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Art the ticket on the train to nowhere


The new Sheppard subway may be the line that goes nowhere, but getting there will be worth the trip.

The five stops strung out along the 6.4 kilometres of track that make up the still-unopened metro are also a series of enormous artworks, each one big enough to fill a station from top to bottom.

Art has been a part of the Toronto subway system since the 1970s when the Spadina line was constructed. It set a pretty high standard, but with Sheppard line the TTC has surpassed itself.

More than anything, the Sheppard art has been integrated into the fabric and structure of the stations, mostly on walls, floors and columns. But what’s different here is the degree to which the artists managed to create works that engage riders, turning travellers into audience members along the way.

Perhaps the best example of this subterranean integration is Stacey Spiegel’s piece for the Yonge-Sheppard station. On one level it’s little more than a series of tiled walls, but Spiegel has designed a brilliantly effective landscape that’s photographically real from a distance, abstract up close.

Riders might not recognize that the wall they’re leaning against depicts a bucolic scene with grazing cows. Then they notice the perfectly resolved images across the platform. Which is it? In fact, it’s both.

At Bayview station, Panya Clark Espinal takes this strategy a step further, with a variety of anamorphic images cut into the walls and floors. But they only become legible when viewed from a specific spot. Until then, they tend to be interesting, but formless. The idea is to inspire TTC users, normally a fairly passive lot, into active involvement.

The stations themselves are also part of an effort to transform public transit into a sequence of events — arrival, departure, waiting — that should be celebrated. Of course, given the dire economic realities of 21st-century government funding, the mere suggestion that public transit might go beyond the strictly utilitarian is heresy. Now we are told it’s bad to spend public money on a frill such as public art.

In truth, however, it’s the art that humanizes the subway and helps remind us that getting around underground doesn’t have to be dreary, dull and dirty. As the Sheppard line proves, it can be entertaining, even dramatic, if only in passing.

The Bessarion stop, the smallest on the line, has an installation by Sylvie Belanger.

Belanger’s work reinforces the drama of the subway by introducing a narrative element. She added a band of tiles based on photographs, some shot at head-height, others at ground level. We see feet, dogs, strollers, shopping carts and the like, all arranged in small groups. All sorts of questions come to mind: Who are they? What are they doing? What is their relationship?

At Leslie, Micah Lexier has come up with a wonderful work made up of more than 17,000 tiles, each with the words Sheppard and Leslie rendered in different handwriting by 3,400 Torontonians.

Unlike other pieces, Lexier’s reads like an abstract pattern from afar and only turns into text close up. In this way, he also raises another issue; namely the tension between the individual and the crowd of which he or she is part.

Don Mills, the last station on the line and one of the biggest, has been transformed by Stephen Cruise into a reflection of what’s on the other side of these vast concrete walls. His tiles are arranged to reveal the location of the waterline and the layers of sediment beyond, as well as fossils found underground.

The architects — who include Raymond Moriyama (Leslie), Richard Stevens (Bayview, Don Mills) and Randy Roberts (Bessarion) — have also done what they can to enliven the subway. They designed vistas and connections wherever possible in an attempt to establish a sense of occasion and location.

Ironically, their success only highlights the anonymity of Sheppard above-ground, a part of the city that could be anywhere.

As successful as the art may be, it can’t completely hide the awkwardness of a line that underwent several round of cutbacks as it was constructed.

For instance, several stations are walled off at either end; they were built for six-car trains, but only four-car trains will be used. Yonge-Sheppard also has a platform between tracks that won’t be used until the line is extended to Scarborough City Centre, whenever that will be.

For Rina Greer, the art consultant who has spent the last eight years organizing the program, the results are a triumph.

If only being in North York was as compelling as getting to North York. The Sheppard subway will open Nov. 24.