less profound, but also, fatally, less fun.