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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

KEVIN C MOORE
Show Hide image

Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism