Stockholm Subway Art : bringing together the past and the present

Stockholm Subway Art : bringing together the past and the present
The emblematic rainbow artwork at Stadion station Photo Credit: Visit Stockholm

Taken together, the subway stations of Stockholm may just make the longest art gallery in the world. They also bridge the city’s tales of past and present.

Suman Tarafdar
July 07 , 2019
07 Min Read

If you ever wish to glimpse the sociological processes and developments that have shaped a country, you wouldn’t expect to do so while riding the subway. At Stockholm’s tunnelbana or tunnel rail, one encounters many a facet of the struggles that have effectively shaped modern Sweden, a country that is known for its superior quality of life.

And it does it through the most permeable way possible: art. Commuters double up as art gallery visitors—daily. Around 90 of the 100 stations that comprise the metro network are done up in sculptures, mosaics, installations, engravings, paintings, relief work and even decorated rock formations by about 200 artists. The Swedes have always taken their art seriously; public debates about the role of public art began as early as the 19th century. Not that art in the metro has come easily. A new phase of construction is presently underway, and it is worth looking back at its storied, artsy past.


Massive blue leaves at T-Centralen station

My wonderful guide, Elisabeth Daude, explained how as the construction of the metro started in 1941, got interrupted by the war, and then when the first line opened in 1952 without any art, the debate on art in the metro gathered volume. Had Siri Derkert (1888–1973), Swedish sculptor, artist and a strong advocate for peace, feminism and environmental issues, not stood all her five-foot-nothing up repeatedly to the men of the transport commission (and Swedish men are tall—and very handsome, but more on that elsewhere) for the right of public art in the 1950s, the Stockholm metro would not be the same. Derkert, along with fellow artist Vera Nilsson, the Social Democratic Party and many others, waged a very public debate over the need for art.

Art in the metro did get sanctioned in 1956, when a competition was announced to embellish the stations, and 156 entries were submitted. 12 artists were commissioned to adorn T-Centralen station, which opened as an effective art gallery in 1957. Since then, the city and its metro have evolved in tandem, shaping each other innovatively. Incidentally, the decision to avoid advertisements in almost all spaces of the stations was taken early on.

Let’s get the logistics out of the way. Operated today by the Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (SL), which also oversees other means of public land transport in Stockholm, the metro has three or seven lines, depending on your perspective. The green, red and blue lines are further split into different routes (like how Delhi metro’s Blue Line goes to both Noida and Ghaziabad). Also, all lines have a common hub—the aforementioned T- Centralen or Central Station—which, given its expanse and downtown location, could be a town on its own. T is short for tunnelbana (or t-bana).

Installations across the tunnelbana

Any exploration effectively begins at the T-Centralen. Take the oldest, the green line, built largely in the 1950s. The ‘bathroom line’ is known for its dominant tile-based artwork, with art in most stations added at a later stage. At Hötorget, 1950s architecture remains in place courtesy the light blue tiles and vintage signage. Artist Gun Gordillo has put over 100 neon coils in five shades of white, like slow-motion skates, on the ceiling, while Matti Kallioinen made a functional environment for passers-by at the ticket station, which focusses on non-verbal communication, incidentally the first audio art piece for the t-bana.

Another station on the green line, Thorildsplan, uses pixelated symbols and data icons from the early computer games of the 1970s and 1980s. Think Pac-Man or other arcade games you may have played if you are older than a millennial. This way, many stations provide give a feel of entering a theme park rather than a station. T-Centralen has its own ‘bathroom line’ platforms, depicting the city’s motifs from the 1950s.

T-Centralen also houses the best of the cynosure of the metro—the ‘rock rooms’, largely on the red and blue lines. The engineers had to cut through nearly impenetrable granite during construction. It was left in its raw form at many stations, though at others it is painted over or covered in concrete or meshes. Enter the platform here to find huge blue leaves in different shapes. Artist Per Olof Ultvedt’s cave station is designed to provide relief from a stressful environment. Side note: stress in Stockholm? Not so easy to find, my friends. The station itself is spectacular and with the opening of this line in 1975, began a trend of handing over an entire station to a single artist.

Several stations are must-sees. Rådhuset (Court House) feels like entering a red cave. It is inspired by the red of Africa’s Atlas range. Here, time travel to the 17th-century via the medieval baskets on display and take note of a large birch pile and old photographs from the early 1940s. Daude directed my attention to the wooden boxes on the walls, which once stored hay to feed horses that transported goods from rural areas. These may be the only ones left. Also, there are two shoes on the ceiling, both for the left foot. No clue why.

An even brighter red cave is the Solna Centrum station. Its bloodshot carmine hues represent spruce forests and pastoral scenes, a reminder of issues such as deforestation and rural depopulation. At Kungsträdgården (King’s Garden), locals are adept at avoiding tourists who suddenly stop as they encounter wonders at every turn. The station’s colours—green, red and white—symbolise a baroque garden that once existed here and had red gravel paths, white marble sculptures and green partitions. There are even some relics from Makalös, a grand 17th century palace that burnt down. The station walls have running water—small springs, actually—which catch you unaware. Daude told me there are 12 species, largely flora, at the station. Surely another unique distinction.

The famed rainbow flag, which predates the LGBTQ+ symbolism it is associated with today, dominates Stadion, another ‘rock room’. Åke Pallarp and Enno Hallek pay tribute to the nearby site of the 1912 Summer Olympics while offering a message of acceptance and inclusion.

There is little that is prettier than the lily pond replica—complete with water, vines, flowers and leaves—at Näckrosen station, by Lizzie Olsson Arle. Yes, the lily pads are positioned on the painted ceiling, creating an ethereal effect. A poem by Swedish-speaking Finnish poet Gunnar Björling to the lilies is inlaid on the floor. Do visit the concourse to see Eva Ziggy Berglund’s remarkable ‘memory pillar’. Seemingly a product of abstract imagination run haywire, the sculpture consists of hundreds of imprints of people—feet, mouths, noses, as well as plants, chains, lace, gold mosaics, mirrors and more—reflecting lives past and present in the area, in marble and stucco. Daude met someone who said she was one of the people on the pillar. The person was depressed at the time she came across Berglund’s request for volunteers. Being immortalised in a work of art gave her a new lease of life—as good a case as any of why art is pivotal.

A depiction of a baroque garden

Many themes are more modern. Tekniska Högskolan station represents Plato’s interpretation of the four elements and the ether, each depicted by a sculpture in the form of a regular polyhedron. Solna Strand has ‘sky cubes’ by Takashi Naraha that are located on the platform floor, in the ceiling and on the track walls, a stunning play on light and darkness. Hallonbergen station is covered in seemingly childlike drawings. The station at Tensa, an area that houses many immigrants, has colourful panels that read ‘brotherhood’ in 18 languages.

Retro gaming inspired art at Thorildsplan

It is quite the (train) ride. Some art pieces dazzle, others help you relax. Many are tributes to the past, while some educate. A few are political, and others are just pleasing. There are other metros that have art, notably Moscow. The art here, however, is of different timbre. Yes, many concepts are more overtly alluring, but the sense of community-building seems to shine through in a unity of all the concepts, indicating art that both enlightens and pleases. One can only anticipate the delights that await commuters in the next phase.

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