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Arts What if the Toronto tunnel is just another example of artistic burrowing?

The mysterious Toronto tunnel has nothing to do with terrorism or crime; it is a piece of art. I don't know this for sure, but as soon as I saw the pictures, I had this feeling: This is dug out of compulsion, for sheer pleasure or fear or a combination of both. This is personal expression. Look: We have seen this before.

I don't mean it is land art, a large-scale sculpture like the work of Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty) or of James Turrell, who for years has been excavating a giant volcanic crater in Arizona to turn it into an observatory. Nor is it like the extraordinarily beautiful, cathedral-like caves recently dug – with his own two hands – by Ra Paulette in the sandstone cliffs of New Mexico; these are staggeringly ornamented and light-filled.

No: This piece of art is not meant for viewing or sharing. Its artness consists in its performance. The art is the digging.

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Think about it: It is perfectly useless as a tunnel. It goes nowhere. It is not wide enough to serve as a room or a laboratory (or a church, as might be thought by the presence of a rosary and two parallel excavations where a transept might lie). Nor is it long enough to serve as a transportation tunnel.

This project just represents a desire to burrow. And who doesn't want to burrow?

The purest burrower in the history of art is the narrator of Franz Kafka's claustrophobic story The Burrow (published in 1931). He or it – some critics claim it's a mole; I read the voice as human – has constructed a network of underground tunnels to hide and stockpile food in. He digs and digs all day long, and hardens the walls by banging his head against them. He is most proud of a strongroom he calls the Castle Keep. But he can never feel safe from his enemies. The labyrinth is entered through a moss-covered trap door; sometimes he leaves the burrow just to watch the door, to see if anyone else has discovered it. He misses the freedom of the outside world, but despite his constant sense of dread and menace, he cannot contemplate his pre-burrow life, as it was "one indiscriminate succession of perils."

His single-minded obsession recalls a few other compulsive Kafka characters – notably his Hunger Artist – who do something apparently crazy so as to do it perfectly. The notable thing about the hunger artist, at first a public performer, is that he eventually takes his art out of public view. It is a private activity; he prefers it be unseen.

But the burrower also recalls other works of fiction in which tunnels play symbolic roles. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) lives underground in the city and steals electricity from the power company; his isolation is only partly voluntary. It reflects the alienation the racist society inflicts on him. He is safe there and is composing his memoirs.

At the other end of the realism spectrum, but no less influential, is the children's book Watership Down (1972), about a threatened warren of rabbits. They must flee their underground homes and travel on a dangerous quest for a good spot in which to dig once again. I remember feeling both excited and comforted, when I read this as a teenager, by the idea of the dark warren as safe and warm space.

And of course, multiple speculative-fiction stories rely on postapocalyptic scenarios in which people are forced to live underground as a result of environmental catastrophe or robot takeover (Terminator). Video games delve underground for excitement: Descent lets you pilot a spaceship through mine shafts while evading attack from virus-infected robots; Minecraft lets you dig your tunnels as defence against nighttime zombie armies.

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People do tunnel merely for fun: The Mole Man of Hackney, east London, was an elderly fellow named William Lyttle who owned a large old house. He was evicted by the local council in 2006 after it was discovered he had hand-dug a web of passages under and around his house, spreading up to 20 metres away and eight metres deep. It is estimated he excavated 100 cubic metres of earth. The house and the surrounding area became unsafe. Six years later, the abandoned and decrepit house fetched a million pounds at auction because it was so famous.

Lyttle was interviewed by The Guardian newspaper in 2006 about why he did such a pointless thing. He replied, "Inventing things that don't work is a brilliant thing, you know. People are asking you what the big secret is. And you know what? There isn't one."

Lyttle did not call his project art. Some do. Just last week I heard from Cynthia French, a former fine-art student at – guess where? – York University, where the Toronto tunnel has been found. French is now a graphic designer. She described a project she did in the late 1980s, in woods on the York University grounds, that involved digging a secret hole and hiding the excavated dirt. She describes her goal as creating a "kind of nest" or a comforting, natural space in the midst of an urban environment. "I also liked the element of mystery," she wrote to me. "If someone had come across it, they would not have known why it was made or by whom." The site has long been filled in. There is no longer forest there at all.

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