Michael Landy’s ‘Saints Alive’ at the National Gallery


Landy’s Saints dip, swing, sway, totter and pull in masochistic rites that perpetually re-enact their martyrdom. Made from bits of mechanical scrap and fibreglass, these creaky, robotic figures are figural quotations from the National Gallery’s collection of old masters. The original paintings are surviving images that immortalise the exploits of the saints whose altruism and superhuman acts of sacrifice and suffering have served as Christian exemplars of religious faith. Such was the extent of their belief that they would endure agonies to uphold their devotion.  It’s hard today to imagine what cause we would suffer similar ordeals to protect. Perhaps only the outbreak of war might confront us with similar crises of conscience

It’s that gap between medieval religious faith and today’s cultural agnosticism and doubt that interests Landy. Walking through the gallery at the outset of his residency at the gallery in 2010, he was drawn to the images of heroic acts and determination that characterise the lives of the saints. He was also given a copy of the Golden Legend, a 13thcentury compendium of saints and their lives for inspiration. Landy here conflates his longstanding interest in mechanical sculpture with spiritual painting. After three years of drawing and thinking, the resulting project is an honest and funny rendition of stories that may feel remote within Britain’s Protestant, sceptical culture but much less so in a Catholic society where saints’ festivals define the calendar or relics grant prestige to a town.

Designed to be creaky and poised on the edge of dysfunction, many of the sculptures were broken on my two visits. This can feel frustrating but it also reasserts the handmade quality of these machines using scrap parts that are exposed to view. Metaphorically, these artificial bodies suggest the extraordinary physical strength and willpower of saints but also their fragility. Their stories convey both superhuman power and the appalling vulnerability of flesh subject to extreme violence. Landy’s saints are designed to display their own mechanical wounds. Jesus’ torso will gradually become permanently marked by St Thomas’ poking figure and so too St Jerome bears the repeated thrust of the rock against his chest as his struggles to expel the thoughts of Rome’s dancing girls during his seclusion in the Syrian desert. What’s shocking in the echoing gallery is the actual sound of the rock thumped against the body or of St Apollinia pulling out her own teeth.

Landy also exhibits collages of random limbs taken from historic paintings. These fragments allude to the breakdown of the body that is so intrinsic to martyrdom.  He also draws a cluster of interlocking objects and limbs to produce a quirky ‘Self-chatisement Device’. What he calls these ‘barmy stories’ provides the foundation for Western art. Image making arose in an age of illiteracy. Religious belief would be served through visual dramatisation. Landy has taken this tradition and introduced absurdity. It’s not a direct assault on religious observance but rather a satirical exploration of the human need for heroes. What remains is an underlying pathos and astonishment at the trials borne by the human body and mind in defence of conviction.

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