Saints Alive!, an exhibition in the National Gallery of London by Michael Landy, exposes the mechanical figures of popular saints such as Saint Apollonia, Saint Catherine, Saint Jerome and Saint Francis of Assis, among others. Embodying the iconographic elements of these saints, Landy explores the flagellation and sanctity of the holy figures in a reproduction of their moments of torture, such as with Saint Jerome, the father of all hermits who isolated himself in the deserts to translate the Bible, who constantly beats himself with a rock against his chest, or Saint Apollonia, whose teeth were pulled out with a pair of pliers, rocking back and forth upon the entrance of the exhibition, picking her teeth with the pliers she holds in her hands.
The composition of these saints itself is a collage of renaissance masters such as Botticelli, Crivelli, Pintoricchio. Elements of the classical representations of Florentine or Venetian influence are applied into a mechanical blueprint and transformed into a three-dimensional experience of sanctity. The sculptures, however, do not act upon themselves. Saint Apollonia requires that a button is pressed and Saint Jerome only beats himself with a rock if the visitor presses a pedal on the floor. It thus require an emancipation from the audience.
According to Landy himself,
“I recreate the saints like Frankenstein’s monster. I take an arm from one painting, a chest from somewhere else – all in different proportions. And then with the help of Tinguely, with the wheels and the motors, I make them into a kind of kinetic Renaissance sculpture.”
It’s an interesting conception of Christian art, a theme that seems to be further away with time. By placing these bigger-than-real-life sculptures in a sort of kinetic room, Landy gives life to the martyrdoms of the people who inspired believers throughout the medieval age and the renaissance into faith. The fragility of these sculptures are also reminiscent of the saint’s lives - in time, they will have fallen into pieces. Landy himself envisioned it:
“I like the idea that by the end of it, it’ll be a junk heap, and they’ll all have fallen apart.”
However, constructed from bits-and-pieces of junkyard material, stuffed inside a gallery, the saints are given their sufferings back. But even more than that - the visitor, captivated by the mechanical movement of the sculpture itself, since it is required his interaction so the martyrdom works, becomes a witness of the suffering of the saint. And the viewer’s emancipation towards the work of art becomes a sort of complicity.