Sacred and Profane Machines: Michael Landy at the National Gallery, London
Report from London
Michael Landy: Saints Alive
May 23 to November 24, 2013
The National Gallery, London
Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN
London, United Kingdom, +44 20 7747 2885
The Associate Artist program at The National Gallery gives a distinguished artist a studio in the museum and asks him or her to produce an exhibition responding to the collection. Paula Rego and Ken Kiff were obvious choices for this program, for their art builds on the visual concerns of the museum’s old master collection. Michael Landy, appointed eighth Associate Artist in 2010, was a more surprising choice, for this Young British Artist, who came of age in the late 1980s had never done figurative painting or sculpture. Indeed when he was an art student in London, he never even visited the National Gallery. Inspired by Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures, reading stories about saints and, of course, by the Gallery’s collection which has many images of saints, Landy has created a marvelous array of saint-machines for his exhibition Saints Alive. Step on the petal and Saint Jerome (2012) smites his chest with a rock. Put your foot on its petal and Doubting Thomas (2013) bangs his hand on his torso. Put some money in Donation Box (2013) and Saint Francis beats his head with a crucifix. In the three-meter diameter Spin the Saint Catherine Wheel and Win the Crown of Martyrdom (2013), spinning the wheel of fortune reveals your fate. And Landy has made exquisite photographic-and-paint images on paper of his machines, “kinetic Renaissance sculpture” as he nicely describes them.
Not surprisingly, Saints Alive was very popular with children, who loved setting these noisy machines in motion. Me, I am in awe of Landy’s imaginative response to the Gallery’s art, which effectively brings the suffering saints into our contemporary world. I admired his show both for its own sake and for what it taught about the collection. Too often we take an aesthetic distance from old master paintings, seeing beautiful scenes of martyrs without engaging our emotions. (In a related project called “Acts of Kindness” (2010-2011), Landy asked people to recount their stories of acts of random kindness witnessed on the London Underground; see http://art.tfl.gov.uk/actsofkindness). Not much contemporary art deals with humor — and few artists deal seriously with Christianity. To deal sensitively and originally with these two subjects is a feat in itself. Landy has said, “I don’t quite know what to do with humor because I always kind of think if it’s humorous it means it’s insignificant, so it’s a difficult line to treat. But I am going for the populist vote.” He certainly won my vote with his hybrid sculpture-machines that one might expect to find in an old fashioned amusement park arcade. With this work Landy, not himself a believer, makes a funny but also deadly serious statement about art and religion.