British artist Michael Landy (b. 1963) is known primarily as an installation artist. His work, along with others associated with the Young British Artists (YBAs), was first catapulted to the world spotlight when it was featured in the notorious Sensation exhibition (1997). His sculptural installations and performances explore political and social themes, such as the nature of consumerism and commodity. In 2009, Landy began a three-year artist residency at the National Gallery, London. He chose to focus his project, Saints Alive, on representations of the canonised and their accompanying stories, often gruesome, which were once part of common culture but are now largely unknown.
I recreate the saints like Frankenstein’s monster. I take an arm from one painting, a chest from somewhere else – all in different proportions. And then with the help of Tinguely, with the wheels and motors, I make them into a kind of kinetic Renaissance sculpture. [Michael Landy in conversation with Richard Cork.]
Saint Apollonia greets me at the door of Michael Landy’s residency at the National Gallery. According to The Golden Legend, an anthology of saints’ lives written in 1266, Saint Apollonia was tortured by pagans who knocked out all her teeth and threatened to burn her alive. In later depictions, like Lucas Cranach’s of 1506, Apollonia is depicted as a fair young woman holding a pair of pliers.
And here she is, like some sort of burly doorman looming over me as if on stilts. She has the same glazed look in her eyes and the same cracked porcelain complexion as her sixteenth century counterpart. In her pale long fingers she holds the pliers by which she is known. The black and white patterned collar that covers her shoulders and décolletage so gracefully in Cranach’s depiction has been replaced here with old cogs and wheels. She is like a wind up doll that’s been opened up to fix.
I look up at Apollonia with the same veneration that I would an elegantly hung painting elsewhere in the gallery. Visitors to the National Gallery know very well not to touch the works, so I am nervous to step on the pedal that quietly snakes out from underneath her elongated skirt. But as I do, the cogs and wheels whirl furiously into action, her arms raise, and the pliers bash violently against her porcelain mouth. Her expression remains placid as the whole mechanism shakes with the violence of the act. There is a comical ridiculousness to this, but in seeing Apollonia’s fate played out repeatedly before me, I find myself concerned for her plight.
Landy’s preoccupation with destruction, fragmentation and kinetic sculpture is seen in his earlier work. In Break Down (2001) he methodically catalogued all of his material possessions and then used a crusher and conveyor belt to destroy them. This process was echoed somewhat in the creation of this collection. In the early days of the residency Landy did nothing but look at the gallery’s collection, taking note of what it contained. He then began to select hundreds of fragments from various larger works which he copied and then recompiled in mechanical constructions, sometimes invented and other times drawn from photographs of Jean Tinguely’s kinetic works from the 60s. These then formed the basis of the large scale kinetic sculptures which self destruct and will eventually fragment.
Having just walked through the rest of the gallery and past paintings of the saints, it is thrilling to see them come to life so physically, so loudly and so subversively. I am drawn back into the paintings and feel as if I have been allowed into the gallery at night to see this two dimensional cast spring to life in what is an exhilarating and visceral pantomime of saints alive.
- Celia Graham-Dixon