Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Devil In All Of Us: Michael Landy’s Saints Alive

On a visit to the National Gallery, Garageland reviewer Bethany Pope notices a peculiar change befall the viewers of Michael Landy's self-flagellating saints.

Saints Alive by Michael Landy is an astonishing mixture of the new and the old. The theme is startlingly appropriate for an artist who made his first mark with a work centered around a saint-like rejection of material goods, his startling performance piece Breakdown (2001). Michael Landy gathered all of his belongings together, from furniture and books to birth certificate, piled them into a pyre, and set them alight – a visible rejection of the consumerist world. One could view this accessible National Gallery piece as a natural continuance of that theme.

Saint Apollonia, 2013

Entering, the viewer meets Saint Apollonia (2013), cast from a painting by Crivelli, made more modern by the inclusion of industrial gears which rattle and turn as her holy teeth are pulled with a set of vicious looking pliers. It is important to note that the viewers are not allowed to view, they must participate. The sculptures are animated when the viewer – for fun, at first – steps on a lever, participating in martyrdom while wearing the mask of the accuser. It is an appropriately satanic role, one familiar to all and attractive to children.

The room is lined with tall, tree-like drawings describing Landy's thought process, which are, in their subtlety and skill, reminiscent of his other work.

Penitence Machine (Saint Jerome), 2012

This entrance room is the centre of a trinity. To the right there is a small theater where viewers can watch the evolution of the piece, as well as the road the artist took arriving on his subject. 

Crivelli is a lush painter, unfashionable in his own time – he looked back to an older, early renaissance era, using old methods to explore old themes. Since he was, however, exploring with more modern eyes, his insights were fresh for his day. It is easy to see that this artist would be a natural choice for Landy, which is not to say that Landy only drew from one source in designing his saints. The influence of Memling is palpable, as are touches by Sassetta and Cranach, all artists of a similar era melded together.

Multi-Saint, 2013

The third room contains by far the most sculpture. Catherine's wheel (St. Catherine of Alexandria, 2013) hangs against a wall, each sharp-toothed spoke scripted in gold with fragments of her life. In the centre stands the torso of Saint Jerome (2012), beating the lust from his flaking, bloody breast with a rock the size of a child’s skull. The sound is enormous. 

St Peter Martyr's cleaver repeatedly and violently enters his skull as part of a three-dimensional Crivelli collage, festooned with attributes of other saints (Multi-Saint, 2013). In it I spotted St Michael's scales, St Lucy's eyes rolling like marbles on a platter, the grill St Lawrence was barbecued on. It was at this point that the joyous looks altered on the faces of the viewers. Smiles slid into sick grimaces as something unspeakable sunk in.

Doubting Thomas, 2013

By the time the viewers pushed the pedal that sent St Thomas's fingers knuckle deep into the wounded side of Christ (Doubting Thomas, 2013), battering that broken body back and forth, helpless on a rusty red spring, the room fell strangely quiet. The viewers filed out as silently as the strangers gathered round the cross, or flaming pyre, after the screaming had finally stopped.

Bethany W Pope

Saints Alive at the National Gallery will run through the 24th of November.

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