When you think about it, the subway system is a quite peculiar institution. Everyday, 4.3 million New Yorkers descend to the sewers to enter tiny steel cans which then speed away at 50 mph. The inside of a rush hour 6 train is a whole other sociological study as commuters push, shove and claw each their way to securing a piece of valuable New York real estate.
However from the chaos, has emerged some refinement: Subway art. If you look across borders and cultures you can often find distinct and unique forms of artwork that adorn the labyrinths that are subway tunnels.
The Athens metro is essentially a museum, as it displays the artifacts that were discovered during the digging process. Greeks awaiting a train can learn of their history, and even gain insights into the ancient city’s topography while sipping their morning frappes.
In Stockholm, the tunnels aren’t enriched with pieces of art, but rather are art in and of themselves.
140 artists have contributed to a works program that has rendered 90 of the 100 metro stops into spectacles in and of themselves.
New York subway art, while beautiful, airs more on the side of garnish than it does main course. Artemis guarding Lincoln Center, The Sea creatures swimming through the Houston St. stop , The Lichtenstein’s at Times Square, among others.
However, when taking the L out to Brooklyn recently, I came across a strange yet very cool set of bronze subway decorations.
What I found were distinctive little creatures scattered in very curious places. Often, they were doing quite proletarian things: working in the rafters, operating machinery, playing cards. At a quick, albeit whimsical glance, it almost seemed as if they were dutiful little empire ants: conductors, mechanics and policemen loyally and happily punching the clock each morning, and greasing the wheels of the great machine each day.
However the more I saw of them, the more I recognized the darker side of the “Life Underground.” A greedy banker collecting his dues at 14th street, a ravenous alligator robbing one of the creatures of their money, a “train conductor” stealing the subway tokens of a co-worker all revealed an overt anti-capitalist message.
There was even a fat cat lobster grubbing money from subway dwellers….
However despite the sinister side of this public art, (the work of contemporary artist/sculptor Tom Otterness), what I truly appreciated was the intended nonchalance of each creature’s placement. Many seemed to be doing very civilian things: trying to sneak past a subway cop or occupying a seat on the wooden bench next to the tracks.
Unlike most of the artwork in other subway stops, the “Life Underground” was ubiquitous, mercurial and even fickle; much like human subway life, and life in general.
You didn’t know what or who these creatures were, whether they had a family, where they were going, or what they would do next. However, even as they were frozen in bronze, you couldn’t help but imagine that there was a little life beneath the alloy.
On a recent episode of his show “The Layover,” Food Network personality, and native New Yorker Anthony Bourdain remarked “Don’t look people in their eyes on the subway, it’s not that it’s dangerous anymore, its just damned impolite.”
While I tend to agree with him, every now and then your train is late, and as your eyes wander from your Kindle, you may begin to wonder where the person next to you on the platform may be headed.
To see all of New York City’s Subway Art head over to the Complete NYC Subway Art Guide.
Do you have a favorite piece of subway art in New York or any other city?
Tags: 14th street subway, 8th ave stop, Anthony Bourdain, Athens Metro, Greece, Greek subway, mass transportation, MTA, New York Subway, NYC, NYC Subway, NYU, NYU Subway stop, Stockholm Metro, Sweden, Syntagma Square, The Layover, The Life Underground, Tom Otterness