Heavenly Bodies: Michael Landy's artistic marriage made in heaven... and hell

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

YBA Michael Landy’s show Saints Alive at the National Gallery draws on details of the torture of the martyrs represented in masterpieces of the Renaissance. And the result, says Adrian Hamilton, is fascinating

The master of destruction meets the martyrs of Faith.

It was always going to be a marriage made in Heaven or Hell, depending on your theological view or artistic expectation. Certainly the National Gallery took a chance when it invited Michael Landy, a founding face of the YBAs (Young British Artists), to become an associate artist and to mount a show of the resulting works at the end of his two-year stint.

They were looking for a change from the usual run of painters and sculptors, who responded to the paintings themselves, and deliberately picked someone who was  neither. Indeed Landy had never set foot in the place – or so he claimed – before the commission. A student at Goldsmiths who’d participated in Damien Hirst’s original Freeze show of 1988 which launched the YBAs, he’d gone on to make a name for himself with dramatic gesture installations meant to show up the hollowness of consumer culture and the pretensions of elitist culture (very Goldsmiths and 1980/1990s).

While his colleagues made works that could sell, however outrageous, Landy deliberately performed acts of oblivion. His objects were from the everyday and the scrapheap which formed the lingua franca of his generation, but his in intentions were always politically radical – shopping trolleys filled with discarded items marked for sale, market stalls set out without products, a scrapheap company with mannequins dressed as disposal operatives (bought by the Tate).

Most famously in Break Down in 2001, he assiduously catalogued his every possession and then had them destroyed along a conveyor belt manned by 12 assistants and a crushing machine. It lasted a fortnight and the public loved it, associating themselves with his feelings as well as his action. Then in Art Bin nearly 10 years later, he installed a giant see-through skip, inviting all and sundry to throw in useless or loathed artwork. It was bad art made interesting but also all equal.

Not the best basis for an artist to take up residence in a national  museum with the specific remit to build on its holdings in a creative and approachable way. And, indeed, Landy admits that he approached it in the sprit not exactly of “what a lark” but more a dare. What could he  do that was interesting and, even  better, subversive?

The result, it has to be said, is genuinely exciting. Landy has taken the elements which interest him in the paintings around and made them into startling and intricate collages and then into giant kinetic sculptures you can set in motion as they perform the various acts that the saints of the church had perpetrated upon them or they dealt out to themselves.

That it works is partly due to the art on which they are based. It is all very well YBAs such as Landy proclaiming the art of the past as dead but anyone with an eye as trained as his is bound, when up close and personal with the masterpieces of the Renaissance and after, to get locked into their creators’ way with composition, shape, detail and colour. Although something of a loner, Landy has always been a thinker about art and a very deliberate creator of effect. And it shows.

But the chief reason he has made a success of this show, I think, is that Landy is at bottom a graphic artist and a very good one. As recent shows of his pencil drawings and brutally honest depictions of his testicular cancer have shown, he has a fine sense of line and an exacting concentration on detail. A retrospective of his drawings is due to be held at the Thomas Dane Gallery  in London early next month and shouldn’t be missed.

The works in the National Gallery that he responded to, and the details in them, were the paintings of saints from the Renaissance. His explanation is that he found fascinating the  macabre details of the tortures and punishments inflicted on the martyrs and saints represented – St Catherine broken on a toothed wheel (Heaven actually saved her from this before she was beheaded); St Sebastian shot to death by arrows; St Lucy having her teeth pulled out one by one; St Lucy having her eyes gouged out; Saint Lawrence roasted alive on a red hot iron grill – all the things, indeed, which British Protestants deride and their sensibility revolts from.

Landy is of Irish Catholic background, although he describes himself as an agnostic. But it is not for reasons of ghoulishness or to make fun of religion that he seems excited by this facet of religious art. He is clearly interested not just in the back stories of these saints, but the way the pictures use the symbols of suffering as emblems of their subjects. And, of course, as a draughtsmen he responds to the shapes.

You can see this most clearly in the monumental collages in which he takes details of the pictures: the wheel from Pinturicchio’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria with a Donor from 1480-1500; a pair of legs with green leggings from Carlo Crivelli’s Saint Michael of circa 1476; a red robe from Lucas Cranach’s Saints Genevieve and Apollonio, of 1506; a kneeling lower body from Ercole de’Roberti of circa 1490; a head from Carlo Crivelli’s Saint Peter Martyr of circa 1476 while details of arrows, wounds, swords and severed limbs are retrieved from all over.

In the collages these are assembled in the pattern of figures or the tree of life so popular in medieval art. Particularly taken with the wheels on which St Catherine was stretched and broken (he has counted 35 of them in the NG’s collections), Landy has  gathered them in masses of ruined  destruction reminiscent of a Nash painting of the First World War, and, with the bleak Saint Catherine Wheels Found Dumped outside The National Gallery, in a large pencil work on paper that harks back to Piranesi.

With the sculptures he has become equally monumental. Much influenced by the Dadaist kinetic  machines of the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, with their assemblages of rusting scrap, Landy has made his far from saintly figures interactive and deliberately self destructive. Press a foot pedal and you can witness a headless Saint Jerome beat himself with a rock, the torso and legs modelled after Cosimo Tura’s picture of 1470, the two parts connected by a Heath Robinson array of wheels.

Press the pedal on another modelled figure and a giant and gentle Saint Apollonia will raise and lower her arm with tongs to pull out her teeth. In another sculpture, entitled Seeing Is Believing, a metal arm can poke a hand fiercely at the disembodied chest of Christ. A mechanical grabber can be activated to dip into the equally headless body of Saint Francis Lucky Dip, with luck to pull out a T-shirt emblazoned with his vows of “Poverty, Chastity and Obedience”. Turn an immense Saint Catherine’s Wheel and you can read the fortunes of her life from being a bride of Christ to losing her head.

Blasphemous? Landy might think, and even hope so, but in this secular age what he achieves – and rightly so – is fascination. The viewer will smile at the antics set in motion, just as they smiled at the influential Tinguely exhibition in the Tate in 1984 and at Landy’s act of destruction of possessions in his Break Down. There is something very basic about giant machines with their works showing that entrances.

From that point of view the National Gallery should be satisfied that it has in this exhibition something that will intrigue the audience and take him or her back to the originals on which it is based. For children in particular there is a challenge in searching for sources, and even for adults Landy’s use of details encourages one to look again more closely at the pictures on which they are based.

Whether the installations, which are on show for most of the year, will survive their self-battering without becoming tatty or breaking down is another question. Landy’s own philosophy would allow and even  encourage it. But at the top of the  grandiose main staircase of the National Gallery, this could prove  depressing rather than enlivening. One hopes not, for the one abiding pleasure in this show is the sense of an artist who has genuinely engaged with his material and locked horns, however unexpectedly, with the past.

Michael Landy: Saints Alive, National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885) 23 May to 24 November

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there