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Saints Alive

Nigel Halliday

RLandy.jpgMichael Axworthy

Michael Landy at the National Gallery
Until November 24

n 2010 Michael Landy was appointed the eighth associate artist (artist-in-residence) of the National Gallery. The brief for the project is to make new art that engages with some aspect of the gallery's collection. It was an unusual appointment, as Landy is not a painter and had never visited the National Gallery. Much of his work is destructive by nature: he famously catalogued and then destroyed all his possessions; and more recently created the Art Bin in which artists could throw away their failures.

Some time into the project his attention finally settled on the prevalence of Renaissance paintings of saints gruesomely but dispassionately sporting the instruments of their death. The modern generation, including Landy by his own admission, have no knowledge of the stories or motives behind the saints. In this exhibition he has, as he says, tried to bring the saints alive for a new generation.

He has done this in a quasi-literal way by making kinetic sculptures based on specific images in the gallery's collection. Each of his works has visible moving parts, with recycled wheels, chains, cogs and bits of metal, put together in the spirit of Heath Robinson, but with a shocking violence. Push one button and St Jerome pounds himself with a huge rock, the noise reverberating round the room. Push another and St Thomas whacks his pointed finger at Jesus, who recoils so violently on a spring that the base of the figure lifts off the ground.  Elsewhere St Peter Martyr thumps himself on the head with a meat cleaver.

Personally, I have a lot of sympathy with Landy's incomprehension about the veneration of the saints. What is the fascination with poor old St Sebastian being forever wounded by arrows? Why focus on St Lucy's disembodied eyes and not the beauty of her soul?

But then Landy's works don't really offer us any profound enlightenment. Like any good art, they give much more insight into the artist and his own age than into the source material of saints and Renaissance artists. They seem to embody quite powerfully the instincts of our own culture: that belief in the supernatural is a sign of mental disorder, and the more strongly you hold it, the more weird, antisocial and destructive your behaviour.

Like a fairground attraction - witness the long queue to get in - the exhibits are witty, engaging, and funny. But inviting us to laugh at the saints only makes us feel superior. Landy says he understands St Jerome locking himself away to work and beating himself up in his frustration. But in general he regards the saints as 'barmy' and their faith as destructive of both themselves and those who believe in them. Peter Martyr, who was murdered with an axe, is shown here striking himself on the head with a meat cleaver. The wounds are now entirely self-inflicted. There is no sense that these individuals believed in a supernatural reality; no sense of striving for a higher goal.  Just weird behaviour inflicted on one's own body.

In an alternative take on the subject, the two figures of St Francis focus on the way gruesome stories of the saints have been used by church authorities to play on the guilt of the faithful to control them and extract their money. In one composition, Francis sits directly on top of a collection box. Put some money in (all proceeds to the National Gallery) and he hits himself on the head with a crucifix.  In the other figure, the button activates a mechanical grabber - like the ones in amusement arcades that you try to manipulate to grab a fluffy toy - which descends into the headless torso but always comes up empty. 'Keep praying,' it seems to say. 'Better luck next time. (Not really.)'

The exhibition makes an interesting contrast to 'Seeing Salvation', the National's millennium exhibition in which the curators tried to help our newly pagan society to understand what Christian imagery was about. The Gallery's spokespersons say they hope Landy's show will encourage people to go back into the gallery to find the original paintings and ask themselves questions about them. I expect they might, but this exhibition won't really do anything but feed their prejudices.