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Secret Art Underground, or, What Is Art?

Blending into the background at Underground stations all around the capital, strange, abstract, monochromatic markings have appeared on walls. No fanfare, no explanation, just silent encroachment of this public space. Not sinister, just strange.

Several weeks ago, a dear, dear friend opened my eyes to an underground mystery. Something that, on my fairly frequent forays around London, had been always there, but never noticed. Blending into the background at Underground stations all around the capital, strange, abstract, monochromatic markings have appeared on walls. No fanfare, no explanation, just silent encroachment of this public space. Not sinister, just strange.

Having recently completed a Masters in History of Art, I have become the go-to gal on all art questions. 'What does this scene mean?', 'If this was art, what would you say about it?', but, most frequently, 'Is this art, or..?' The Underground markings fell firmly into this latter category. Arriving at Golders Green station my friend pointed out to me my first image. 'Now, look at this. Is this art, or not? I can't work it out, but they're everywhere. And now you'll see them everywhere too.' I'll admit now, I laughed off this prophecy. The image was black and white, a spiral with a small red cross. My friend's basis for thinking it was art was the number at the bottom, 160/270, similar to a print run. However, the image itself looked so unlike art, I thought the number meant something else. My initial reaction was that it was something to do with the secretive internal workings of the station, a graphic representation of circuitry or something that only an expert would understand. Not something for us to notice.

However, as the weeks wore on I did indeed begin to notice more and more of these images. Perhaps they were different at each station because each station was circuited differently. Yet this was increasingly becoming a ridiculous hypothesis. Come on, it didn't even make sense in the first place. Too embarrassed to ask Transport for London staff, and a cursory Google throwing up no answers, my friend and I resorted to wild speculation. Naturally. Once I had conceded that yes, these things probably were art, I realised that it was a bloody good idea. These works had turned the theatre of public art on its head, as well as providing a silent commentary on the anonymity of modern day London.

When the big blue cock was unveiled as the new Fourth Plinth statue in Trafalgar Square earlier this year, we bloody well knew about it. It was advertised on posters beforehand, all the major news outlets captured the pulling off of the sheet, and an orderly queue of experts lined up to give their knowledgeable review in print, on radio and on television. Such is the pantomime of modern public art. The spectre of public art wafts in and out of the news for various reasons: because some beleaguered council is selling it, because it's controversial, because it's ugly and why are we wasting our money on it anyway. Artists and patrons are increasingly trying to make dramatic statements through the objects they foist upon communal areas. Public art is anything but silent.

And that's just what I liked about the Underground images. No one knew anything about them. There hadn't been a grand unveiling, and they hadn't been on the news. They were simply there, in a crowded space, waiting to be noticed. And, after all, the best way to see art is to discover it, not to have it thrust upon you. These spiral images had fostered more debate and conversation between my friend and me than the blue cockerel or any other public art. Because we were allowed to come across it one fateful night we could concoct our own meanings. In my view, this is one of the greatest functions of abstraction, a benefit that figurative representation can't have so effectively. The abstract spiral meant nothing, so it came to mean whatever we wanted.

The more I thought about it, the more genius the project seemed. In an environment swamped with corporate imagery, is a simple, black and white graphic outline enough to draw the eye? With hundreds of words and images screaming for our attention with every step, perhaps these artworks prove that advertising has blinded us to real art even when it is in our midst. Garish adverts for musicals and mobile networks have blinded us to the beauty in the simplicity of an outline. Or, conversely perhaps, by placing itself on the wall like the adverts, the artwork aligns itself with the ad, collapsing the boundaries between art and visual culture, and attempts to vie for our attention in the visual capitalism that is the tube station. By appearing alongside the adverts, these works force the question, as they did for my friend, 'is it still art if you just think it is?' And of course it is. We had no idea whether these pieces were 'art', yet we were still regarding them as such. And this is part of the cleverness of the installation. The works demanded these questions of the people who walked past them every day without even seeing them. Is it still art if nobody notices?

This is a more difficult question. It puts one in mind of the old adage; if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one to hear it, does it still make a sound? Art is, by its very nature, attention-seeking. So if no one receives the message, does the message still exist? This is a tricky one, and deserves more space than I can give to it here. It does, however, get me to thinking about another interpretation for these works. Their anonymity, their un-advertised instalment, their continued un-noticedness, contributes to their meaning. They reflect the very essence of tube travel. Non-Londoners stereotypically perceive Londoners as impersonal, travelling android-like through the Underground seemingly unaware of their fellow humans. Obviously this is exaggerated, but commuting in London is a very anonymous, lonely experience. People are insular, incurious, absorbed by tablets and newspapers and disinterested in the world around them. The spiral artworks are there to be seen, if only you choose to. Blending in to the space around them, and unnoticed by everyone around them, these works encapsulate the growing anonymity which commuting generates. The message about not being noticed is not being noticed. The artworks are proving themselves right.

My first reaction to that piece in Golders Green, 'this is not anything to do with me', encapsulates this apathy. I never thought I could accuse myself of insufficient curiosity, but on that occasion I succumbed. And it makes you wonder how often you brush things off as 'not for me', when it wouldn't kill you to look, and to wonder. Thinking about these works literally opened my eyes, and showed me that something potentially insignificant could garner so much debate.

Of course all of this was just speculation. As attached as I still am to my own interpretation of the artworks, the artist may have had a different one. At this point, I feel I must address the reader directly. If you have been caught up in the magic of the images, and want to discover them and their meanings for yourself, stop reading now. Spoiler alert: from here on in, the mystery will unfold.

Three weeks after my first experience at Golders Green, my friend sent me a link revealing the truth (this link: My high and mighty ideas shattered under the weight of artistic intention. The long and the short of it is that they were commissioned for the Tube's 150th anniversary, and their map-like aesthetic is supposed to reflect a journey on the Underground. Hmm. You may sense from my tone that I think my idea is, like, way better. I was actually surprised at how stroppy I got about having the truth revealed to me. I was annoyed that someone else had noticed the works; I was annoyed they had a different meaning to what I wanted it to be. I was annoyed that they were now connected to the rest of the world.

However, artistic intention is basically irrelevant, especially in modern art. They can be whatever you, or I, want them to be. Just because they're supposed to be a map doesn't stop them also commenting on anonymity. Just because I didn't interpret them as representing a Tube journey doesn't mean they don't. What is important is that art evokes emotion. If you don't connect with an artwork, it's just a load of marks. So my disappointment and teenage strop simply proves that the work has done its job as art. As does the fact that every time I see one, I smile and think about my friend, who I love. It doesn't matter what is art, or what art is supposed to be. All that matters is what it means, and feels, to you.

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