The Talbot Rice Gallery’s exhibition of films and animations by Langlands & Bell - an artistic duo who, when they’re not making sculptural work, have been at the vanguard of new media since the late 1970s - serves well, among other things, as a history of the technology of film, from Super 8’s flickering black and white to the polygons and textures of computer simulation.
The show opens with Ooh La La Les Legumes!, a doomy, Godard-influenced piece made in 1979 when the duo were still students. The loosely structured narrative sees Langlands and Bell drifting through Dijon’s markets and cafes, as the camera plays doomily across gravestones and follows cows being herded into an abattoir. A later student work, Pseudo, borrows both the soundtrack from Hitchcock’s Psycho and the director’s techniques, to craft a silent noir in which a woman, engrossed in a thriller on TV, finds herself under attack.
These early pieces are gripping, and sophisticated in their exploration of film technique, but it is only when Langlands & Bell develop their own cinematic language, and turn their cameras on the real world, that they hit their stride.
Borough Market, filmed in 1986, is a tightly focused portrait of a place, and the people in it. Close-up shots of market traders and their punters mugging for the camera are intercut with death masks and cheap statuary, an auctioneer takes bids at breakneck speed, banging his gavel, a stiffly formal equivalent to the vendors shouting prices outside. These frenetic scenes are set against shots of city workers flowing along pavements on their way home. The shots build to form a dense study of the market and its surroundings, contrasting the forward-looking city boys with the tradition-bound stall-holders.
The most recent film here, Folkestone - Boulogne: A Blind Date, applies the same techniques to two towns, and the journey between them. In a nod to their earlier work, Langlands & Bell let their camera rove over more stalls of fruit and veg, and record a fisherman complaining about the decline of his industry. Shots of the red cabins of Folkestone’s funicular railway give way to scenes of a cross-Channel ferry chugging into Boulogne harbour, a simple juxtaposition of two transport systems kept running by the tourist trade.
Shots of elderly folk dancers in traditional costume jigging to accordion music are matched to sequences of gangs of kids clad in the international uniform of hooded tops and tracksuit bottoms. These two groups couldn’t be more different, you might think, but the teenagers are dancing too, performing “jumpstyle” moves. By cutting between the two, Langlands & Bell reduce the apparent distance between the two cultural activities, highlighting the fact that, while the folk dancers are preserving local customs in the face of globalisation, their children, despite the American streetwear on their backs, are busy creating new folk dances.
These pieces are, above all, about people, but when Langlands & Bell remove the human component from their work, they falter. The Artists Studio is a 2002 interactive computer animation that recreates the interior of the Old Library Hallway at Petworth House in Sussex, where JMW Turner kept a studio, contrasted with a virtual version of Langlands & Bell’s own studio space in London. I found it an exercise in frustration, spending five minutes desperately trying to escape an upstairs landing, and the rest of my time interacting with the virtual space by banging my virtual head against the pixelated purple flock wallpaper of a Petworth corridor. I can’t blame Langlands & Bell for my lack of coordination and unfamiliarity with the computer games that inspire the work, but even if I had been able to glide smoothly from Turner’s old haunt to the slickly designed spaces of their HQ, I doubt I would’ve learned as much as I did soaking up the atmosphere of Boulogne, Folkestone, Borough Market or Dijon.
In the upstairs gallery, The House of Osama Bin Laden, a work which earned Langlands & Bell their 2004 Turner Prize nomination, is another interactive simulation, this time set in the al Qaeda figurehead’s one- time base in Afghanistan. The stills reproduced in the catalogue show someone exploring the bombed-out building, finding a rocket launcher propped in a corner, and storage spaces full of moth-eaten rugs. On their field trip to Afghanistan, Langlands & Bell risked life and limb, only realising when reviewing their research photos of the hide-out that they had been snapping away just inches from unexploded land mines. There’s no sense of danger or immediacy to be found in the finished work, though. This could be a commentary on the media hysteria that led up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but it seems more likely to be an unfortunate side-effect of Langlands & Bell’s embracing of new technology and bloodless focus on physical space, a combination that alienates the viewer as much as their film work achieves the opposite.
There’s another problem with these simulated spaces. Langlands & Bell may have been prescient in making work in line with games such as Grand Theft Auto, which allows players to explore cityscapes, or the alternative reality of Second Life, where users potter about their second homes, but the inexorable pace of technological progress leaves these pieces, state-of-the-art five years ago, looking a little dated. This is not true of even the earliest film works, which - despite the fashion of their time, and revealing the technology behind them in the grain of Super 8 or the crispness of DV - show the world, rather than attempt to recreate it.
This is a divided show, then, evenly split between disappointing, anaemic interactive animations and warm, lyrical filmworks, but those films make it a must-see: nobody can beat Langlands & Bell at portraits of people, places and the ties that bind them together.
This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 5th December, 2008.