Tuesday, 2 February 2016

A Tour of the Hampton Court Maze: a deceptively ease diversion


The last time I entered Hampton Court Maze I was a child. This time round, all grown up, it was reassuring smaller. What it does still have from the maze of my memories, however, are the 1970's looking metal fences that hold the bushes to order. I cannot imagine these were part of the original palatial design, they have a distinctly municipal feel to them, put in place to stop the hoi polloi trampling down the finely manicured yew hedges.

The point of a maze is, ostensively, to find the exit. The search is an artificial problem, however, since a maze like this is entered voluntarily in the full knowledge that you'll spend the next half-hour wandering round in circles. Here, navigation is stripped of its practical consequences and becomes a leisure activity. I think part of the fun comes from the maze teasing us: we see the same corners again and again and often the same people too, walking back and forth, yet the exit which should, in so contained a space, quickly reveal itself remains elusive.

The thing is, it was not so elusive. In what seemed like no more than ten minutes, this exit gate appeared. I looked at it harder and there was a sign behind it which seemed to suggest this was only the exit for people who were baffled by the maze and couldn't find the real exit. Seeing as it was so easily found, I assumed a fiendishly obscure exit was evading me so I went in search of this inter-dimensional portal.

This sign within the maze seemed to promise a maze within the maze. Now that would have been exciting. As it was, it provided one more point of reference to guide my way, like Theseus's ball of thread in the minotaur's labyrinth. I did not wish to be pursued by a monster but I was hoping for a more complicated maze. I longed for one that offered no clues like this that could give my journey a history, I imagined a maze with a uniform appearance that provoked confusion. I desired a maze like a hall of mirrors: unsettling and uncanny. You attempt to exit, hemmed in by doppelgรคngers but only slip further and further into oblivion. This maze was not that; it was, almost literally, a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park.

The maze did still have one last trick to play: in the centre space was a group of Indian students milling around taking pictures of themselves in front of some display boards. They made this space theirs so I did not linger but it did make me think that the social side of mazes is quite interesting. You can share this state of gentle lostness with both acquaintances and strangers, and that surely increases its pleasure. Whether it is deciding which of the two of you has the better sense of direction or simply seeing people looking more lost than you, it offers many distractions. I later read that there is a permanent sound installation in the maze called Trace. This is meant to populate the maze with voices and sounds coming out of discretely placed speakers. I heard nothing of it when I was walking through, so cannot say whether it still exists, is a little too discreet or else, I need to get a hearing aid. In general, I feel this is not a space for a permanent art installation: a significant number of its patrons would not want to encounter any sort of art here so anything that is made would have to be so discrete and polite that it would be almost pointless. 

I went looking for the exit of exits and saw this sign but still held out for the slow exit. I started walking quickly keeping the hedge always on my right so as be sure to come to it. This brought me back to the starting gate and then, 10 minutes later, back round to this exit again, at which point I said enough is enough and took the anti-climatic "Fast exit -➤".

I concluded my tour by walking around the outside of the maze and while doing so came across this publicity photograph. I realised there was no obscure exit. The point was simply to reach the Indian students in the centre, then find your way back. I, however, always like to go forwards and find new ways to connect places, so was approaching the maze with the wrong expectations. When I realised this, Hampton Court Maze felt very trivial. Still, looked at from above the question of design comes back into view and this must have been an interesting challenge. I used to make three dimensional hand-held mazes out of lego which had an opening and exit and which you would have to pass a ballbearing through. These took several hours both to make and complete but are nothing in comparison to say, Kazuo Nomura's 2-dimensional maze, which he spent 7 years drawing and which must be near impossible to complete. Constructing this as a life-sized maze that people could enter would be wild: you'd have to include places to eat, sleep and so on. There would be people who'd work in the maze and perhaps never left, there might even be children born in the maze who had never seen the outside. To construct this in reality, a more sensible approach than starting from scratch would be to take an existing city and transform it from one that attempts to ease navigation into one that obstructs and prevents it. This would work best if you started off with an already confusing city like Manilla: you'd be working on an already existing level of confusion. Block off roads and put up walls all around the city. Such a maze/city would surely have guides and, I'd have to hope, tours as well!

1 comment:

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