It’s funny — I loved the show. It was playful and surprising and smart and I stayed for an hour and a half. I wanted to keep looking, and keep playing. Maybe it’s that Landy tickles a lot of my aesthetic fancies: rusty, mechanical, broken, noisy, creepy. Not to mention body-part relics. But also, there was a lot to look at. Each of the seven sculptures is huge: Saint Jerome is over ten feet high, the Catherine wheel that visitors can spin with a hand crank is almost twelve feet in diameter, and the “Multi-Saint” (an assemblage with recognizable pieces of Lawrence, Michael, Peter, Lucy, and Catherine) towered over me at fifteen feet. It’s not just the scale, though: as Asa notes, these saints are “junk machines,” built up from wheels and gears and wires and rubber and springs. That very fabricated-ness, the exposure of all the “working” parts (because they were in motion; all those parts spun and jostled and creaked and groaned) fascinated me. I walked round and round, straining on tiptoe and crouching low, to see knobs and plates, some looking like pirated toy parts and others like abandoned military gear, and smiled when I saw the rusty cog on the backside of St Jerome that read “British Made.”
What held me fast was the very thingliness of these sculptures, and the tension between the intricate and the obsolete in their innards. The drawings in the show had these same qualities. Some were “studies” for the sculptures, but they seemed more like multiple, differently-dimensioned versions. Others were collages (again, like the sculptures themselves, snipped from “real” paintings in the NG’s collection) such as “Nationalised Saints,” “Wounds of St Francis,” and (my favorite) “Every Catherine Wheel in the National Gallery.” Each of the collages collected all the wounds or wheels or heads and reassembled them in one place, on one body — artistic identity, style, period, and narrative be damned!
I was reminded of other artists who mesmerize me with scale, detail, surreal juxtaposition: Henry Darger, A.G. Rizzoli, Marcel Dzama. Worlds to get lost in, cabinets of curiosities. All antlers and body parts and gears. But I also felt there was something truly “medieval” about the Landy exhibition. Not necessarily in the appropriated images themselves; all of Landy’s sources are fifteenth century, and either Italian or Flemish. But certainly in the atmosphere, and in the ways Landy makes us interact with the sculptures. Noisy, rattling, and filled with visitors speaking various languages, each trying to get close to the saint: the gallery itself put me in mind of a medieval church on feast day. Of course, there was an economy of sanctity here, as there: for 2p I could watch Francis, atop a giant donation box, hit himself in the head with a crucifix. I did this over and over, happily parting with coin for the spectacle, paying for a bit of saintly action. Unfortunately the other Francis-machine — a massive headless kneeling figure — was inoperational during my visit. But on working days, a big metal arm drops into the saint’s open monastic cowl, coming up — like the Claw game at a carnival — sometimes empty, sometimes clutching a “Poverty, Chastity, Obedience” tee shirt for a lucky pilgrim. Er, museum visitor.
But beyond the fun and games, I was moved. Rather unexpectedly. By the Doubting Thomas. Fragments of two bodies are connected to a large, rusty base — on one side, Thomas’ hand with pointing finger; on the other the torso of Christ. The sparest composition for iconographic legibility! Like the Francis-Claw, the Doubting Thomas was broken when I visited, but this only made me more curious how it worked. Static, the two figures seemed held apart by thick air, an irresolvable moment. I looked closer, trying to work out how they moved, and what would happen when they did. There was a hole in the side of Christ. But not a clean hole, not like in pictures. This was a rough-edged crater, gouged into the fiberglass, spreading out from the deeper center like layers in a topographical model. All around were shallower scratches, petty violence. It took me a while (and some questions to the gallery attendants) to work out how the marks were made. Thomas’ finger is on a long, jointed metal rod; it jolts forward when the footpad-driven motor is activated. Christ’s torso is on a spring: he is a moving target, rocking back towards Thomas for more. And more.
Christ as vulnerable. Thomas as aggressive. Not only touching the wound, but making it, and making it worse. At the same time doubting, needing to verify, to keep touching. Poking, testing, tentative: lots of little cuts. Not a clean hole. I am not sure what, or how much, Landy intended with this piece, but I found it very poignant. Fun? You bet. But it also told me a lot about doubt, and about Thomas. Things I hadn’t thought about before, when I had looked only at paintings of the scene (or even the cloister pier at Santo Domingo de Silos, where Christ’s marvelously elongated arm should tell me that something emotional is going on). While Landy’s machines are certainly a kind of translatio — moving the saint’s body from the two-dimensional place of the painting to this new, three-dimensional space — they are also inventio. Or even revelatio.
In his essay for the catalogue to the show, Collin Wiggins writes that “Landy’s appropriation of the Christian saints and their stories does more than just revive these forgotten narratives, once so important to Western culture, and present them before an audience to whom they will be unfamiliar. He also encourages us to question the actual meaning of these curious tales, superficially charming and amusing, but grim and shocking in reality” (Michael Landy: Saints Alive, London, 2013, p. 34). Wiggins may be right about the audience’s unfamiliarity with the material, but I suspect he is wrong about their engagement with the stories. What Landy gives us is not narrative: he literally breaks the narrative apart, and leaves very little story here to dig in to. Instead, he gives us extremely embodied encounters with fragmentation, anxiety, scale, doubt, participation, desire, decay, wonder… encounters that — at least for me — are at the very heart of the medieval cult of saints.