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

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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

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