Saints Alive, Saints Derided, National Gallery: 30 September

Pay a modern, de-constructing installation artist, famous for systematically destroying his belongings in an empty store-front on Oxford Street, to spend 3 years as Artist in Residence at the National Gallery culminating in a small exhibition, and what does he come up with? Watching the introductory video to ‘Saints Alive’ in the Sunley Rooms at the Gallery until November 24, you will hear that Michael Landy comes up with an extraordinary, sympathetic, innovative exploration of responding to the saints depicted throughout the Gallery. The experience of the exhibition gives a different message. 

The artist, on video, speaks of noticing so many saints, particularly so many St Catherines, with many accompanying wheels of martyrdom. He speaks of taking a liking to St Jerome, a hermit beating himself with a rock. The artist finds echoes in his own experience, an isolated life in which he is prone to beating himself up. On video he comes across as a likeable English lad, cradling his dog as he speaks, gentle and self deprecating. His boss at the NG calls him an innocent. The video explains how he has mixed 3D elements from old paintings with mad mechanics of the 1970s to produce larger than life moving sculptures. He designed and drew, a props company fabricated. He says he hopes people will enjoy the mechanics as he enjoyed similar in his younger days.

 The exhibition is popular, with a 15 minute queue to enter. Immediately on entering we encounter St Apollonia, double normal size, from time to time pulling out her teeth with large old pliers. She is a mixture of the simple, homely, and the grotesque. People look in surprise, not knowing quite how to react. Around her on the walls are collages of elements from saint paintings and simple mechanics broken down, spread out on white backgrounds, a mass of strange pieces.

 St Francis is next. His head and brown-robed torso sit on a Perspex collecting box for donations. He is gazing at a crucifix in his hand. When a coin drops, he bashes his head with the crucifix. Ha ha. The preacher of poverty roped into fundraising. Francis repeatedly bashes himself with a ‘duh…’, comically distraught at people who just don’t get it about money. Or is it more sinister? I show the bemused man next to me how the machine works, even with a 2p. He keeps a safe distance, laughingly worried that Francis will bash him instead.

 The atmosphere in this initial room is darkened by random loud bangs, shocking and threatening. Through in the main room we see a naked torso front attached to a structure of wheels and pulleys. A mechanical arm is covered by a plastic arm holding a rock. As people step on a switch, the arm swings back to the torso, the rock smiting the chest loudly. Ha ha. But the noise is too loud, the contraption too weird. This St Jerome has no head. People look, sort of smile, but are nowhere near laughing.

 ‘Multi-Saint’ is a similar contraption, with plastic elements from paintings of five saints attached to another set of wheels and pulleys. Mechanical multi-saint stands on a devil. This reptilian winged creature has been thrown on his back and is held firm, alive but captured. The devil is not mechanical, and, with his lurid colouring contrasting with the drabness of the saint machines, seems more alive.

  On the wall behind is a huge wooden wheel with barbs. Golden lettering on the wheel tells the story of St Catherine in the format of a role play from a fantasy game: ‘You will be tied to a wheel by the Romans…’ Most of the lettering was too high, and at too much of an angle, to be read as the handle that is meant to turn the wheel was not working.

 St Francis is in this room too, here headless. His arms stretch up to show the marks on his hands like those on Jesus’ hands. The position of arms and hands also means ‘I surrender – the game’s up.’ A mechanical grabber like in a fairground ‘game’ rides out along a gibbet to above Francis’ open neck, drops in and then rises out with nothing. Francis is shown to be empty, a hollow man. Occasionally a T shirt is pulled out with the words ‘Poverty, Chastity, Obedience’ – to be given to a lucky viewer. Emptiness with an occasional marketing ploy.

 The last contraption round the room is a companion piece to St Jerome. Jesus’ naked torso plastic shell sits on a giant spring, which is poked by the disembodied mechanical hand of St Thomas, index finger forward. The spectator operates the switch. The hand makes the torso rock drunkenly on its spring.

 Generally, people look bemused, unsure how to respond. The overall impression is unsettling. What claims to be an affectionate portrayal of ‘Saints Alive’ is taken as maybe more mocking, more sinister. Are the contraptions showing us how in our present mechanical age we only have fragments, memories of the saints? Are the contraptions showing us that the saints have always been made out to be imposing in stature, but are essentially lifeless, operated by the spectator, given life only by the faith in which they were viewed?

 I imagine that a few Cathedral Deans will now want to have one or more of these pieces in their cloisters for a time, grateful that modern art is engaging with religious symbols and characters. But I hope they don’t. These contraptions show us religion, especially Christian religion, as something essentially mechanical, inhuman, imposing, breaking down and imprisoning  humanity and life. Michael Landy has conveyed the anti-religious, even anti-Christian, spirit of this age. He seems to be at home with this spirit, happy to promote its subversion of the saints.


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