If the title of Michael Landy’s solo exhibition, Saints Alive, stirs up gentle images of heavenly hosts appearing as a blurry-lensed vision, think again. Landy’s saints are alive with a painful, gritty intensity that brings their legends and their suffering into sharp focus.
Landy is the National Gallery’s current Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist, and his work is displayed in a two-room gallery at the heart of the museum. Inspired particularly by early Renaissance paintings of the saints that appear throughout the Gallery, five over life-size kinetic sculptures serve as the focal point of the exhibition.
In part, every sculpture takes elements directly from Old Master paintings. Saint Apollonia, for example, has the body and face of the saint in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s 1506 painting, Saint Genevieve and Apollonia.
Unlike the oil painting, the saint is sculpted over ten feet tall, and, at the press of a button, will smack herself in the mouth with a pair of pliers holding a bloody tooth. The hollow thud is a shock to the visitor just out of the low murmur of the rest of Gallery.
Dotted around the next room of the exhibition, the other sculptures are likewise large and loud: the hand of doubting St Thomas smacks Christ’s naked torso in the ribs, a fist clenching a rock strikes the chest of St Jerome, and a sword cracks down on the large, bald head of Multisaint – five saints in one.
While the influence of the earlier religious paintings is clear, for Landy’s sculptures there is no divine authority, just mechanical, human power. Visitors push the large buttons on the floor, powering the exposed, rusting mechanisms that make the sculptures move for around 20 seconds. There is also a giant wheel, which visitors can spin. Part Catherine Wheel part wheel of fortune, it tells the user’s fate in golden letters around the side of the wheel. The piece seems to suggest that it’s as much luck and personal effort that determines your fate as it is divine mandate.
However, while on the one hand the nature of the exhibition subverts the religious message of the saints’ stories, on the other it accesses the gruesome force of the legends that made them great to begin with. Gazing at an old, odd painting of an unknown saint in the National Gallery, it can be easy to move past or forget the point of a legend. However, Landy’s sculptures force the viewer to take notice. With unnerving sounds, direct contact and jarring motion, the viewer’s senses come alive as much as the saints themselves.
When the National Gallery took on Landy as their artist in residence, they took a chance on a man who was not trained in drawing or painting. Nor, according to Landy, did he know much about the stories of the saints in this history of art. Saints Alive does give the sense of discovering these stories with interest and alarm.
Beyond the three-dimensional pieces, a number of sketches and collages, hang on the walls, and here the artist’s thought process seems to present itself. For the most part, these works consist of blown up reproductions of the Gallery’s paintings, joined together with pencil drawings of gears and mechanisms like the ones that connect the kinetic statues. In these pieces the viewer gets the full effect of the magnitude of the saints’ suffering again.
St Francis’ body shows not just one stigmata but many, each mark or flame carefully cut out from every painting of the saint in the gallery and pasted all over his body. A multitude of St Jerome’s arms fan out around his body, each holding a cutout picture of a rock. The position of the saint’s arms and the repetitive motion of his self-flagellation suggest that his purifying act mirrors the impure thoughts of which Jerome attempted to cleanse himself.
So who, these works ask, is this violence satisfying? Is it really God? Or is it actually a very human – very alive – cast of saints? Or is it actually the laypeople – the painters and the viewers – who would happily gaze at the old paintings again and again without grasping the message of the story?
Landy’s sculptures don’t let the viewer escape the visceral nature of the suffering saints. They make it upsetting, perplexing and unforgettable.