Langlands & Bell

Maureen Paley Interim Art

The art of Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell treats architecture as a literal embodiment of ideas, beliefs, and values; theirs is an art that is of the museum and gallery as much as for it. Fabricating models of buildings, they present these in vitrines that take the form of chairs, tables, and wall sculptures—objects with which we enjoy everyday relationships. Sandwiched between two sheets of glass, their plans and cross-sections suggest metaphors for the social structures—the ethical, political, economic, juridical, and cultural systems that ultimately shape us. Langlands & Bell’s abiding interest has been in connecting these objects—which is to say the domestic or individual—to that wider social space.

An oval table at the center of the show, made up of smaller, more manageable sections, is laquered white, like all of Langlands & Bell’s work. Constructed in their usual furniture-cum-display-case style, the oval is incomplete; the absent end makes it plain that this is no garden variety boardroom table. Though its specific point of reference is the negotiating table at the International Monetary Fund in Paris, out of context, its empty glass cases seem more generic. Its dimensions, too, are somewhat odd—too long and narrow—with respect to its original model.

The conference table is the show’s principal motif, and it informs all the box-framed wall works in addition to the show’s centerpiece. Four of the wall pieces are ground-plan models of the central space in buildings housing organizations devoted to international relations of one sort or another—The European Council for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. We are dealing with legislation, aid, diplomacy, the necessary pragmatic adjuncts to a global consciousness. The distortion of the Negotiating Table (all works 1991) points to the gulf between the appealing idea of international cooperation and the prejudice and partisanship that hamper its realization. How far can the mechanisms of international dialogue be stretched before they give way under the strain?

The last work in the show, Circular City, deals with the most pressing current example of such a breakdown—the Gulf War. The piece consists of a set of three oval boxes grouped on the wall like a flight of plaster ducks. As the title implies, the shape of the boxes mirrors the perspectival distortion seen in the main work. This is, in fact, a format Langlands & Bell have used before, notably in a piece showing the Frankfurt Airport satellite, which they made following the Lockerbie air disaster. The “circular city” referred to is Abu Habbah, part of Sippar, one of the major cities of ancient Sumeria, close to what is now Baghdad.

The other two boxes contain models of the House of Arabs in Tunis, and the table from the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In focusing on the broad issues of cultural heritage and identity, Circular City, like the rest of this exhibition, avoids didacticism. Langlands & Bell are at their best when they are least specific. The clinical look of their work suggests thoughts under control and this sits better with general cues. The passions that surround particular problems are not at home here.

Michael Archer