Langlands & Bell exquisite Degrees of Truth revealed in gorgeous Regency surroundings

Langlands & Bell, Artists’ maquette for Grand Tour, 2020. Artists’ collection. Image courtesy of the artists.
Langlands & Bell, Interlocking Chairs, 1995. Private collection. Photography by Gareth Winters. Image courtesy of the artists.
Langlands & Bell, Conversation seat, 1986. Artists’ collection. Image courtesy of the artists.
Langlands & Bell, Wind-Dried Whippet, 1982. Artists’ collection. Image courtesy of the artists.
Langlands & Bell, Globe Table, 2020. Artists’ collection. Image courtesy of the artists.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

A major show by British conceptual artists Langlands & Bell in London’s historic Sir John Soane’s Museum reveals new works which respond to the setting, and a retrospective sampling of four decades of their practice. CoBo Social surveys the show and interviews the artists about their exploration of truth in architecture and our interconnectedness.

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of Sir John Soane Museum

 

Chairs and tables, curiosities old and new, dead animals and virtual reality—they all become messengers of “truth,” as expressed by artists Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell. In a new London exhibition, they raise issues about design, the local and the global, and the interconnectedness of our world. Their new London show is called “Degrees of Truth.”

“Truth crystallizes with the construction, display and interaction of buildings and artworks,” say the artists, who speak as one. The show is partly a retrospective survey spanning four decades of Langlands & Bell’s practice, but the headline works are new and respond to the venue, Sir John Soane’s Museum. This is no ordinary museum, but a triplet of connected central London townhouses where Sir John Soane (1753–1837), one of the great architects of his day, lived, taught and collected. There are gorgeous Regency rooms, discrete galleries that conform to the period, a basement just as it was when servants worked there, and a labyrinth of spaces which is so stuffed with the relics and furniture Soane had accumulated, you almost have to hold your breath to squeeze through. “Soane knew that you can change your life by changing your environment,” the artists note, and this is one of the most eccentric internal environments in the world. Surprisingly, Langlands & Bell’s crisp, contemporary hallmark style resonates well with it.

Soane was amongst the last wave of British who took a Grand Tour to see Europe’s classical heritage, particularly in Italy, before Napoleon cut off Continental Europe at the start of the nineteenth century. The Langlands & Bell exhibition highlight would have to be Grand Tour (2020)—seven white lacquered wood chairs placed single file in the Library-Dining Room. Their transparent seats encase plan models of seven buildings, some of which Soane visited, others are contemporary such as a Zaha Hadid’s Generali Tower in Milan. The chair backs are shaped as a star pattern, originally a motif in Soane designs. And there’s a miniature model of the Grand Tour in a vitrine—the dollhouse-sized chairs are so detailed, they are as fascinating as the real-size ones.

 

Langlands & Bell, Artists’ maquette for Grand Tour, 2020. Artists’ collection. Image courtesy of the artists.

 

There are more conceptual white chairs around, including two signature works up in the drawing rooms. Interlocking Chairs (1995) and Conversation Seat (1986) make elegant counterpoints to the civilised Regency setting. But there’s a lot more her beyond chairs. Langlands & Bell have been literally and symbolically reframing architecture since the 1980s. “We analyse the intentions behind buildings in an almost archeological sense,” the artists told CoBo Social in an interview. Upstairs on the first floor, there is a strong selection of works, which slice through various buildings with the clinical precision of an architectural model. They also play with perspective, depth and background colour. Apple’s vast sci-fi ring-shaped HQ in Cupertino, California is a recurring subject. Others include a nineteenth century jail and German corporate headquarters. The artists’ approach to architecture is not always in this cool, abstractified style. They won the 2004 Turner Prize for their VR simulation of The House of Osama bin Laden (2003), and in the basement you can navigate around it with a joystick. It is the show’s only digital representation of the truth of architecture, but the issue of digital representation haunts everything there. In the new worlds we’re creating digitally today, truth is contested, but art and architecture have always enacted and reflected reality,” said the artists.

 

Langlands & Bell, Interlocking Chairs, 1995. Private collection. Photography by Gareth Winters. Image courtesy of the artists.
Langlands & Bell, Conversation seat, 1986. Artists’ collection. Image courtesy of the artists.

 

Is there a political stance to these works, for example exposing the immense power of tech giants? “It’s not intended to be didactic, but we are interested in discovering connections and revealing the extent of networks, so that anybody can see them if they want to,” the artists explain. “The real power and ambition of the tech giants is revealed by the iconic new buildings they are constructing, just as the slave castles of Ghana really do reveal the massive extent and horrific centuries-long reality of the Atlantic slave trade.” That latter subject was explored in their recent Slave Castles project, which was not shown at the Soane. It delivers its profound lesson without words, but even so, Langlands & Bell add that “while Britain may have had a leading role in finally abolishing it, it was also Britain that played the largest part in creating and sustaining it for so long.”

Langlands & Bell have been based in East London since 1980, when it was a grey, poor, and war-scarred, and they used to breakfast with neighbours Gilbert & George long before the area became trendy and property developers moved in. In Soane’s basement kitchen, two works speak of earlier times, and they will stop you in your tracks. Wind Dried Whippet (1982) is mounted over the fireplace—a dead racing dog which the artists explain was bought in Brick Lane for £3. “It may have died of neglect” they add. Then there is Traces of Living, a 1986 work. The glass top of a pristine white table reveals objects including an old dead rat found eating into a loaf of bread. Around it, they have added four new white chairs, similar to the Grand Tour ones upstairs. Two of them display Soane architectural plans, while the others contain toothbrushes and ancient cutlery. Langlands & Bell’s pristine aesthetic underlines the grittiness of the local urban archeology these found objects represent. They say the transition from the local to their abstracted global subjects is “something that has developed and become clearer over time.”

Global connections are another Langlands & Bell theme, most clearly seen in travel route networks which get distilled into abstract webs of lines. A new example is Globe Table (2020), which is indeed a globe that can be turned in a table up in Soane’s Breakfast Room. Lines spread across its smooth surface to map major air routes between global hubs.

 

Langlands & Bell, Wind-Dried Whippet, 1982. Artists’ collection. Image courtesy of the artists.
Langlands & Bell, Globe Table, 2020. Artists’ collection. Image courtesy of the artists.

 

One global hub the artists know well is Hong Kong. Veuve Clicquot commissioned Langlands & Bell for the 2012 Hong Kong International Art Fair. “It’s such a three dimensional, lively, dense and intense urban experience, culturally and architecturally in every way,” they comment. “We love the intimacy of the activities of the street, the drama of the relationship between the tall buildings, the lush vegetation covered mountains.” “Degrees of Truth” invite new examination in Hong Kong—could it be time for Langlands & Bell to return there?

In the meantime, “Degrees of Truth” takes us to other places, and beyond place, in their exquisite contemplation of architecture and connectedness. “Everything—furniture, buildings, air, sea, space routes and algorithms—tells much about the user,” declared the artists. We are those users, and this is a show that brings unique, new truths about our world.

 

 

Langlands & Bell: Degrees of Truth
4 March – 31 May, 2020
Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

**As of an announcement made on 18 March, Sir John Soane’s Museum will be temporarily closed in response to recent recommendations from Public Health England concerning the Coronavirus (Covid-19).

 


 

Herbert Wright is a London-based writer covering architecture, urbanism, and art. He is contributing editor of UK architecture/design magazine Blueprint and the author of three books. He also writes on other topics including space, environment, music and the future. He has previously worked at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and he curated Lisbon Open House 2012. He graduated in Physics and Astrophysics.

Twitter: @Herbhastosay
Instagram: @herbertwrightuk
website: herbertwright.co.uk

 

 

 
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