Studio Interview :
Michael Landy RA
Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist, National Gallery, London
At the end of May the National Gallery's Sunley Room will exhibit a dramatic series of new kinetic installation works by one of Britain's leading and most controversial Young British Artists, Michael Landy. He is the first YBA to be offered the Rootstein Hopkins Associate residency, in a show that runs concurrently with Frieze and the second edition of Frieze Masters 20113. Creating Landy's three-year residency as the National Gallery's eighth Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist, the works are based on the recycling of symbolic and iconographic fragments of religious Renaissance paintings, legends and discursive rhetoric on selective narratives as well as allegories of the venerated lives of the saints and their temporal manifestations.
Focusing on the portrayal of the legends of the lives of the saints and their allegorical stories, Landy’s epic installation of interactive sculptural works, drawings and collages is inspired by paintings of images from sawn-off fragments of ecclesiastical altarpieces located in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing (considered second most important in the world to those in the Uffizi in Florence). When these were made they were considered equally subversive when shown to the masses.
Transforming two-dimensional fragments of sacred religious Renaissance works, Landy’s idiosyncratic three-dimensional kinetic interactive vision features seven brightly painted fiber-cast resin sculptures. These mechanically spring to life as three-dimensional theater.
Incorporating his material hallmark, recycled objects, they also include drawings, collages and a three-meter “wheel of fortune” based on St Catherine of Alexandria’s “wheel of torture” (after Pintoricchio’s St Catherine of Alexandria with a Donor, c.1480-1500), which the public are invited to spin.
Landy's idiosyncratic recycling of iconoclastic symbolic religious works and the re-enactment of stories and venerated lives of the saints is based on his study of masterworks such as: Carlo Crivelli’s St Jerome, the Patron Saint of Translators (c. 1476, part of the group of four panels from an altarpiece by Ascoli Piceno); Lucas Cranach the Elder (c.1472-1553), The St. Catherine Altarpiece (1506, from the back wings of an altarpiece featuring Saints Genevive and Apollonia); Sasetta’s The Stigmatisation of Saint Francis, Patron Saint of Animals (c. 1437-44, the back of a large two-sided polytych, made for the high altar of San Francesco, Borgo Sansepolcro); Sandro Botticelli’s St Francis of Assisi with Angels (c. 1475-80); and Cosimo Tura’s depiction of Saint Jerome (from an altarpiece, c.1470, which portrays Saint Jerome beating his breast with a stone while praying after spending time in the desert of Chalcis after repenting his sins).
In the run up to the show, Pippa Jane Wielgos visited Michael Landy at his studio at the National Gallery, and asked him how he went about translating two-dimensional iconic Renaissance works into a three-dimensional contemporary form. The artist commented as follows:
“As I wandered through the galleries, the first thing that struck me was Saint Catherine, the patron saint of learning, the frequency she appears in the collection. I started to jot down all the paintings she would appear in, either her or the fragment of the wheel. I then started to read about Saint Catherine and became really interested in the stories in The Golden Legend (a historical work by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275, first published 1470).
I spent one year looking at the collection — so my studio at the National Gallery was not used for the first year of my residency.
I began by copying and drawing Dossio Dossi’s Lamentation over the Body of Christ (c. 1510-20) and the theme of “Christ driving traders from the temple.” These were drawings done in the studio, rather than the gallery. I did consider doing them in the gallery, but refrained, as that would be more like performance art.
I liked the idea of drawing from postcards and photographs, so that’s basically how I began. After observing the work, I felt that you couldn’t see enough of me in them so I stopped for a few months and then it struck me that I would make a work of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, taken from St Catherine of Alexandria with a Donor by Pintoricchio (c. 1480-1500).
I drew all the wheels in the collection of Saint Catherine (which I think number 38), so initially the composition of the work began to look like a big yard of wheels! The second chosen saint was Saint Jerome (based on its sawn off counter-part in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan).
My works contain self-destructive elements. For instance, Doubting Thomas, based on The Incredulity of St Thomas by Giovanni Batista Cima da Conegliano (c. 1459-60). In that work Doubting Thomas’s finger impales Christ’s stigmata — so in the enactment of my sculpture the chest moves and eventually through repetition (mimesis) of the destructive act the work will destroy itself. Similarly, Saint Apollonia self-defaces herself by using the instruments of torture. Other works featured include a three-meter wheel based on the wheel of Saint Catherine, encrypted with St Catherine’s legend, which can be spun.
I like working with the concept of juxtaposing abstract and disparate elements and taking anatomical elements of different scale. For instance, an arm, a chest and variegated abstract of proportions in two- and three-dimensional form, that animate themselves, can be seen in my work based on Cosimo Tura’s St Jerome, who literally beats himself.
As I don’t paint, I had to find another way into the works, so it’s the reinterpretation of the symbols and attributes that are important. My work is not without an interest in the elements of drawing. For example, I made a series of etchings of plants, Nourishment, published by Paragon Press (2002), featuring twelve etchings currently held by the British Council, which have their own attributes, so transference from one media to the next is a similar thing.
The works during my residency and in the show are my reaction to the collection. I didn’t previously know the National Gallery collection so, for me, it’s been an education with certain revelations. For instance, the reoccurrence of St Jerome and St Catherine in the collection formed a kind of construct over time; I am reinterpreting the collection for my own ends.
Regarding my role as an artist, it is I who decides. Sometimes I am more public; other times I am an artist locked away in a studio. At the end of the day, it’s about existence. Obviously, as an artist, your legacy is what you leave behind. A lot of what I do ends up in rubbish tips — I claim that in my life as an artist, as that of the sacred life of the saints, they, like the artist, will take their cause to the bitter end.
However, what really interests me with regard to the display will be the extent of public engagement and the interactive nature of the exhibition in a public place. Through kinetic sculpture, collage and interactive works, I wanted to engage the public in a different way as to how people look at paintings.
I haven’t been part of an institution since being at Goldsmith’s, and my specific role has been to react to and interpret the collection.”
Extracts from an interview between Michael Landy RA and Pippa Jane Wielgos, The National Gallery, London, 13 March 2013.
On-site studio interview 13 March 2013 at the National Gallery, London.
Published "Flash Art", 8 May 2013.
© Pippa Jane Wielgos.