Michael Landy's Saints Alive at the National Gallery is a technical hit and miss

By Mark Sheerin | 18 May 2013

Exhibition review: Michael Landy – Saints Alive, Sunley Room, The National Gallery, London, until November 24 2013

Colour photo of a gallery containing kinetic sculpture
Michael Landy, Saints Alive, 2013 (installation view)© Michael Landy, courtesy of the Thomas Dane Gallery, London / Photo: The National Gallery, London
Ercole de’Roberti, Cosimo Tura and Cima da Conegliano are quiet souls. All three have painted Saint Jerome smiting himself with a rock, but none displays the presence of a clanking 7ft kinetic sculpture.

This sets the pattern for all of the work in Saints Alive by Michael Landy. A 15th century painting of Saint Catherine gives rise to a giant spinnable wheel of divine fortune and misfortune. And the so-called Multi-Saint, which comes to life in a variety of ways, is inspired by three Carlo Crivellis and a Hans Memling.

All of these works command roomfuls of attention and make no secret of their inner workings. Landy has collected wheels, cogs, fan belts and a range of additional components from car boot sales. The spectacle is as much about the saintly acts of violence as it is about the miracle of their locomotion.

Colour photo of a woman in a gallery activating a kinetic sculpture with a pedal
Michael Landy, Saint Jerome (about 341-420) (2013)© Michael Landy, courtesy of the Thomas Dane Gallery, London / Photo: The National Gallery, London
But while this compact show also makes reference to Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pintoricchio, Botticelli and Sassetta, there is another star in its firmament whose indirect arrival in this historic gallery is the cause of much shock. That would be Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely.

This controversial 20th century figure not only built complex moving sculptures along the lines of the statues mentioned above, he also brought machines to life only to destroy themselves. Indeed, he is best known for his 1960 Homage to New York, a 27ft high structure which set fire to itself.

There is no self-immolation featured at the National, but it cannot be ignored that, at the time of this reviewer’s visit, no less than four of the sculptures had already destroyed themselves. And so Saint Apollonia, Saint Thomas and, in two cases, Saint Francis remained static and mysterious. What would happen if you touched their pedals? We were dying to know.

Landy is the eighth Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist, a post for a contemporary artist which renews itself every two years. While the gallery deserves credit for imagination in choosing him, problems like those besetting Saint Francis could surely have been foreseen.

It could be divine intervention, but surely a fully working show would inspire greater interest in these holy subjects. The unlikely alliance of the controversial Landy and the historic collection at the National works fine in theory. Technical issues are perhaps of a piece with the trials of sainthood.

  • Open 10am-6pm (9pm Friday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @NationalGallery.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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