Few artists see their work exhibited at the National Gallery during their lifetime. To many, the idea of modern art at the London landmark is disconcerting – a genre that belongs to the imposing, edgier Tate Modern across the Thames.

But Michael Landy’s Saints Alive exhibition is far from traditional. The unpredictable artist is famed for destroying all his possessions in 2001, in his Break Down exhibition – but not before meticulously cataloguing all 7,227 in detail. Landy admits contemporary art is regarded as an eyesore by stereotypical frequenters of the National, before adding: ‘I like eyesores’. Despite this avant-garde background, Landy was chosen as the Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist in residence at the gallery in 2010.

The only brief Landy was given was that his exhibition had to engage with the National Gallery’s collection. Thus the exhibition is juxtaposed to classical works, highlighting Landy’s intensely modern interpretation. Its violent nature could have been deleterious to understanding the paintings that inspired him, but in fact it brings out the serenity of the originals – making you to appreciate the pain behind the expressive beauty. Landy unites polar opposites – from Carlo Crivelli to the 1970s kinetic sculpture of Jean Tinguely.

Carlo Crivelli’s Saint Lucy (about 1476)

Landy had never visited the National Gallery prior to his appointment, and regarded it as ‘stuffy’. By responding to the gallery’s collection as an outsider, he has utterly broken that. Michael Craig-Martin has called Landy a ‘sophisticated innocent’. As a newcomer, he was drawn to the saints and martyrs; as an ‘innocent’ he noticed the physical and emotional details over the theological. He has made the saints kinetic in a way not seen before.

Landy first became fascinated with the saints when he repeatedly saw Saint Catherine with her wheel (Saint Catherine of Alexandria with a Donor (1480-1500), by Pintoricchio)

Saints Alive is an experience. Health and safety notices are pointed out before you visit (curators ‘wanted to avoid the torso of Christ hitting the public in the face’). I jumped out of my skin after pushing an innocent-looking pedal which made a gigantic sculpture of Saint Apollonia rock fiercely after bashing her mouth with pliers.

The concentrated exhibition contains seven huge sculptures, climbing up like distorted fairground figures, mimicking horror-movie dolls. A personal favourite was the body of Saint Francis – gigantic and kneeling – with an industrious, rusted crane constantly taking of his body to try and give. It was here that I felt the symbolism of saints the strongest.

The Stigmatisation of Saint Francis,1437-44, by Sassetta, which inspired my favourite sculpture in the exhibition

Michael Landy with his Saint Francis of Assisi sculpture, my favourite in the collection

Statues are assembled with one of Landy’s artistic hallmarks: refuse. He has scoured car boot sales and flea markets, accumulating old machinery to construct the works. Landy says he feels ‘like Baron Frankenstein, digging around getting various body parts from different parts of the Renaissance.’ In a short film we see torsos sawn apart to make his sculptures – a martyrdom of the saints yet again, this time in the name of art.

Accompanying collages combine elements of Picasso’s distortion with classical painting and greyscale line-drawing. Components are made bold and surreal on blank white canvas – psychedelic cogs tear renaissance torsos apart.

Michael Landy at work on Saints Alive

Violence pervades the exhibition. Landy has worked solely with martyrdom: he satirizes the arrow piercing Saint Sebastian’s body by multiplying hundreds of them across one perfectly sculpted torso; fate is arbitrarily decided on a spiked martyr’s fortune wheel, inspired by Saint Catherine; Saint Francis doubles as a donation box, and strikes himself with a cross when coins are received, as if pain is what the giver wants. I was left confused about what the overt brutality meant – modern media may anaesthetise society to violence to an extent, but in Saints Alive it seemed almost unnecessarily explicit.

Paired with religion, the violence engenders uneasy tension. Landy expected religious controversy. He fell in love with the saints’ stories as an artist – not a Christian – affectionately calling them ‘barmy’. Martyrdom is inherently paradoxical: the saints seem to destroy themselves in the name of furthering faith in God, but by doing so in such brutal fashions often diminish belief.

As mirrored in his sculptures, Landy thinks the saints have been discarded. He argues ‘we’ve forgotten about them and they’ve been junked, really.’ Saints Alive tries to regenerate them for another audience. The saints of Saints Alive seem desperate: the sculptures begin to destroy themselves with the force of pedals and buttons visitors push, worn out trying to prove their faith.

Landy said of Saints Alive that ‘you can’t dictate how people interpret artwork’. He was unsure of what people’s reaction would be, and yet I am unsure of my own. The vitality Landy has brought to the National is exhilarating and fascinating, but the saints don’t necessarily seem more ‘alive’ to me. Landy has transformed fragments from altarpieces into destructive modern art: to me, this made the saints seem deader than ever.

The sculptures of Saints Alive

‘Saints Alive’ by Michael Landy is exhibited at the National Gallery until 24 November 2013.

To discover the paintings in the National Gallery that inspired Landy’s work, visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk/visiting/printed-trails/michael-landy-trail.

With thanks to the National Gallery, the Guardian and the Telegraph for photos.

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