As anyone who has to commute to work on a daily basis knows, your average train station is not the sort of place where people feel inclined to hang around for too long, especially when they have somewhere else to be. The New York Subway, for example, has over 4.3 million travellers passing through its barriers on a daily basis. In London, meanwhile, 3.75 million-plus people ride the Underground every day, and that’s not taking into account the train services which go in and out of the city.
But in recent years, following successful campaigns such as Poems On The Underground, more stations are actively encouraging passers-by to stop and think for a while. Initiatives such as the Crossrail Art Programme, coinciding with the opening of the new train line over the next two years, are being created with the intention of “integrating art and infrastructure.”
But are these new installations and murals going to be an inconvenience for those who simply want to get from A to B, or will the spread of public art in train stations usher in a more relaxed approach to the daily grind?
Slowing down during rush hour
One survey of British commuters showed that 21% of people put “the monotony of the same journey day in, day out” as one of their most hated aspects of getting to and from work. As such, it’s not surprising that new advertisements in stations are noticed by 60% of commuters, with 40% “actively seek[ing] out adverts to read.”
Consequently, works of art in train stations are a way to alleviate the boredom of a journey where people find advertising worth looking at, positively impacting commuters’ psychological well being. These works range from permanent, but easily-overlooked “arts and artefacts” which litter Kings Cross St. Pancras and the “world’s longest art gallery” within 110km of Stockholm’s underground system, to temporary exhibits and installations which need to be eye-catching and thought-provoking to stick in the minds of fleeting passers-by.
For example, “You Are Forever”, a work by Owais Husain—a figurehead of Indian installation art—stirred interest in his native Mumbai. Comprised of a film projected onto 48 steel trunks, the nine-foot tall work was exhibited at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station, and was designed “to inspire memories of travel and represent the shifting of cultures from one place to the next.” The artwork was not located on the station’s concourse, but right on Platform 8.
This train has been delayed due to modern art
Husain himself has said that he likes to “engage an accidental audience” in a public domain and make it part of a daily routine. However the installation, exhibited as part of a rotating series curated by independent art committee ArtOxygen, provoked some debate for how obstructive people found it to their daily journeys. Indeed, despite gaining advance permission from the station authorities, Husain admitted that security had tried to prevent him from putting “You Are Forever” up in the first place.
However, some pieces of public train station art make a wider point which needs to gain the attention of those who may otherwise ignore it altogether. To mark the centenary of the start of the Battle Of The Somme, artist Jeremy Deller organised a guerilla performance art campaign; “what I didn’t want was a static memorial that the public went to to be sad,” Deller told the Guardian. Instead, he replaced the hypothetical monument with 1500 men dressed in period soldiers’ uniforms, congregating at railway stations across the UK before dispersing to busy public places, or even boarding trains. If the “soldiers” were ever asked questions, they would simply hand out ID cards with the name, age and regiment of the serviceman they were portraying.
Deller’s work stands apart from a static installation or a mural, and by being so disruptive to the day-to-day journey of Britain’s commuters, it likely started many conversations once people reached their offices which may not have otherwise taken place. So while works of this nature may be considered an inconvenience at first glance, train stations are an ideal place to bring an artist’s message to a wider audience.