Two’s Company

Imogen Lycett Green meets Langlands & Bell.

Portrait photo by Imogen Lycett Green.

Charleston is nearly ready for visitors – the walled garden is weeded and edged, the flowerbeds bright with tulips and forget-me-nots; a hoover hums quietly in the farmhouse; a seamstress sits stitching a rag rug from the bedroom of John Maynard Keynes. Here is the familiar round pond, there is the Virginia creeper climbing up the walls, everywhere is chalk and flint, unchanged. In the farmyard, even the chirrup-chirrup of nesting sparrows cannot break the film of stillness.

Into this revered space, so beloved of Bloomsbury devotees, walk Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell, an unlikely pair, you would have thought, to marry up with figurative artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell [no relation]. Yet Langlands & Bell, first bought by Charles Saatchi for the notorious YBA show in 1992, have been invited here to make three exhibitions. “After you,” I whisper. It feels like breaking and entering as we tiptoe through the terracotta-tiled old kitchen, and follow an emerald green runner up, up into the empty house.

Langlands & Bell are introducing me to Near Heaven, their new installation in Vanessa Bell’s attic studio, a space that has been for years, until now, chock-full of abandoned objects and empty frames, old chairs and dusty files. They encourage me forward, through a tiny door, up the narrow wooden stairs. The stairs creak, as attic stairs should, in a house full of ghosts. “You first,” they say. At the top, I push open the small door. Gasp. I face an enormous five-paned window with stone mullions (Vanessa had the original small farmhouse window reconfigured in 1939) with a view over the walled garden, to the far Weald and beyond. The day is hazy, blue at the edges. The north light is gentle.

“Angelica Garnett, Vanessa’s daughter, described her mother’s studio as near heaven,” says Nikki. Ben says, “Virginia Nicholson [Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter] told us she slept up here in the attic when she was little, but she never went into the studio. She was not forbidden, but she felt it wasn’t appropriate to enter.”

Now the room is empty but for a vase of narcissi on the window ledge and two busts – one of Virginia Woolf and another of celebrated Pre-Raphaelite beauty Julia Stephen, Virginia and Vanessa’s mother. Hung to the right, there is a charcoal drawing by Duncan Grant, of Vanessa, drawn a month before she died on 7th April, 1961, and a digitalised portrait of Vanessa, made by Langlands & Bell. Leaning against the wall is Vanessa Bell’s original mirror, which she used to make self-portraits. The vaulted ceiling has been lined with more mirrors, installed by Ben and Nikki.

“We want you to stand in the physical space where Vanessa stood. Look at the marks and traces left,” says Nikki, her hand trailing down the door frame. “You see the circles above the door, and these nice squiggles like a serpentine up the side of the door frame.” Nikki falls silent as the three of us look up, catching ourselves in the many angles of the mirrored ceiling.

“Living at Charleston with these big personalities,” says Ben, “Angelica was a child growing up in a hall of mirrors and she felt as a child her own ego was reflected back at her by all these massive egos.”

Nikki adds: “Art is about relationship.”

Photo by Rowena Easton.

Nikki and Ben met at art school in the 1970s. “I was eighteen,” Nikki tells me with girlish delight. “Even younger, perhaps 17,” adds Ben. “Working together seemed natural,” they say in tandem, nodding. Ben lived over the field from Charleston as a boy, the son of architects and designers. Nikki grew up in Paddington, then St John’s Wood. Partners in life and art for 44 years, their own relationship is the foundation for a practice which focuses on relationships linking people with architecture, and on a wider global level, the “masscommunications and exchange we use to negotiate an increasingly fast-changing technological world.” They make installations and full-scale architecture as well as sculpture, film and video. Langlands & Bell finish each other’s sentences and even dress alike, in navy and black, their clothing as interchangeable – truly androgynous – as their sentences. Yet there are differences – “Nikki is…” starts Ben. “I’m more… gregarious,” finishes Nikki. “We’re both Gemini, so there are actually four of us,” she says, her eyes glinting with mischief.

The couple’s cosiness and humour belies the seriousness of their life’s work. When we visit what we decide together to call ‘the mini-retrospective’ in the dazzling new highceilinged Wolfson gallery, they take me through each piece, the conception of each idea tenderly recalled. The show begins with Surrounding Time (1990) a perfectly balanced constellation of elliptical glass-topped cases and tables housing distorted models of municipal buildings such as the Colosseum in Rome and La Maison de Force, an 18th radial prison, formerly in Ghent. Ben explains, “We noticed that circular typologies are very commonly used when you are talking about spectacle and power and states, when you’re trying to enthuse the population in the kind of corporate project, when they want you to believe in what they are doing. So whether it’s Roman circuses or a multi-national company with global ambitions or surveillance and control in prisons, we see the circle repeated.”

Why, I ask, is the circle is such a powerful shape?

“The circle”, Nikki responds, “is inherently a resolved form and is, with the triangle and the square, the primary code of all architecture.” Ben adds: “The circle often implies equality – gives visual access. But there is power in where the person who has built the circle – the priest or emperor – positions himself.”

“We wanted to make a constellation of elements,” says Nikki. “It’s reflective, so you are reflected in the panels and there is space for the observer to step inside the work.” Using tables, the ‘person’ is implied. Nikki explains why they often use tables and chairs in their work: “Furniture mediates between the body and the building.” Catching myself reflected in the black surface of the work, I feel this mediation in action.

Shortlisted for the Turner Prize and winners of a BAFTA for video installation The House of Osama bin Laden (2004), Langlands & Bell have always resisted belonging to a ‘school’ of artists. Perhaps because their work is unlike anyone else’s. They show me models of African buildings which interrogate imperial relationships and pieces from their 2018 exhibition, Internet Giants: Masters of the Universe, which examine the wielding of power and corporate notions of ‘utopia’. We stand before the remnants (the original piece burnt) of their very first joint piece, Kitchen (1978) which helped to secure their joint degree, a Double First, awarded – with some suspicion from the establishment – at a time before the meteoric rise of Gilbert & George, before artist duos were a thing. There is a model of a church, there are combs and toothbrushes – they like to challenge ideas of what is venerable by putting everyday objects under glass, as they would be in a museum. They speak of centuries of “extraction and profit” where values visible in 18th-century slave architecture on the Ghanaian coast remain visible in the internet giants’ corporate structures built by ‘starchitects’.

“Architecture always tells a story”, says Nikki.

Their own stories as artists originated in relation to space. Nikki was allocated a white space in the attic of her childhood home which she was allowed to transform – she made organic paintings and decorated the ceiling. As a child, Ben did not visit Charleston but spent time at Furlongs, the flint cottage at the foot of the Downs in Firle which was ‘transformed’ by designer and teacher Peggy Angus and famously portrayed in paintings by Eric Ravilious.

Now they live and work in Whitechapel as well as Kent where, twenty years ago, they bought a field in which they built an off-grid studio/house, made of glass, wood and aluminium. The house is called Untitled, they say, with glee. The planners welcomed their desire to “appear, then disappear” as Nikki puts it. You tread lightly on this earth, I say. “We hope to,” says Nikki. “The space needed transforming and restoring.” Ben says: “We both believe, and I think Nikki would agree –[suppressed smile] though I can’t always rely on that – we both have an intrinsic belief in transforming surroundings and the power that has to change you.”

Can they ever switch off, I wonder. If their space is art and their art is space? “Of course!” they say. They make meals, drink wine, see their friends, go to concerts. (Nikki’s brother is Laurence Bell, founder of Domino Recording Company, home of the Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand.) “He’s just signed Wet Leg,” says Nikki, relishing the unusual band name. “I can’t wait to see Wet Leg in concert.” They don’t have a television – they were given one by Gilbert & George, their neighbours in Whitechapel, but it blew up (“Perhaps we’re not meant to have one,” says Nikki) – but they listen to music and the radio while they work. “We absorb what’s going on. You have to.” While making pieces, they use trestle tables which they fold away when a work is complete. “We make a mess but we tidy up,” says Nikki.

A video of their (immaculate) studio space in Whitechapel, intersected with Turner’s studio at Petworth Park, opens Absent Artists, the final section of Langland & Bell’s Charleston season.

“Our three works at Charleston are connected by two main themes – transforming your life through transforming your space”, says Ben. “And notions of utopia – which aims, of course, to change the world through transforming it, to put it in a rather grand way.” He adds: “All architecture aspires to do that at some level or another.”

Absent Artists is curated by Langlands & Bell (their first ever curating gig, which they thoroughly enjoyed – “it told us so much about ourselves – not always comfortable – about our prejudice and taste”) from the collection of art dealer Katrin Bellinger. The exhibition is beautiful as a whole and intriguing piece by piece, with its juxtaposition of David Hockney’s studio next to Hogarth’s, next to Rembrandt’s, next to Lucian Freud’s. “Beauty and content,” notes Ben. “The two things are in flux, all the time.” They have transformed the exhibition space too, by making a serpentine with a parabolic arch for visitors to walk under. They also painted the walls a striking mauve. “The mauve was a spontaneous decision. It just felt right.” What, I say, to both of you? “Conceptually,” says Nikki, “we are in tune.” “We have rows,” says Ben, smiling. “But so far they haven’t been terminal.”

All the pictures they have chosen from the Bellinger collection depict studios without the artist present. The empty studios ask what is conveyed by empty space. “When the artist is no longer there,” asks Nikki, “why does the visitor come? What are they hoping to find? Are they looking for something in themselves?” asks Nikki. She believes there’s a romance to it. Ben adds, “As people, we need to reimagine. Are we hoping to find insight into emotional life? Meaning in life? To examine the process of working?”

Every work of Langlands & Bell asks questions. They turn the world over with a sense of discovery. What is this? What is this? What is a kitchen? What is a Colosseum? What is a studio? What is Charleston? And in the asking, the house of ghosts splutters into life. If questioned and transformed by new eyes – your eyes and my eyes as well as the eyes of contemporary artists – it will remain alive.

By the time we part, I feel I am in a relationship with Langlands & Bell. They seem to know how to live and I want to go home with them. But instinctively I know that three would be a crowd. Their unit is unassailable. I ask them: if they were placed at far ends of the world from each other, how would they go on making work? “I would stop,” says Nikki. “I would stop too,” says Ben, his words overlapping with hers. “But together, we keep moving,” says Ben. “Keeping moving forward,” says Nikki. “Avanti!” And they walk away, her hand in the small of his back.

Imogen Lycett Green is a journalist and author, and a trustee of the John Betjeman Poetry Prize.