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.

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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage