The Imperial War Museum Invites You To Bin Laden's House

By David Prudames | 10 April 2003
Shows a graphic still from The House of Osama Bin Laden.

Left: still from The House of Osama Bin Laden, courtesy Langlands & Bell. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

Armed with an open mind, David Prudames went for a nose at the interior decor of the world's most wanted man.

On the second floor of the Imperial War Museum there's a flurry of activity around what appears to be a virtual reality computer game.

Using a joy-stick, operators are navigating across a landscape to a house, moving up stairs, through a doorway and heading back outside before stopping in front of the wire frame of an old bed. It could be any 3D adventure game, but in fact it's a graphic model of a house that used to be lived in by Osama Bin Laden.

The House of Osama Bin Laden is a new exhibition of artwork by Langlands & Bell, commissioned by the museum and on show until May 26.

Shows blue flags bearing the names of non-governmental organisations working in Afghanistan.

Right: flags bearing the names of non-governmental organisations working in Afghanistan, Langlands & Bell. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

Based in London, Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell have been collaborating since 1978, and exhibiting internationally since the early 1980s.

Asked to respond to the aftermath of September 11 and the war in Afghanistan, the pair travelled to the country in October last year. Taking a still and digital video camera with them they embarked on some very dangerous journeys, including one to Daruntah, Bin Laden's home in the mid-1990s.

“The work we have made for the exhibition reaches into many areas,” the pair told the 24 Hour Museum last month.

Shows a graphic still from The House of Osama Bin Laden.

Left: still from The House of Osama Bin Laden, courtesy Langlands & Bell. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

“The issues it touches on are global, local to Afghanistan, and personal in so far as they are connected to hopes and fears we can all relate to.”

Held responsible by many for the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, Bin Laden has since been the world's most wanted man and proved to be both elusive and fascinating.

This is exactly the effect Langlands & Bell's interactive digital model achieves. While it is obvious that the man himself won't come running out of a room, there is a definite presence in the empty, yet clearly once occupied house.

It is unnerving, yet compulsive and almost acts as a metaphor for his disappearance and subsequent ability to hide from the many people trying to find him.

Shows a wall-mounted, slanted model of the UN emblem.

Right: a familiar site in Afghanistan - the UN emblem, Langlands & Bell. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

The format itself forces another very unsettling reaction, conjuring, through its playability and computer handling, a sense of making a remote or 'smart' journey into a warzone from a command position.

Across the room on the opposite wall and possessing a soundtrack of Arabic voices impossible to ignore, the five-minute long film 'Zardad's Dog' runs on a constant loop.

The dog is Adbullah Shah accused of killing, amongst others, three of his wives and a number of his children, and on trial for his life. Coming across as part newsreel, part dramatic film work, the piece has a real intensity to it, broken only by the surreal blast of a mobile phone, which incredibly elicits a smile from Shah and his accused accomplice.

Shows a still of Abdullah Shah from 'Zardad's Dog'.

Left: Abdullah Shah, still from 'Zardad's Dog', courtesy Langlands & Bell. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

Offsetting both of these works, changing images are projected onto another wall and show still photographs of signs placed in Afghan streets by non-governmental organisations advertising their services.

In the hands of Langlands & Bell, war is shown in a very twenty-first century context. The presence of international aid agencies and the importance of reconstruction is thrust to the fore, while technology offers unparalleled access to otherwise dangerous sites.

A refreshing, challenging and brave set of works, the exhibition demonstrates the scope of experience a museum can offer. Art, documentary and new technology come together to present an original view of a well-explored topic.

Since its inception, the Imperial War Museum has not only documented war, but sought to provide a considered reaction to it. Langlands & Bell clearly understand this remit and have contributed an important addition to it.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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