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Langlands & Bell, installation view, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, 2008

With the assumption that London-based duo Langlands & Bell are best known for their pristine architectural ground plans and immaculate structural models, this exhibition directs our attention to Films and Animations 1978-2008. Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell have been a double act since their 1970s college days at Middlesex Polytechnic, and this retrospective ranges from ‘The Kitchen’, 1978, to their 2008 short film contribution to the Folkstone Triennial, ‘Folkstone—Boulogne: A Blind Date’.

Up for the Turner Prize in 2004 (the one where Rachel falls out with Monica and Jeremy wins), Langlands & Bell have been steadily applauded for this aspect of their practice, in particular those pieces which trade on political topicality. For example, the 2003 works which headlined the Turner Prize show, ‘Zardad’s Dog’ and ‘The House of Osama bin Laden’, referenced regime change justice in Afghanistan and the elusiveness of the world’s most wanted man.

Pat Fisher, principal curator of the TRG, stokes this seriousness. Internationalism and politics are reinforced as necessary and timely contexts for interpretation: ‘In a world of such international, political economic and environmental instability looking at these visual semantics is made all the more pertinent’. Fisher’s prompt is relevant—the works and reputation point in a political direction prima facie—but the pertinent semantics are to be seen only rarely. This scarcity of impact exposes a problem at the heart of this survey of films and animations—the films. They are suffocated by a lack of critical oxygen, so too any political potential—by dint of Langlands & Bell’s claustrophobic art-making conceit of ‘mere seeing’.

‘Zardad’s Dog’ is most guilty. Snippets of footage and staccato photography replay the trial of an Afghani bandit who cannibalised his victims. Horribly hard to watch due to the mismatch between the mediated ‘unmediated’ style of documentary and the magnitude of the events, ‘Zardad’s Dog’ delivers a schlockish and superficial non-account of political complexity with pretentious immodesty. Perhaps the film is a resigned visual essay in plus ça change, or perhaps it is damning evidence of illicit profundity sanctioned by the sanctity of contemporary art sanctimoniousness.

Langlands & Bell, 'The House of Osama bin LAden', 2003, still from interactive digital animation
Langlands & Bell, ‘The House of Osama bin LAden’, 2003, still from interactive digital animation

Given lesser sentences but still culpable in the 30-year spree of recidivist filmic ennui, are the co-accused: ‘Folkstone-Boulogne…’, ‘The Kitchen’, ‘Borough Market’, ‘Oh la la Legumes!’ and ‘Pseudo’. Mercifully, the films are offset by the powerful, mediated criticality of the animations, with the neon works leading the way.

In TRG’s Round Room, Langlands and Bell secure themselves unlimited parole with a masterpiece of paradox. ‘A Muse Um: EMMA/KUMU’, 2008, comprises eight overlapping abbreviations of international art institutions, written in neon tubing, fixed on an aluminium ground. EMMA, MAD, IVAM, GEM fade in and fade out revealing yet more fiercely pastel acronyms.

Wonderfully hard to watch due to the visual intensity of the overly-perfect colouration, the work assaults the eyes with its disturbing synthetic purity. As the end-piece of the exhibition, ‘A Muse Um…’ seems to be designed to hypnotise the viewer into accepting that experiencing art is a sensational, retinal business: the preceding works are intriguingly undermined by this checklist of corporate abbreviations.

Where the films open out onto social and political terrain with little critical courage, the animations condense the economics of contemporary art infrastructure into a highly artistic and critical metonymy. In as much as they do with such beguiling craft and wit, they take their rightful place alongside the ground plans and models as just cause for the duo’s international reputation for insight into topical cultural concerns.

Ken Neil is head of historical and critical studies at the Glasgow School of Art