Saints Alive is the exhibition that everyone’s talking about in London this summer.
Michael Landy’s impressive and surreal show at the National Gallery takes the form of a series of large-scale kinetic sculptures designed to bring a contemporary twist to the lives of the saints.
Saints are usually associated with traditional sacred art but Landy has pulled off a stroke of genius with his entertaining take on these venerated religious figures.
Banished are dusty, old images of the saints to be replaced by modern art installations which move and jolt as visitors walk around them.
It’s like being in a mad mechanic’s workshop with automaton saints for company!
Landy has drawn inspiration from the National Gallery’s historic collection for his modern saints.
He’s picked six Renaissance works including Carlo Crivelli’s Saint Jerome, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Saints Genevieve and Apollonia, Sassetta’s The Stigmatisation of Saint Francis and Cosimo Tura’s Saint Jerome.
It’s fascinating comparing the old with the new – 15th Century paintings with the modern interpretations of the saints.
What I love is Landy’s inspired choice of the saints featured in the show. He’s largely picked those with odd stories and legends associated with them.
Torture, marytrdom and penance are never far away in this exhibition!
So strange are the saints’ stories that I was left wondering why we never studied them at school but perhaps their tales were too extreme for the national curriculum.
Landy, of course, went to a Catholic school which might account for his endless fascination with the lives and deaths of these particular saints.
Saints in 3-D
It’s great to see the saints depicted in three dimensions and on such a grand scale.
The seven sculptures swivel and turn, in movements that evoke the drama of each saint’s life – Saints Apollonia, Catherine, Francis, Jerome and Thomas.
Each saint has been transformed into a large sculpture assembled with refuse which Michael Landy found at car boot sales and flea markets.
The artist has used old machinery, cogs and wheels to construct the works which gives them a quirky, abstract feel.
St Apollonia is the first saint you encounter after waiting outside in the exhibition queue – her giant-sized figure dominates the entrance hall.
She was martyred for not renouncing her faith during the reign of Emperor Philip in 249 AD.
In a vicious act of punishment, Apollonia had her teeth knocked out after being smashed in the face by a Christian persecutor.
After the teeth incident she was threatened with fire unless she renounced her faith so Apollonia jumped into the flames before she could be pushed.
Landy’s statue shows her bearing a traditional pair of pliers which presumably open and shut with a mechanical device.
Sadly this statue wasn’t working on the day I visited but it’s still an intriguing and surreal work which towers over the viewer.
In fact the exhibition has had more than its fair share of problems with the mechanics with some saints failing to function and being taken away to be fixed.
Hopefully the technical glitches are bring ironed out. Most of the saints were alive and kicking when I was there – quite literally!
St Jerome’s thumping
Inside the main hall St Jerome is one of most striking works in the exhibition.
Saint Jerome lived the life of a hermit in the Syrian desert and used to beat himself up with a rock to prevent himself having impure thoughts.
Landy’s installation is a large, thumping work in which a rock-bashing mechanism springs back and forth every few minutes to provide a visceral experience.
In another corner there’s St Francis of Assissi who is the subject of two works – Donation Box featuring his head and torso, and Saint Francis Lucky Dip in which he’s portrayed as headless.
Lucky Dip is one of the most perplexing exhibits in the show and I’m still not sure that I understand it fully.
St Francis was born into a wealthy family but gave up his inheritance to live by the principles of poverty, chastity and obedience so perhaps it’s supposed to represent his sacrifices and life of austerity?
A clawed crane moves up and down inside the neck of the statue as if it’s torturing the saint for his piety and devotion.
Every half an hour a free T-shirt pops out for the lucky visitor standing nearest the statue. Sadly, I didn’t get there in time to grab one!
Landy says he liked the idea of St Francis giving something away for free – and in today’s materialistic society, it’s a point well made.
At least St Francis didn’t meet a violent death or get tortured like many of the saints featured in the exhibition. He died peacefully one evening listening to a reading of Psalm 140!
But it’s not long before we’re back to martyrdom and violence.
Michael Landy’s Multi-Saint statue combines the attributes of five different saints in one art work.
The end result is a chimera-style figure that looks like it could have been crafted by the Dadaesque artist Jean Tinguely who also specialised in clanking, kinetic sculptures with mechanical parts.
There was something disturbing about this amalgam of saints which had echoes of a deranged Dali with its Surrealist overtones.
Heading it up – literally – is Saint Peter Martyr, a Dominican preacher who was violently murdered in an axe attack to his head.
Next up is Saint Lawrence who was martyred by the Romans – he was roasted alive on a griddle!
Also featured in the same work is Saint Michael who is destined to call the dead to rise on the Last Judgement.
Completing the group is St Catherine of Alexandria who was martyred on a wheel, as all fireworks fans will tell you (hence the Catherine Wheel).
Catherine was finally beheaded with a sword, and legend tells how milk flowed from her body rather than blood.
She is also featured in an adjacent work – a large wooden wheel which depicts her torture.
It’s great that visitors can turn the wheel to reveal their fortunes. Mine intimated that I was going to be tortured in hell if I committed any sins, an incentive to being good if I ever saw one!
Cranking it up
Nearby is Saint Thomas – Doubting Thomas – who refused to believe in Christ’s resurrection until he felt the Lord’s wounds himself.
Doubt and disbelief are the order of the day here, and the violence of the art work is quite shocking.
In this work Christ’s chest is repeatedly prodded by the violent hand of ‘Doubting’ Thomas, which springs into action on a suspended crank every few minutes.
It’s a bit like being hit repeatedly like a punch bag, but this is a fist that never tires of punishing the torso.
Visitors can crank the work into life with a foot pedal mechanism which adds to the fun or the pain, depending on how you look at it!
It’s all a bit bonkers but immensely good fun… like most of this strange exhibition.
Banging and bonging along, these large-scale figures are some of Landy’s most dramatic works to date.
Previously Landy was most famous for destroying all his possessions and birth certificate, sending them along a conveyor belt to be pulverised.
Saints Alive is every bit as iconoclastic and challenging as his self-destructive work – and lingers long in the memory.
I must confess that religion and saints have never been so much fun!
Tammy Tour Guide
Saints Alive is at the National Gallery in London until 24 September, 2013. Admission is free but be prepared to wait in a long queue at busy times as numbers are restricted.
The nearest Tube stations are Charing Cross or Piccadilly.
Once you’ve seen the exhibition, go back inside the National Gallery and look at the Renaissance paintings which inspired Michael Landy’s Saints Alive.
As well as the large-scale Saints Alive installations, don’t miss the adjacent Sunley Room which features a display about the making of the installations together with paper collages.
Look out for special events including talks, courses and workshops.
Other attractions in the vicinity of the National Gallery include the Royal Academy and the National Portrait Gallery.
Photo credits: Images are by kind permission of the National Gallery. They are copyright of the Thomas Dane Gallery, London; the National Gallery and the Duerckheim Collection.