Saints Alive

Today we visited the Wallace Collection, which is overpoweringly rococo and needs to make more of a fuss about the incredibly rare horse armour it casually keeps shoved at the back, and the National Gallery, and Selfridges (which needs to be smaller and contain fewer loud people) and Primark (which needs to just not).

One thing I wasn’t aware of, and I don’t know how many people were, is that the National Gallery seems to be doing an artist in residence thing and has been doing one for some time. I found that out today because we stumbled across an exhibition of Michael Landy‘s work in response to the collection, “Saints Alive”.

It was a very playful response, a series of Monty Python-esque mechanical, interactive statues which distilled the saints down into their distinguishing characteristics, although in the accompanying video detailing the process of bringing about the collection, the surprisingly personable artist cited Jean Tinguely‘s kinetic art as his other inspiration. The brainstorming designs created along the route to a giant model of (among other things) a headless St Francis of Assisi  with a funfair grabber trying to remove his innards and failing are also on display, and are what lured us in: they contain several disembodied torsos of St Sebastian, heavily peppered with additional arrows. During the queuing time (which was just long enough to discourage a couple of people in front of us) I amused myself by trying to identify all the artists who had painted the torsos that were visible through the door.

Sebastian, however, is not featured among the saints in the exhibition. Those are St Catherine of Alexandria, represented by a giant torture wheel (which can be turned by the visitors to allow them to read all of the inscriptions); St Apollonia, who yanks out her own teeth with pliers when the visitor stands on a pedal; St Francis features twice, once in headless fairground form and once as a violent self-harmer, beating himself in the face with a crucifix when a visitor puts money in his collection tray; St Jerome, who is headless and graced with an abdomen made of wheels, beats himself on the chest with a stone in response to the press of a pedal; St Thomas the Doubter jabs the disembodied torso of Jesus so violently with his disembodied hand that Christ (who is mounted on a spring) was Out of Order when we got in around 6pm. Hopefully he will be back to bouncing about soon. The installation called “multi-saint” is a confusing mass of saintly influences, including St Lawrence’s griddle, St Lucy’s eyes, St Peter Martyr’s head, and St Michael’s feet. The midriff contains several wheels, one of which was apparently St Catherine’s: it is less concrete and more randomly violent than the others.

I would say that on its own the exhibition was good fun, entertaining and mildly blasphemous stuff: obviously as the curator of Fuck Yeah, St Sebastian I am no stranger to interest in the saints and to a less than holy perspective on them. I found it light-hearted, charming, and unchallenging, but I think the inclusion of a video introducing the artist (who cuddled a dog throughout his pieces to camera) and the process of responding to the collection was what made queuing truly worthwhile. Understanding what brings someone to a particular conclusion and the methods they use is something which for obvious reasons doesn’t come up much in the little plaques by artwork in the gallery.

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