Tuesday 21 March 2023

Occult London: Maze and Labyrinths in Underground Art

I don't think I'm alone in feeling that London's Underground system is a mysterious realm full of occult significance as well as being a highly practical form of public transport. The Tube, as it's called, has inspired fantasy literature including Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch. It has also prompted psychogeographical writing such as 'In Defence of the Underground' by Doris Lessing, and Jini Reddy's magical quest Wanderland. In fact, the labyrinth artwork at Warren Street Underground station, (pictured above and right) is where Jini's book started. I've long been fascinated by the same piece of art myself, as I often pass through Warren Street on my way to teach workshops in practical magic at Treadwell's Bookshop.

That picture is by Mark Wallinger as part of the Art on the Underground programme. It's part of a series called Labyrinth, Mark grew up near London and regularly used the Central Line to get from the countryside to the city. This is what is says on the TfL website:

"This personal relationship with the Underground has informed his interest in public transport and fuelled a fascination with the idea of being ‘transported’ in an imaginative or spiritual sense. This idea gave rise to the ancient symbol that lies at the heart of this commission: the labyrinth, which represents this idea of the spiritual journey in many different traditions across the globe."

There were, according to TfL, 270 different labyrinths designed by Mark, with one at each of the Underground stations that existed in 2013. Each was individually numbered. I'm not entirely sure if they are all visible to the public today, but there was a Guinness World Record Tube Challenge to visit them all in the shortest time. Maybe one day I'll have a go at finding each one myself.

However, Warren Street Station also has mosaics depicting a maze on the Victoria Line platforms. The art is by Alan Fletcher and is a play on the concept of the word "Warren" meaning underground tunnels. You can see that in the photo to the left. A maze has many different paths, some of which lead to dead ends, while a labyrinth has a single path that winds its way to the centre. 

It's supposed to take 3-4 minutes to solve the puzzle and find the right path, which is about the length of time between trains arriving.

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