Category Archives: The National Gallery

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.


The Hoerengracht by Ed and Nancy Kienholz

The world’s oldest profession presents considerable challenges to an artist. Selling the body has a long history in art but in the past it has sometimes been alluded to subtly with a wink and a nudge. Visual codes were employed by artists like Jan Steen whose ‘The Interior of an Inn’ acts as a prologue to ‘Hoerengracht’ an installation by Ed and Nancy Kienholz made during the 1980s exhibited at the National Gallery. Steen depicts three men lewdly leering at a serving girl in a 17th century Inn. One grabs her dress while she lays her hand on his arm. Is it to reproach him or indicate that there are some ground rules to be observed? Another suggestively fills a long pipe with tobacco.  But ‘Hoerengracht’ relies less on suggestion and more on full disclosure of the game of arousal and illusion employed by prostitution to lure punters into a snare.
By adding one letter to ‘Herrengracht’ the artists translate the name of one of the city’s best addresses into ‘Whore’s Canal’ in Dutch,  a simulation of a district notorious for its honest marketing of women’s bodies. The Kienholz’s worked jointly on a project that took 5 years of labour to simulate the observed details of Amsterdam’s red light district and its working conditions. Using casts of real bodies, the Kienholz’s stage an uncanny simulation of prostitutes at work. There is no disguised allusion here as the visitor enters a murky, mocked up street scene faintly illuminated by red light bulbs and partially revealed rooms. Women loosely dressed for their trade either stand alert beckoning to potential street trade or appear languidly bored reading magazines or listening to the radio to pass the time of day. This installation plays with the revelation and discretion employed by prostitution. One disembodied head floats within a tiny window frame while around a sharp corner a woman sits slumped in stockings and underwear.  Each mannequin is finished with clear resin that runs down the figure suggesting both tears and the glossy surface of seduction. Their faces are framed by cigar boxes, which imply the commodification of their bodies.
‘Hoerengracht’ is characteristic of other installations made by Ed and Nancy Kienholz that deliberately entrap us in a voyeuristic complicity. As the visitor wanders through this uncannily accurate re-enactment, we become participants in a game of hide and seek, drawn by the hunt for flashes of their bodies and faces performing in tiny spaces as stage sets for fantasy. Obscure but necessary details of domestic life intrude, ashtrays, grimy sinks and drying laundry which capture the banal details of long pauses between  the main event. This is yet another variant of show-business and these grotty waiting rooms bear a strong resemblance to backstage dressing rooms of West End theatres.
But what this meticulously observant work fundamentally pleads for is a generous acceptance of the world’s oldest profession and a understanding of its rituals.