December 9, 2022

Saints Alive – Michael Landy at the National Gallery #MichaelLandy

When the National Gallery asked Michael Landy to be their eighth Associate Artist in residence they were taking a risk. The Goldsmith’s graduate is not known for his painting – rather he is known for his destructive tendencies. Would he carefully catalogue everything in the Sainsbury wing and then throw it in a skip? Would they have an exhibition at the end of his tenure? Would there be a National Gallery?

Luckily Landy has produced some work that can be exhibited, several years after he was first invited to participate. The residency has resulted in seven large-scale automatons based on saints from various paintings around the National Gallery. Taking characters out of the scenes within the golden frames, he brings us face to face with enlarged versions of, for example, St Jerome hitting himself with a rock, or St Catherine’s wheel.

The sculptures are slightly interactive, in that it takes the press of a visitor’s foot on a button to start each one moving. St Jerome will then hit himself, Thomas will poke at Christ’s wounds, other saints will do other things, like old fairground attractions.

And that’s it. These are large versions of the toys that well-off Victorian industrialists might show-off to their friends. At the National Gallery they are surrounded by the cream of centuries of artistic endeavour. Most contemporary pieces would struggle when placed in such company. As the fruit of a two year residency I didn’t find these works convincing. They re-enact what we can see in the paintings, but give the erroneous impression that saintly behaviour and martyrdom is mechanical, not the result of difficult decisions. The message seems to be one of fatalism, that behaviour is programmed and unchangeable. Some do give a jolt of shock the first time they are encountered, but that’s mainly owing to the mechanical racket that they make. The website blurb claims that these sculptures bring a contemporary twist to the lives of the saints. Rather they animate one moment in each painting and repeat it noisily.

Leaflets in the show list the source paintings for Landy’s work and encourage viewers to seek out the originals. The room numbers of the paintings are listed, but there are no directions given to help visitors and I wonder how many people will make the effort to find the right rooms, let alone the paintings. It would have been more helpful if the relevant pictures had been moved to be nearer Landy’s work.

The National Gallery is full of treasures and is always worth a visit. This exhibition often has queues, and rather than standing in line I recommend spending your time in the permanent collection, where you can see one of the great art collections of the world. Michael Landy has made some interesting pieces in his career, but I would not put Saints Alive on the must-see list.

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