The Mechanics of Being Holy [I, II, III]

Michael Landy’s show Saints Alive—including seven massive kinetic sculptures of saints “in action” and a handful of sketches and collages—opened at the National Gallery in London this summer. As an artist in residence at the NG, Landy was charged with making new work inspired by the collection. He took figures and details from medieval and Renaissance paintings in the Gallery, cast them in three-dimensions, and reassembled them with refuse parts (old machinery, cogs, wheels) into postmodern hagiographic collages. Visitors to the exhibition can bring the sculptures to creaky, noisy, lurching life by turning cranks and pressing foot pedals. Of course, the Material Collective could not resist! Several of us visited the show this summer, and here three of us give (very different!) responses to the show:

Saints Alive, was, for me, a disappointment, but one worth a bit of thought.

Read the full review by Asa Simon Mittman

What held me fast was the very thingliness of these sculptures, and the tension between the intricate and the obsolete in their innards.

Read the full review by Karen Overbey

I loved ‘Saints Alive’ because of the ways in which Landy’s collection of ‘rusty, mechanical, broken, noisy, creepy’ sculptures (as Karen suggests) blurred boundaries between viewer and participant, between the medieval and the (post)modern, between ‘art’ and ‘gimmick,’ and most importantly, between mechanisms and bodies.

Read the full review by Samantha Langsdale (Guest Blogger)

Saints Alive is at the National Gallery, London, through 24 November 2013.

Check out these excellent images of the installation (via, and these of Landy at work on the drawings and collages. In this clip, the artist talks about his working process. And in the longer video below, you can see the sculptures tested out in the fabricator’s studio.

Michael Landy, Saint Apollonia (de-faced), Photographic Paper and Catalogue pages on paper, 42.9×37.4cm.


2 Responses to “The Mechanics of Being Holy [I, II, III]”

  1. Ben Tilghman October 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    There’s a lot to chew on here. I saw the show, too, about the same time as Karen did, and I was at first pretty disappointed that many of the Saint-Machines weren’t working when I was there. But it made me think of John Updike describing Ted Williams: “Gods do not answer letters.” It’s mortals who owe obeisance to saints, not the other way around. All of it made me wonder how much Landy had looked into the history of the cult of saints and the role of art in it. Does he know David Freedburg’s work? Or the theology and phenomenology of Byzantine icons? My intuition is that he doesn’t, but so much of this fits so well with that work.

    I disagree with Asa that Landy’s brash machines are a failed attempt to match up to the absorbing qualities of Bosch. I mean, I’m not going to argue that Landy is just as great an artist, but I think we need to account for the sensory environments of the different works. Landy’s machines were designed with the National Gallery in mind, and they do a fine job of sticking out against both its noisy, swirling hallways and quieter galleries, which I’m sure was the intent. Bosch’s painting certainly was not conceived for a gallery space, and it is ill-served by it unless you happen to be as sensitive a viewer as Asa (or Bill Viola, for that matter). But imagine it in a domestic setting, or in a small chapel, visited and seen on a daily basis, under changing light and emotional states. It might not have taken such a feat of stillness as Asa describes, but might, in fact, have, somewhat passive-aggressively, enforced it.

  2. Jennifer Borland October 21, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    I didn’t see the show, but I just wanted to say how much I love the way these three posts create a dialogue – they make the show sound much more interesting than one post alone could have done. Thanks!

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