Jeremy Melvin, 19 March 2020
Degrees of Truth, an exhibition by artists Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell (Langlands & Bell) at the Soane Museum – is a delight, writes Jeremy Melvin.
Nikki Bell (left) and Ben Langlands in Soane's library, in front of series of chairs comprising Grand Tour, which each have a model of a European building in their seats. Photo by Gareth Gardner
Langlands & Bell have been judges for the Architecture Drawing Prize in conjunction with, MAKE, WAF and the Soane, through its previous head of exhibitions Owen Hopkins. The Soane has hosted an annual exhibition of the prize since it was inaugurated in 2018.
That aside, the artists have also engaged with the intriguing and sometimes enigmatic magic of Soane’s architecture and re-presented how visitors might experience it through their own artistic practice. Not since former curator Margaret Richardson invited architects like Libeskind and Moneo to introduce installations posthumously to tweak Soane’s nose has the museum been so creatively challenged: One can almost imagine, through the very different work of Langlands & Bell, the sort of conversations that might have been had when Soane installed recent purchases from his artist-friends like Turner, or the great sarcophagus of Seti I, which profoundly changed his view of the possibilities for the museum he created.
Milbank Penitentiary (1994) Installation view in the Foyle Space of Sir John Soane's Museum, photo by Gareth Gardner
Langlands & Bell have thought long and hard about architecture since they started their collaboration at Hornsey College of Art four decades ago. Over that time their works have include dinterpretative, almost anamorphic, models of great institutions like the British Museum and Moscow’s Pushkin Museum (now in the British Embassy in Moscow), and perhaps best known, reworkings of the House of Osama bin Laden. But they have also restored a typical London terraced house in Whitechapel, which is at least subliminally connected to the three houses Soane designed, built and united into a museum, studio and residence in Lincoln’s Inn Fields over several decades either side of 1800. Soane may have provided a more opulent and elaborate setting than a jobbing artisanal builder did in Whitechapel, but their experience means when it comes to the London terraced house, Langlands & Bell know whereof they speak.
Visitors can explore the house once occupied by the Al-Qaeda leader online. Photo by Gareth Gardner
The exhibition comprises several installations in different parts of the house, such as the first-floor drawing room, the basement kitchen and the dining room/library and breakfast room on the ground floor, as well as more conventional ‘exhibition material’ in the display cases of the first-floor gallery spaces of No 12, Soane’s original house of the three, and long inaccessible to the public. These offer various ‘degrees of truth’, from found objects like the mummified whippet and the cutlery found in the basement, to accurate but unfamiliar projections of buildings in the gallery, and especially intriguingly, their interest in mapping air routes, represented in a globe installed in the breakfast room and drawings, also in the gallery.
Lines and nodes on the globe represent air routes and hubs, installed in Soane's breakfast room, which also alludes to spaces beyond its immediate limits. Photo by Gareth Gardner
Here too is their meditation on the building form of the panopticon, much lauded by Jeremy Bentham because, in line with his belief in ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’, it allowed surveillance of the many (prisoners, lunatics or invalids) by the few – a single person at its eye. Bentham was one of the founders of Utilitarianism, and its obsession with ‘facts’ – a form of truth if ever there was one – was famously lampooned by Dickens in the opening of ‘Hard Times’. Other representations of buildings explore the literal consequences of form, whether of the site or the ‘authority’ of canonic architectural history, such as the Villa Rotonda.
Several pieces of furniture, such as dining chairs and a double seat in the drawing room, exude a sense of practicality denied – they are for display rather than use – but also come close to what seems to me to be one of Soane’s overarching goals of exploring ‘truth’ on different levels. Each of his chosen objects has a physical truth, whether figurative sculptural fragments taken from the Houses of Parliament obtained during his work on the building, or the sarcophagus, or even Turner’s paintings, in that they have a history, a provenance and a physical character that might be prosaically described (seascape with shafts of sunlight, for instance). But no such information or description could capture their essence, still less what they contribute to Soane’s overall vision. Or Hogarth’s series the ‘Rake’s Progress’, purchased as a cautionary tale to warn his errant sons, which embodies a ‘truth’ about the perils of wealth and privilege, but also offers a far deeper insight into Soane’s own mentality.
Installation view in the main galleries, showing (above fireplace) Marseille, Citee Radieuse (2001), a representation of Le Corbusier's Unitee d'Habition, made while staying there. Photo by Gareth Gardner
So alongside the basic social realism, Langlands’ & Bell’s interventions offer another sense of ‘truth’, harder to define or chart than the physical condition of a London terraced house, but far closer to what Soane was trying to achieve: in this sense to relate the life of a successful professional, with all its trappings of comfort and culture, to the world of esoteric ideas which might, under the right circumstances, touch down in reality but exist above and beyond normal realms of perception.
It is a rare work of architecture that can achieve this. But rarer still are artists who can engage with it, and devise objects and displays that can offer degrees of insight – truthful or not – beyond the familiar. Langlands and Bell are among those who can.