By Sally Blodgett

Utopia is a place of imagined perfection; somewhere we can reside that is perfectly suited for our lives. The places we live in, the buildings where we spend our time, all have an influence on who we are and what we are doing.  We live our lives completely immersed in these spaces, but sometimes if we take a step back and see them from the outside, we get a new perspective on the relationships between these spaces and ourselves and the way those spaces interact with each other.  At the Charleston Trust in East Sussex, award-winning artist duo Langlands & Bell are presenting three exhibitions around the theme of utopia and the idea that the spaces we immerse ourselves in are utopias.  Read more about these eye-opening exhibitions below in Utopia.

Image by Charleston © The Charleston Trust; photograph: Lee Robbins

Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant were influential and important artists and designers in Europe in the early 1900s. They were celebrated for their unique creative ideas and incredible artworks. Along with several of their friends, of whom included author Virginia Wolff and economist John Maynard Keynes, Bell and Grant formed an artists’s collective called “The Bloomsbury Set” named after the area in London where some of them lived and where they would often meet. They were a group of artists and intellectuals who valued the importance of art and shared similar ideas and values.

Charleston House in East Sussex was the home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in the early 1900s but was also used another place where The Bloomsbury Set would congregate.  It was a place for artists to come together, collaborate, and build from each other’s ideas to create their artwork.  For the artists that worked in Charleston, the farmhouse was their utopia; a place where they were free to explore any and all ideas. Today the Charleston Farmhouse is a museum that shows the preserved home of Bell and Grant, and a gallery that presents exhibitions, like that of Langlands & Bell. It is Utopia showcasing an exhibit on Utopia.

Charleston © The Charleston Trust; photograph: Lee Robbins

Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell are an award-winning artist duo from London who began collaborating with each other when they were art students in 1977. Their work mainly focuses on the link and relationships between people and their built environment, specifically architecture, mass communication, and technology.

Langlands & Bell in the garden at Charleston below Vanessa Bell’s attic studio window

Utopia is the concept behind all three of Langlands & Bell’s exhibitions.  The exhibit, “Near Heaven”, lets us explore the relationships between people and the spaces we live in, look past what is right in front of us, and think about what goes on in the background.

The first exhibition, “Ideas of Utopia”, looks specifically at buildings designed to mimic the concept of utopia.  These works of art were made by Langlands & Bell using a mix of wood, plaster, paint, and other materials to create 3D renderings of popular buildings; mainly political and religious utopias, and corporate attempts at utopias. Included buildings are the Colosseum in Rome, Facebook Headquarters in Menlo Park, California, and Apple’s Sunny Vale building in California.  Most of the works are all white buildings placed onto backgrounds of black, red, or blue, creating a contrast between the utopia of the building and the spaces surrounding it. Below is part of Langlands & Bell’s ‘Surrounding Time’ artwork featuring the Colosseum in Rome.

Langlands & Bell, ‘Surrounding Time’ (detail, Colosseum, Rome), 1990. Courtesy The Artists; photo: Steve White

An artist’s studio is one of the most personal spaces in their life.  It’s where the emotions that overwhelm us spill out into the world and form themselves into masterpieces.  Looking inside an empty artist’s studio and seeing what’s left behind once artwork is made gives an insight into what goes on inside the utopia of a private space.  The next two exhibits focus on this concept.

Have you ever wanted to time travel through an artist’s studio? The “Spotlight Gallery” is a completely immersive experience, a video game almost. The gallery transports the viewer through time and space from 19th century Sussex studio to Langlands & Bell’s own 21st century Whitechapel workshop.  Using data projection, the artwork creates a rendering of the spaces and, using a game controller, the viewer can actually move themselves through the space, into doorways and up stairwells. You can actually be inside Utopia rather than looking in from the outside; it is like being completely immersed inside of a video game.

Have you ever found yourself looking at a painting or sculpture or other work of art and thought “I wonder what the studio this masterpiece was made in looks like”?  The final exhibition by Langlands & Bell, “Absent Artists”, features a mix of photographs, paintings, drawings, and digital art, exploring an artist’s studio when the artist is not there; what’s left behind with the remnants of a masterpiece. It contextualizes an artist’s empty studio as being its own kind of utopia. Langlands & Bell have curated this exhibit from the private collection of art dealer, Katrin Bellinger, as an homage to the Charleston Farmhouse being an artist’s home. Below is one of the artworks featured in the exhibit.

Studio of Pierre Bonnard. Photograph H. Cartier-Bresson

The Langlands & Bell exhibits at Charleston all explore the different facets of Utopia; whether that be about buildings that are designed to be as close to Utopia as possible, or the idea that an artist’s studio is its own kind of utopia.  These exhibits encourage the viewer to look at the ways we interact with the spaces we immerse ourselves in and our relationships with the very rooms we spend our time. The immersion of seeing Utopia in the exhibits is a full on emotional experience.

“Near Heaven” by Langlands & Bell is being shown from April 2, 2022 to August 29, 2022 at Charleston House in East Sussex.

If you enjoyed this, check out Hands On and Full of Mother Earth.

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