Monday, July 29, 2013

Telling Stories

St. Genevieve & St. Apollonia,
from the National Gallery. Note the
pliers, and tooth.
I feel besieged by gruesome tales of late: of young women held captive and abused for years; of alienated young men with an affinity for gunning down innocent victims. We share this collection of fables with each other, seeking to understand our human existence with its undercurrent of fear and anxiety fed by the media. These stories also disengage our focus from nefarious acts perpetrated by our corporations, institutions and governments.

Stories of evil are nothing new. Long before FOX News there were artists, and the Church, and between them they perpetrated sensational stories that resonated in the same vein: tales of horror, torture and abuse, with a purpose and a warning: morality lessons, as it were. They once invaded the collective consciousness the way FOX News, the New York Times and CNN do today.  

In London recently I saw Michael Landy’s exhibit Saints Alive at the National Gallery. Landy was invited as artist-in-residence to stage an exhibition reflecting the museum’s collection. He spent countless hours immersed in this major collection of European paintings, sketching and copying works from medieval Italians to French Impressionists, honing his unique response.

More than visual images, Landy was viewing stories in paint. The majority of medieval works have religious themes, which continued through the Renaissance and beyond. Many tell stories of Christian saints, their martyrdom or self-inflicted violence. A theme thus emerged which Landy has brought to life in Saints Alive.
St. Jerome & his rock.
From the National Gallery
Over centuries, perhaps accelerating in recent decades, these stories have faded from the collective consciousness. As these stories are lost to time, Landy has reconstructed a few in a way that makes them unforgettable.

Composing body parts based on old paintings combined with industrial salvage, Landy has masterminded larger-than-life sculptures . These giant figures inflict their torment upon themselves – but only at our command. The interactive exhibit invites the viewer to set the violence in motion through the push of a pedal.  

We first see an 8-foot tall Saint Apollonia, based upon this painting by Luis Cranach the Elder from 1506 (above). Landy has fashioned our saint in her red dress, clutching pliers in which she holds a tooth. Poor virginal Apollonia was attacked by a mob who yanked out her teeth and invited her to renounce her faith or be burned on a pile of sticks. As the story goes, she jumped on the sticks. Today she is the patron saint of toothaches and dentists.
Step on an industrial foot pedal peeking out from under her dress, and the giant saint whacks herself in the mouth with her oversized pliers, chipping away at her plaster face with a loud bang. It’s a shocking interaction, as is the nearby life-sized St. Francis, who whacks himself on the forehead with a crucifix upon the deposit of a coin. Other icons show us of St. Lucy, who plucked her own eyes out and sent them to an admirer, and St. Jerome, a hermit in the Syrian desert, who beat himself with a rock to stave off impure sexual thoughts.

The scale and mechanics of these larger-than-life Saints, with the racket of their machinations, makes a startling impression, generating a cacophony rarely heard in the hushed world of the museum. I found myself laughing – these stories of torment are turned into parodies by their scale and haphazard assembly and clanging mechanics. Have we moved beyond the morality tale? Do we no longer need to beat ourselves with rocks to avoid impure thoughts? Or do we no longer need to avoid impure thoughts? These stories were told and retold for centuries, while the Church refined its own blend of torment and abuse, sanctioning violence and protecting pedophiles. Taken outside the purview of the church, when we reserve our horror for individual tales of violence courtesy of the media, are we blinded to the institutionalized abuses taking place? This is a thought-provoking exhibition and worth the visit. (for information visit