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Thursday, 22 August 2013

Review: Michael Landy's 'Saint Alive' at the National Gallery

As with most of my regular weekend gallery outings, I had made a plan to see one of London’s most popular exhibitions, in this case the National Gallery’s Vemeer and Music. On the way in, my trusty museum-hopping amigo E noticed the poster for ‘Saints Alive by Michael Landy’. ‘Is that on now?’ I asked incredulously. ‘I’ve never heard of it.’ ‘Oh yes I heard about this, it was recommended to me by someone at work.’ So after a quick tern around the decidedly mediocre Vemeer, we headed into the main building on the hunt for this mysterious exhibition that had apparently been on since May.

It wasn’t too hard to find. Walk in through the main doors and listen for the distant sounds of thumping and crashing. Queuing in the middle of one of the ornate gilded galleries, the crashing of metal on metal is not exactly what you expect to hear in these hallowed halls. But that’s exactly what ‘Saints Alive’ is all about.

Michael Landy has been working with the National Gallery as their artist in residence since 2009. In his time there, he became inspired by the imagery of the martyrs that runs as a theme across so many centuries of art. Specifically he was interested in the idea of them destroyed themselves to save others and lead them into salvation. So how do you get the average gallery visitor to respond with that kind of abstract concept? Well, you make it big, you make it noisy, you make it fun.

Landy’s ‘Saints’ are not the quiet passive figures of the paintings in the gallery- they tear at their faces, they hit themselves, they shudder and swing. Imagery from famous artworks is crossed with kinetic wheels and pulleys to create larger than life de-constructed statues of metal and fibre glass. At each sculpture, there is a foot-pedal which visitors stomp to animate the sculptures while the attendants look on armed with ear plugs against the clanging art works.

There are so many levels you can enjoy the artworks on. Personally, I love the fact that the sculptures are literally destroying themselves. Now that the show has been open for so many months, the sculptures are scratched and tattered, which I think makes them even more interesting.

What’s really important here, aside from the fact that the art is fascinating, is that Landy has actually managed to pull of exactly what an artist in residence is meant to do: engage audiences in a new way with the collections. The artworks are accessible and funny: walking around the gallery no one is standing in quiet contemplation. People are giggling, smiling, stomping on the pedals and pointing as they notice new aspects. I particularly enjoyed St. Lucy’s disembodied eyes giggling wildly on their plate. Visitors are then invited to find the source paintings in the gallery and look at them in a new light.

So well done National Gallery and Michael Landy for such a fun, interesting, irreverent, noisy, challenging installation. I can only hope other nationals in London will take a cue from this! A little birdy tells the Ministry that the Science Museum is developing an exhibition on robots hopefully in the same vein mixing big questions and entertainment to think differently about our collections. More on that shortly…

'Saint's Alive' is a free exhibition at the National Gallery running until November 24th. 

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