Michael Landy's Saints Alive: Bloody carnage brought to life and mechanised

When he was made associate artist at the National Gallery in 2009, Michael Landy tried his best to get to know the gallery's collection. He kept coming back to the same image: St Catherine and her wheel. In a new exhibition of collages, sketches and large

St Apollonia was a 3rd century Egyptian who had all her teeth knocked out. She was burned alive for refusing to sacrifice to the gods of Rome and is the patron saint of dentists and those with toothache. The saint for Biblical scholarship is St Jerome, who lived as a hermit in the Syrian desert, striking his chest with a rock. St Catherine was a bookish child from Alexandria, who held her own against fifty pagan scholars sent to debate with her by Emperor Maximus in 305. Enraged, Maximus ordered that the scholars be burned alive and Catherine torn apart on a spiked wheel. When she touched the instrument of her destruction, the wheel exploded and splinters flew into the assembled mob. She was immediately beheaded and her body was carried to Mount Sinai by angels. St Catherine is among the many saints who have sprung to life at the National Gallery’s new exhibition Saints Alive: a junk shop assortment of limbs, cogs and torture devices devised by “Young British Artist” Michael Landy.

To many these stories are obscure. Landy himself was unfamiliar with most of them when he became the eighth Roostein Hopkins Associate Artist at the National back in 2009. He walked around the galleries daydreaming, writing again and again in his notebook: St Catherine’s wheel, St Catherine’s wheel.

Landy is best known for his 2001 performance Break Down, in which he gathered all of his possessions in an empty branch of C&A on Oxford Street. He catalogued the 7,227 items (everything from his birth certificate, clothes and furniture, to former art works and his car), then systematically destroyed them all. Upon entry to the exhibition, St Appollonia towers above the crowd like a paper mache float. She rocks back and forth and grabs loudly at her mouth with a pair of pliers. It's fun, if a little gimmicky. Around the room are hung huge collages, sketches and plans. Sections of saints’ bodies have been abstracted from Italian Renaissance masterpieces (“It’s the closest I’ll get to cutting up the collection,” Landy says) and spring from the floor like pious jacks in the box. In the corner St Francis levitates in beggarly humility, asking for donations. When you put a coin in the slot, he bangs his forehead with a crucifix. They should put one outside Maria Miller’s office.

If the portraits felt a little like the blueprint for some kind of religious steampunk factory, the adjoining space is the factory itself. Landy has taken inspiration from 60s and 70s kinetic art in the vein of swiss sculptor Jean Tingley and created larger-than-life sized models that wind themselves up and spring to life. A pedal on the floor causes St Jerome to batter his chest with a stone. The noise echoes around the usually quiet gallery. A large spiked wheel of fortune is connected to a handle which visitors are encouraged to spin. The huge disc creaks to a halt, landing on gnomic messages etched in gold: “Reject everything and take refuge in the Lord Jesus Christ”, “Marry a Roman emperor or submit to excruciating torture and die”, “Angels will soothe your wounds”.

In winding up and letting go we become one of the mob. Manipulating the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction, the machines flagellate themselves ad infinitum. “Doubting” Thomas’s hand rams into Christ’s side. A machete slices through the scalp of Peter Martyr. When I visited at the weekend, two of the saints had hammered themselves into submission, literally. Pieces of A4 paper had been sellotaped to Ss Thomas and Francis: “Not currently operational. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

The accompanying film presents Landy as a kind of Holy Innocent, playing with the collection, stroking a dog. He came to the gallery and was moved, provoked and confused by the depictions of saints in glorious works by the Italian Renaissance artists Crivelli, Botticelli, Pintoricchio and El Greco. The destructive aspect appealed to him. He does not believe there is any spiritual element to the work - though this assumes that spirituality is only an ethereal, non-corporeal impulse. The bloody carnage wreaked on canvas by the Renaissance masters is brought to life and mechanised in Saint’s Alive. The sculptures are loud and as dangerous as industrial machinery. Though the exhibition is a little slight and relies upon montage - building on an established tradition rather than creating ex nihilo - it will have been a worthwhile experiment for the Gallery if it manages to funnel the tourists out of Trafalgar Square and into the corridors behind.

Saints Alive! Michael Landy at the National Gallery. All images copyright: National Gallery.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.