The Great Bear is a four colour offset lithograph mounted in an anodised aluminium frame. It is an altered version of the map of the London Underground created by Henry (Harry) C. Beck (1903-74) in 1931. Patterson replaced the names of the underground stations with the names of engineers, philosophers, explorers, planets, journalists, footballers, musicians, film actors, saints, Italian artists, sinologues (Chinese scholars), comedians and 'Louis' (French kings). Each of these categories is listed next to a coloured line (representing the different train lines) at the bottom right of the image under the title 'Key to Lines'. The names on the map range from the obscure, known only to people with specialised knowledge - sinologues, for example - to the well known figures of popular culture - film actors and actresses and footballers. Patterson has not adhered strictly to his key, adding the names of politicians to the line representing journalists, painters to the line representing musicians and Henrys to the line of Louis. He has commented:
There is no code to be cracked in any of my work. Meanings may not be obvious, you may not get a joke, but nothing is really cryptic - I'm not interested in mystification. I like disrupting something people take as read. I am not simply pulling the rug out from people. I am not nihilistic. What interests me is juxtaposing different paths of knowledge to form more than the sum of their parts.
(Quoted in Greenberg, 'The Word According to Simon Patterson, Tate: The Art Magazine, issue 4, winter 1994, p.47.)
Wry, ironic humour is an important component of Patterson's work, which is typically based on existing structures of categorisation, subverted through the replacement of their contents with incongruous ingredients. Such words fundamental to the structuring of information as proper names, titles and categories are recurring elements. In The Great Bear, incongruous and amusing associations are created at the points where two or more lines or categories intersect, disrupting one series with the interjection of another. In this way, the list of Italian artists Vasari, Bronzino, Uccello, Michaelangelo and Raphael is disrupted by Gary Lineker, followed by Titian and then Kirk Douglas, as the line intersects first with the footballers and then with the film actors. Pythagoras has been suitably positioned at the triangular intersection of three lines normally known as Paddington Station, on the circular line of philosophers. Charles Darwin triumphs appropriately at the interchange of philosophers, engineers, footballers, musicians and journalists usually called Baker Street.
The map, consisting of coloured lines intersecting over a diagrammatic representation of the River Thames, is enclosed by the outline of a grid which is numbered 1-9 in the horizontal co-ordinates and A-F on the vertical co-ordinates. Below this, the index to stations lists all Patterson's names in alphabetical order, creating another set of potentially humorous associations. The work's title appears in large letters at the top of the print, next to the London Underground logo. It refers to the astronomical constellation of the same name. Patterson has explained: 'the underground map moved on from being an underground map … as a fixed logical thing, to a meaning that, like music, is in the mind. I started with a map that is to some extent an abstraction of the urban landscape … the tube stops … can be seen as stars in a constellation, where you imagine the lines to connect the dots.' (Quoted in Greenberg, 'The Word According to Simon Patterson, Tate: The Art Magazine, issue 4, winter 1994, p.47.) A related work, a wall painting made in the same year, J.P. 233 in C.C.O. Blue 1992 (Tate T07120) is based on a Delta Airways flight diagram showing all the destinations served by the airline. In this work the geographical destinations have been replaced by the names of politicians, artists, filmmakers, monarchs, scientists and musicians, who form another 'constellation' of stars painted in white against a blue background.
The Great Bear was created in an edition of fifty, of which Tate's copy is the tenth. It was printed by London Underground printers and published by the artist and Milch Gallery. Its frame is a London Regional Transport frame. London Regional Transport permitted the artist to include their copyright symbol on the print.
The Turner Prize 1996, exhibition brochure, Tate Gallery, London 1996, [pp.10-11], reproduced (colour) [ p.13]
Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1997, pp.142-3 and 204, reproduced (colour) p.143
Simon Patterson, exhibition catalogue, Chisenhale Gallery, London 1994
Marco Livingstone, Signature Pieces: Contemporary British Prints and Multiples, exhibition catalogue, Alan Cristea Gallery, London 1998, pp.28-9 and 46, reproduced (colour) p.29