Langlands and Bell: Degrees of Truth


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London-based artists Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell have most certainly etched out a creative niche for themselves over the years…

Former classmates and fine arts graduates, the pair have been exhibiting regularly on the international circuit since the 1980’s. With a wide medium of art that encompasses everything from film, video and digital media projects- to sculpture, installation and full-scale architecture, their broad oeuvre of work boldly attempts to peel back the layers (from the intimate and personal, to the bureaucratic and political) of our complex relationship with ‘the structures we inhabit and the networks of communication and exchange that surround us’.

The pair’s most recent exhibition, Degrees of Truth is now showing at The Soane Museum; the house of architect Sir John Soane, who built the premises over 150 years ago. In light of the recent pandemic, the exhibition has now moved online- whereby the public has the opportunity to browse through 3 floors of work that includes everything from sculptures, installations, architectural pieces and interactive computer animations. With some of these pieces made exclusively by Langlands and Bell for this very show, this is a wonderful chance to experience this in a virtual environment, and all from the comfort of your favourite chair.

‘Truth crystalizes with the construction, display and interaction of buildings and artworks…’

Down in the gallery’s basement, one can expect to virtually stumble upon Sir John Soane’s original dining quarters as it may well have appeared over a century and a half ago. But as we look closer at the front kitchen it soon becomes clear that these are no ordinary beech table and chairs. In this, Langlands and Bell’s Traces of Living installation, the tabletop’s vitrine is filled with a gallimaufry of odd domestic objects that were uncovered in London’s east end: a bird, a gravy boat, a plate with melted candles, a rat enveloped in a loaf of bread, a yellow brick (alluding to Soane’s origins as the son of a bricklayer). More confronting still, is the desiccated anatomy of the Wind Dried Whippet; probably the mummified carcass of a small racing dog that was discovered in an old market stall in Brick Lane.

The Soane Museum basement. Photo by Gareth Gardner.

Also on display here are the eerily charred remains of The Burnt Madonna; still standing and salvaged from a Christmas day arson attack on a London Catholic church, and a pair of burnt beechwood chairs that have been merged to form a single, standalone object.

Down in the rear of the kitchen one can locate the interactive computer animation tour of Osama Bin Laden’s house; painstakingly rendered using hundreds of still images and documented measurements after Langlands and Bell were commissioned as ‘war artists’ back in 2002 to visit Afghanistan. Utilising the popular Quake games engine to recreate this structure, The House of Osama Bin Laden formed the central part of the work that was shortlisted for The Turner Prize in 2004.

‘The Burnt Madonna’ – Photo by Gareth Gardner

In the building’s lavish ground floor- from the gallery’s open Foyle Space to the room’s connecting library, one can find an assortment of framed architectural layout models of scaled-down penitentiaries, museums, government institutions and software giant’s headquarters; all depicted from the point of view of above, and in strange and beautiful shapes and patterns.

‘Museums in Motion’ triptych. Photo by Gareth Gardner.

In the gallery’s spatial library, both Langlands and Bell have channeled inspiration from Sir
John Soane’s original grand tour- an educational journey undertaken as part of his architectural education, to construct their installation here based upon a tour that the great architect may have undertaken in our contemporary world. This includes models for Kunsthaus Zurich, Kunstmuseum Basel, and Milan’s Generali Tower.

The library-dining room. Photo by Gareth Gardner.

On the first floor, a number of furnished installations and sculptures adorn the house- including a pair of interlocking chairs, a group of 3 standing vitrines that are merged to combine as one work, and the Conversation Seat (an S-shaped chair for 2, compiled of wood, glass and lacquer). On display here also are scaled models for these, which highlight the working methods of Langlands and Bell.

‘Interlocking Chairs’. Photo by Gareth Gardner.

Exploring Europe’s political and cultural heritage too, are sculptures and depictions of everything from the Council of Europe, The European Court of Human Rights and the UN Security Council. One can also expect to find on the first floor inspirations from Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation buildings, including the wooden framed Facade Berlin. Expect also to stumble upon various screen prints dedicated to aviation, including Frozen Sky (Night and Day), Air Routes of Britain (Night and Day) and Air Routes of Europe (Night and Day).

North Exhibition Gallery. Photo by Gareth Gardner.

Degrees of Truth stands out from any art exhibitions you may have experienced in the past; not only because we have been granted unprecedented access to this work from the virtual environment of our home computer, but also due to the fact that Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell are far from being in any way, shape or form, your conventional artists. The pair’s critical life experience out in the field is evident with this eclectic range of work in multiple mediums, highlighting this convoluted and often blurred line between the physical and the digital world that is making the search for truth more slippery and elusive.

See the virtual exhibition for Degrees of Truth here.

Written by Sonny Arifien for Privilege of Legends

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