Michael Landy Saints Alive at the National Gallery London

In 2013 the National Gallery’s Sunley Room came alive with an exhibition of vibrant kinetic sculptures created by Artist in Residence, Michael Landy. Inspired by works in the Gallery’s collection, Michael Landy: Saints Alive was the culmination of his position as the Gallery’s current Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist in residence. Born in London in 1963, Landy attended Goldsmiths College and is part of the generation of artists who became known as the YBAs (Young British Artists). He is best known for his 2001 installation, Break Down, where he catalogued and then destroyed all of his possessions in a former department store in London.

Colin Wiggins, Head of Education and Jennifer Sliwka, Assistant Curator of Renaissance Painting at the National Gallery discuss the role of Contemporary Sculpture in a traditional setting and Landy’s exhibition with 3rd Dimension.

Can you start by explaining how the idea of engaging with Modern and contemporary art came about? What did you want to achieve with that discourse?

CW: The discourse goes back to 1824 when The Gallery was founded, as one of the prime movers, Sir George Beaumont, more or less shamed the government of the time into establishing The Gallery by offering his collection of Old Master paintings, free to the nation. He was a great follower of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who believed that artists should learn, in his own words, ‘the grammar of painting’ before they could become independent artists themselves. Beaumont wanted a resource for contemporary artists, as at that time, where would you go to see Old Master paintings? You would have to go to France, but sometimes you couldn’t because we were often at war with France! Or you would have to be very well- connected to be able to see those private collections. Sir George Beaumont’s collection was always open to anyone who wanted to see it, so his real motivation was to get this place established, so artists could come and use it as a point of departure for their own work.

So your directive is rooted in the past and fundamental to the principles of The National Gallery?

CW: Yes, it is what the gallery is for, that is its primary purpose going back to 1824.

What are the criteria now when you are looking for contemporary artists to respond to the collection?

CW: It is about connections. We are not a contemporary gallery, we are a collection of very old paintings and we want to use contemporary art to shed a new light on the collection, so visitors can see artists responding to it, and understand these beautiful paintings in a different way, through an artist’s eye.

Are the main conduits for contemporary art the exhibitions, Artist in Residence and films? Are there any new ideas you are exploring?

CW: We hope in the future to be able to have small scale contemporary shows that respond to National Gallery exhibitions. We are very excited about the idea of a contemporary artist exhibiting two or three works that would connect to the exhibition in the Sainsbury wing or the Sunley Room, to give that extra interpretation and response that goes beyond the catalogue.

Does showing contemporary art increase your footfall, and do your visitors enjoy the reciprocal relationship between contemporary art and The National Gallery collection?

CW: Yes it makes a great difference, and it is the kind of footfall. As you say, it is a two way thing. I remember one journalist tried to imply that we wanted to compete with Tate Modern. We are not treading on the Tate’s toes, as it will not stop people going to Tate Modern if we show something here, what it will do is attract people from to Tate Modern to come here, and their demographic is very different to ours in terms of age and social class. Also, it will hit our much more conservative audience with a piece of contemporary art that might then suddenly connect them to it, when they would never have dreamt of engaging with that kind of art before and simply dismiss it. When we did the Sir Anthony Caro show, his gallery in Annely Juda in Dering Street told us that they were getting a new, older audience because they had seen his work in a fresh light at The National Gallery. They had been given a ‘way in’ to those works because of the context here. 

How important is a knowledge and understanding of the collection to the artists you choose? Is a fresh perspective without preconceptions an advantage, and does it yield a different engagement?

JS: For Michael Landy, that is what made it very interesting, as an important part of his whole theme is disconnection. That is what got him going, what inspired him, he felt very disconnected from the works in The National Gallery initially. There is a difference with artists who are very familiar with the collection. Out next artist George Shaw is immersed in the collection and talks about Titian as a bully, but Landy would not know a Titian from a Rembrandt! Some have read a great deal, picking up what scholars have debated on for years, but when talking to an artist who hasn’t, they will point to an anomaly and question colour and space, it is a more formal reading. CW: I would not have thought it was an advantage, I would have said no, but that was before I met Michael! He has changed my disillusionment with the teaching in art colleges, thinking that all art students should know Giotto to Cezanne. Michael had so little knowledge of the past, yet he comes here and produces the most spectacular exhibition. JS: It all came from him, what he seized on, what grabbed his attention, his instinct was a very valuable tool.

When the project began, what was Michael Landy’s initial starting point in his relationship to the iconography of the Saints?

JS: I think he remained connected to his first impressions of a painting. It is the sense that if you look at a painting of a saint martyring him or herself, you don’t need to know the story, you have got the message already. He kept that in mind. Then when Colin or I would go round and start telling him the stories, he would go deeper and deeper, and go back and read The Golden Legend, and he would take more away from that. This gave him more ideas of how to build his saints and think how they would injure themselves in his sculptures. He would then step back again and reflect. If you go with an artist who doesn’t know the story, they will look formally at space and composition, and then when they know the story they see how it relates to the larger meaning symbolically. Meaning became very important for Landy with the saints, as they ended up working on so many levels.

How did Michael Landy’s first impression of The National Gallery affect his Saints Aliveworks?

CW: Landy felt intimidated by the hushed reverence, grandeur and pomposity of the institution, and that is what he wanted to puncture. He wanted to make a noisy exhibition and to make people laugh. Landy was very affected by an exhibition of the kinetic sculptor, Jean Tinguely when he was a student, where he saw people with smiles on their faces, and that is what he wanted to achieve in his own exhibition here.

Tinguely physically involves the visitor with his works, but does Landy incorporate a psychological level here, with his almost surreal mix of humour and horror, encouraging the visitor to bring the Saints to life, but by causing them pain…

JS: Absolutely, and Landy really responds to this idea of direct engagement. For him it is the idea that you activate the piece and get involved, and then that shock that you are inflicting the actual pain! It was very interesting when I took a group of student theologians round the exhibition, there were very different responses depending on people’s level of belief and knowledge. One student, training to be a priest, did not want to press the pedal, she did not want to participate. It provoked an interesting discussion which Landy would have been delighted to have inspired – what did the martyrs stand for? Landy is also battling against a passive way of viewing, when people drift through a gallery. This shakes them up! The element of surprise was important, some visitors did not realise they were activated by footpedals, and suddenly BANG! You could see people leaping back in shock!

How did the visitor’s reaction to the Saints Alive exhibition affect their subsequent relationship to the paintings?

CW: The Saints are indeed very surreal, straight out of a dream or nightmare, and intimidatingly out of scale and exaggerated like the acts themselves. They towered over you sometimes threateningly, it was like being in the land of the giants, which of course made the paintings which may have seemed intimidating before, suddenly seem welcoming and easy in comparison! With this context, visitors saw them in a new light, as much more approachable!

Indeed although Landy did not want any paintings in the exhibition, with his theme of disconnection, his surfaces directly relate to the paintings. Having experienced the Saints, were visitors then inspired to examine the paintings for themselves?

CW: They certainly were! That for me was the most important aspect, because as I said before, we are not a contemporary gallery and our responsibility is this wonderful collection and helping our visitors engage with it. It was a great pleasure for me to feel that genuine excitement, as people would go and seek out paintings, which they previously would have ignored! Having experienced Landy’s Saints, they would find the painting, and see it in a new light. It became a very dynamic relationship, as they would be intrigued to compare the interpretation of the painting to the sculpture. JS: As you say, because of Landy, visitors were appreciating not only the subjects of the works but also the way in which they were painted. Suddenly they are looking at the surface of a Crivelli and realising just how extraordinary it is, as having seen it in a sculptural form gave them a better appreciation of the manner in which these works were painted. There was a new engagement with the actual paint itself.

By removing the Saints from the context of their paintings, Landy questions the act of martyrdom itself, a shockingly visceral way of confronting people with the idea of pain and suffering expressing the saint’s values and faith..

CW: He makes you face this, even though it is uncomfortable and hard to relate to. The Roman catholic religion is very strange, the cult of beating yourself and putting yourself through pain in emulation of Christ, the notion of extreme physical suffering. His dramatic imagery jolts people! When the St. Jerome went up, Michael said something that was very revealing: ‘Artists beat themselves up don’t they’. We find it very hard to relate to this, but Landy found it very interesting. There is a sense that these works are also autobiographical, and Michael is choosing a theme that he can connect with his own life.

So autobiography adds another layer of meaning and informs his reaction to the collection?

CW: In his mind there is a definite link, they are deeply autobiographical. I know that the work he did at the Tate, Semi-Detached (2004) a full-scale model of his childhood home, with the crumbling façade of his pebble-dashed house and bits of broken window frame that needed repairing, was a metaphor for Landy’s father who had been very badly injured in an industrial accident, and then had been discarded by the system. The fate of his father is very wrapped up with how he responded to the National Gallery’s collection of paintings that have in some way been discarded, and he is now giving them a new life and purpose.

Does that bring us back to Tinguely who also references notions of obsolescence and ‘usefulness’?

JS: Right, they have a deep social meaning that Landy also relates to. He enjoys this dialogue about the destruction, throwing away and the recycling of things, which very much come into play with the Saints sculptures.

Indeed the Saints seem in dialogue with his practice, which critiques modern consumerism and the absence of values. Therefore within the context of our society, his St. Francis who is traditionally associated with ‘giving’, is an empty receptacle preyed upon by a mechanical hand, ‘taking’ from him…

CW: Yes, it is exactly why that work is so important in terms of his career, and one gets the sense that he admires their commitment to values more than our own! His work is very much engaging with this idea of questioning the values that we live our lives by. I don’t think that he is exactly a political artist, but it is a critique as he is extremely socially aware, and this is central to his work. JS: Absolutely, it is key moment for him, as I think it is a synthesis of all the different parts of his career coming together. I remember when we stood in front of the Sassetta altarpiece, there was a moment when it just clicked for him. When we told him about the giving away of the cloak to the knight and St. Francis then receiving the stigmata, he combined those two scenes, so it works on all those levels. CW: I think we will find even more meaning as time goes on, things that haven’t occurred to us, and which will become clear when Michael does his next project. It will be a completely new medium no doubt, but there will be connections…!

The works allude to their own obsolescence as they are slowly destroying themselves, the antithesis of the Gallery’s principles of conservation, but strong visual metaphor for the Saint’s destructive actions…

CW: It works on several levels. On one level it chimes with his practice, as a denial of the commodity value of the art work. As a collector you buy something and it is going to destroy itself, what is that all about? He also knew that there would be problems technically with the works, some would breakdown and slowly fall apart, St. Jerome dropped his rock sometimes! However, as you say, this was part of his whole theme and integral to the meaning, and it was therefore important to Landy that people would see evidence of physical damage. JS: Landy is also saying that life is like that, and is unpredictable rather than perfect! It was a balancing act, as he did not want the public to be disappointed, but the fact that the works breakdown is part of their meaning. There are moulds for the fibreglass sections, and after the exhibition they go back to the workshop that made them for a service.

In the composite sculpture, Multi-Saint how do the ideas of ‘fragments’ or ‘remains’ inform this work….

JS: It is a very interesting point, as he engages with the material life of those objects and how they have changed over time. Many of the paintings Landy looked at were fragments of something much larger, that been chopped up and bits have been discarded, some have ended up in different collections around the world and then built back up. We talked about altarpieces that collectors had bought in the nineteenth century, and added pieces that never belonged there. When they arrive here we have to take them apart again as we know it is all wrong! He was intrigued with how collectors and dealers have decided what is important and what isn’t. I think this whole idea of taking apart and putting back together, and how that affected the meaning and status of the work, really resonated with him.

How did the religious community react to the exhibition?

CW: The response of the religious community was very affecting. The Sub-Dean of Lincoln gave a whole sermon, on Landy, proclaiming him as almost a saint himself for bringing new life to these stories! The Catholic Herald wrote an article saying every diocese should send a coach load of visitors to the exhibition!

Finally, how would you sum up the challenges facing a sculptor in their response to The National Gallery’s collection?

CW: I immediately think of how the artist Ana Maria Pacheco would put it. She would say with painting, you are already creating a world which you enter into, but with sculpture, it is there in the room with you, and you have got to go through that into this other world. You have to use your sculpture to engage that imagination in the viewer, to take them into a different world. JS:Landy did this in such a fascinating way, whilst directly engaging with the collection.




Main image (photo: Thomas Dane Gallery)

Aurora Corio