Saints Alive – Michael Landy at the National Gallery – Review

On a superficial level Landy’s Saints Alive can claim to satisfy the wider public, the National Gallery’s funding board and sceptical art historians alike; these sculptural and paper collages using motifs taken from hagiographic works littered throughout the gallery encourage even the art-shy to press buttons/pull levers to operate the interactive sculptures – how often are whoops of delight heard in a gallery? – and to go seek out the originals. To the board, any show which shuffles visitors into the comparatively intimidating medieval-heavy Sainsbury Wing has got to be a good investment. And anyone with an interest in medieval arts and religious history can glean pleasure from identifying the various attributes woven together in the collages (Peter Martyr’s instantly recognisable hatchet embedded in the cranium features often). So far, everybody is satisfied. Except Landy, a YBA famous for destroying all his possessions in his 2001 work Break Down, has performed the extraordinary feat of transmuting similar nihilism to a theme in art which is traditionally inseparable to theological symbolism and all its wider significance. Curiously, in making the saints “come alive for a different audience”, Landy has actually succeeded in removing the human spirituality behind the saints’ suffering and stripped martyrdom of its gravity.

Towering over the entrance is an 8-foot plaster realisation of the St Apollonia as imagined by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1506, legendarily tortured by having her teeth prised out. As noted by many critics, the loud crashing and sudden jerking movements of the sculptures – Apollonia here stabbing her attribute pliers to her face when you push a button – communicate the sudden and startling horror of torture in its piercing loudness; the realness of the sounds and movement countering the traditional depiction of passive, immobile saints during death. Doubting Thomas, a key scene prevalent from Byzantium through to the Baroque in which the Apostle only believes in Christ’s resurrection having poked the spear wound himself, is here reduced to a single kinetic motion; the jabbing repetitive action of a pointing finger towards a disembodied torso, which encapsulates the importance of physicality in saintly legend, that it is via the saints’ very beings that they prove their faith. Certainly, jumbling together the physical attributes and motions of the saints’ suffering mirrors hagiography in itself; an encyclopaedic language of motifs of pain, suffering and the tools of infliction.

Penitence Machine (Saint Jerome), 2012

However, it is telling that someone behind me questioned of Apollonia “So, she pulled her own teeth out, right?” as shown in the model. The essential point of martyrdom – that the saints endured pain inflicted by others – is here completely missed, nay, distorted. In addition, surrounding this are paper collages comprised of assorted attributes, dismembered body parts and instruments of torture which look amusing for half a minute but have little to arrest the brain beyond; what are they meant to demonstrate or suggest? They resemble Terry Gilliam’s gleefully irreverent animations cut out from similar classical sources (the famous Monty Python ‘Foot’ comes from Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time elsewhere in the National), but with no actual glee or irreverence. Like Apollonia, the works are realised for immediate visual impact but bear no understanding or exploration of the source material from which they arise.

This is probably fortunate, because if any of the works had sufficiently encapsulated the theological spiritualism of martyrdom, they would have been blasphemously offensive in the extreme. None more so than Landy’s deliberately turning an extremely common Western motif – St Francis receiving the stigmata – into that hated fairground game; above the headless sculpture of the kneeling figure of St Francis a claw emerges forth, extends into then withdraws from the empty neck cavity. It is appropriate that Landy attempts to evoke the fairground, as intentionally or not, the models are so poor as to be grotesquely tacky; the hyperrealism of Ron Mueck’s sculptures is not necessary here, but one couldn’t help thinking that the Chapman brothers have covered this ground (see Great Deeds Against the Dead, 1994 after Goya) and done this type of sculpture spectacularly better. And just like the game, the claw disappointingly catches nothing. According to Landy, the claw retrieves a t-shirt every half hour bearing the words ‘Poverty, Chastity, Obedience’ i.e. the three vows taken by Franciscans, represented by the three knots on the habit cord - finally some evidence of actual academic research. These emerging t-shirts summarise the show succinctly; like the fairground claw amongst bright, immediately captivating yet ultimately superficial imagery, promising further meaning, though it is left entirely to chance whether you come away from the show with it or not.