If you’d ever considered the National Gallery to be a staid old building, filled with musty old paintings demanding reverence and silence, think again. With wild contemporary art shows currently popping up all over London – each one madder than the last – people can become despondent to the old masters which are great, well, simply because they are. People do like to say they’ve been to see this controversial show at this brand new gallery, and this shocking piece at that upcoming venue, because it’s trendy. But, if different and new is trendy then perhaps soon we’ll all be coming full circle – returning to the gilded walls of the National Gallery to rediscover the history of our current art scene.
If there’s any exhibition that’s likely to bring in even the edgiest of art-lovers, it’s Michael Landy’s Saints Alive. When approached by the National Gallery to act as associate artist, he was at first shocked and slightly bewildered, however he soon found his own way of rediscovering and appropriating its vast collection.
Landy is best known for Break Down (2001), which saw him throw thousands of his worldly possessions into what an ‘art bin’, soon joined by artists such as Hirst throwing in their wares. It is daring for the National Gallery, an institute of preservation, to allow such a destructive artist into the collection – but as Landy explains, we understand history by taking it apart, and this is exactly what Saints Alive does.
Forming a relationship with the symbols in paintings of the most iconic of Christian saints, Landy developed enormous kinetic sculptures which interrupt the quiet of the galleries: fibreglass fingers beat the painted chest of Christ, Saint Apollonia’s elbows snap sharply as she pulls a tooth from her mouth, and the whirring Multi-Saint – a piece combining the tragic tales of several Saints. They could seem offensive – and people are all too prone to taking offence anyway – but really they’re just bringing art history to life.
In fact the show is perfect for an 11 year old art student I have; like any little boy, he loves machinery and action, and this is an ideal way of introducing him to paintings which otherwise might not enliven him.
As soon as I entered the room of enormous fibreglasses (and especially because one wasn’t quite working properly), I was sure that this show had to be the work of MDM Props – an art fabrication company based in Herne Hill who I’d worked for throughout 2011. Sure enough, a film in an adjoining room shows the works being crafted in MDM’s workshop; not many artists are modest enough to admit that they don’t make their own work (very few actually do…) and so, this film gives the show a unique level of honesty which certainly dismisses any notion of the National Gallery as inaccessible ‘high art’.
Although Landy’s bombastic sculptures are exciting, shocking and darkly humorous, the prints on show are equally fascinating. Beautifully crafted collages and ink details offer an insight into the artist’s thought process, into his response to paintings which previously seemed to bear no parallels to his own practice.
This show seems to be a turning point of sorts; artists often refer back to the old masters in an indirect way, however Landy brings art history into the present. Taking a “pick and mix” approach to the National Gallery’s archive, Landy’s work is wholeheartedly postmodern; and with his combination of non-traditional materials and traditional Christian icons, and utter honesty surrounding both his thought processes and working methods, it is open, inclusive and refreshingly down to earth.
I’m looking forward to my second visit, and hopefully this time the eight-foot-tall St Francis of Assisi is behaving himself so that my pupil can go home with a free Tshirt bearing the words “Poverty, Chastity and Obedience”, although I’m not quite sure what his parents will think…
Michael Landy Saints Alive is on show at The National Gallery until November 24.