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Is it art? Or is it design? Are the two interchangeable? Can you have one without the other?

I was pondering these questions when talking to one of my friends about a stunning piece of artwork to be found on the Beijing subway. ‘Oh, you mean there is art on the subway?’ my friend asked incredulously. She told me she had never noticed; and I have to admit that when you see thousands of people rushing daily past these murals, sculptures, calligraphy, painted columns, or special lighting displays, many of them with their noses stuck in their mobile phones, it makes you wonder why anyone actually bothered to put anything up in the first place.

Let me explain. I’m a journalist, and as such I have been trained to keep myself alert for new experiences, new sights and sounds, breaking news and… well, life in general.

One of the first things I do when moving to a new city is to go out and explore. And what better than by using public transport, when I will sometimes take a bus or subway train to the end of the line, regardless of where that might be, and just start walking. You discover so much in that way.

One day when I took a train to the end of line 6 on Beijing’s subway system I discovered a rather nice mural in Lucheng station. It got me wondering how many other pieces of artwork there were to be found, and over the course of two months I spent my free time travelling the Beijing Subway, getting out of the trains at every stop, walking around the station, and taking pictures of anything that looked remotely interesting.

With a little help from Photoshop in order to line up parallax errors, or ‘sew together’ multiple shots of extremely long pieces of artwork, I ended up with a collection of pictures that truly astounded many of the friends to whom I showed them.

When the idea of a subway was first discussed for Beijing, China was going through a period of turmoil which led to the Cultural Revolution. With this revolutionary atmosphere at its peak, there were even proposals put forward to decorate the walls of each metro station with quotations from Chairman Mao. Luckily – or not, depending on your point of view – such a proposal was not taken up.

Instead, the first artwork in Beijing’s subway appeared in the early 1980s when three stations on Line 2 had tiled murals applied to the walls of the platforms. And this is how things basically stayed until the staging of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

At that point the city wanted to show itself off to the rest of the world, and as a plethora of new lines and stations were planned, so too was the idea of using artwork to brighten up the stations.

Perhaps with an eye on what other metro systems across the world had already achieved, public art began to appear on pillars, ceilings, wall tiles, lighting displays and all kinds of other areas. It was realised that the subway can, in effect, become an art gallery on the move, with the potential to uplift people’s lives as they go about their daily business.

One of the most important lessons learned from other metro systems was that the art design should be integrated with the architecture; the artists shouldn’t simply be filling vacant space by hanging some artwork on the walls. The art should become as one with the stations in which they are shown.

In 2008, the China Mural Association was asked to come up with suggestions for the then-new Line 4; and in 2012, the China Central Academy of Fine Arts was asked to look at how art could be incorporated into other metro lines.

You can now find artwork and special design effects at over half of Beijing’s stations. In my view, the best lines for artwork are 4, 6, 7, 8, 10 and the Daxing line. Take a look at these pages, though, and see what you think!

The subway’s logo, a letter ‘G’ encircling a letter ‘D’ with the letter ‘B’ silhouetted inside the D, was designed by Zhang Lide, a subway employee, and officially adopted in April 1984. The letters B, G, and D form the abbreviation for Běijīng gāosù diànchē or ‘Beijing high-speed electric carriage’.

The hard lessons learned from the installation and eventual repairs to the murals on Line 2 have finally been taken on board for the design, installation and maintenance of all other artwork to be found on the Beijing Subway.

Now, the murals of any new stations will have maintenance manuals, and basic information such as the materials, designers, producers and production techniques used in the murals, including the original data patterns, will be preserved and handed over to the operating company to facilitate subsequent maintenance.

The style of station artwork has also evolved.  In contrast with the old lines, the murals of the new lines have changed from the "brilliant and grand" style of paying attention to history and landscapes, to a more ‘approachable’ style with unique a Beijing charm.

The murals of the subway should be distinguished from the murals of large-scale public buildings, and the design style should be closer to the lives of ordinary people, says Guo Liming, a teacher from the School of Architecture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts who designed the “Nine to Five” mural at Dawanglu.

For example, in contrast to Xizhimen’s majestic depiction of the Great Wall among the mountains, or Jianguomen’s "History of Chinese Astronomy", "Puhuangyu Memory" at Puhuangyu Station harks back to daily life in the old Beijing city; Jingtai Station shows off the ancient mastery of cloisonne production; while  Beishaowa’s "Green Changping" depicts the ecological environment of Xinchangping.

Not only has the the design style, evolved, but the materials used in the new line subway murals have also been updated. The materials of subway murals must nowadays meet the requirements of first-class fire protection, and must be abrasion-resistant and scratch-resistant. The range of choices generally includes aluminium, stainless steel, stone, glass, and so on, whereas the murals on the old lines were mostly made of ceramic mosaics or glass mosaics inlaid one by one on the subway wall. The mosaic sizes, too, were relatively large, and once one is damaged, it is not easy to repair.

The materials used are now more diverse. Although Fangzhuang and Puhuangyu stations use mosaics, most of them are used in a combination of crystal glass and stone mosaics, and the size is relatively small. For example, the "Four Majors" on the west wall of Jianguomen station uses 15×15 cm glazed tiles, a total of 8,000 pieces being assembled to complete the picture. But the mosaics of the new lines are all 1×1 cm, and there are 10,000 mosaics per square metre of murals, all handmade. Made using collage, the craft is more refined and the adhesion is higher.

Applications to the supporting structures, too, have changed. For the convenience of both operational requirements and maintenance, the artwork is now pasted onto a plate first, and then placed on the wall as a whole. It will not be directly inlaid on the wall, and it can be disassembled as a whole in the future.

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