British artist Michael Landy explains the inspiration behind his Saints Alive exhibition, which showed at the National Gallery in London in 2013 and recently moved to the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City.
How did you come up with the idea for the Saints Alive exhibition?
When I was artist-in-residence at the National Gallery in London between 2010 and 2013, I spent the first 12 months looking at the collection nearly every day. One of the first things that struck me was how many paintings in the collection depicted St Catherine's wheel – I actually did a drawing just of all the different Catherine wheels – and this then led me to becoming interested in looking at the saints from the Renaissance period.
I became fascinated by how people identify one saint from another through their visible attributes. You always see St Peter Martyr with a sword embedded in his head and a dagger in his chest. St Francis of Assisi has the stigmata of Christ, given to him by a seraph; and of course St Catherine has her wheel. In the times before people could read or write, they could differentiate saints through these visual indicators.
I am not a painter, and because 98 per cent of the collection is made up of paintings, I knew I would have to depict saints differently from how we are used to seeing them. That’s when I decided on the idea of making them come alive.
The mechanics of the sculptures look very complex. How did you build them? Had you worked with kinetic sculptures before?
St Jerome, the first saint I made, was quite rudimentary. He was built using old bits of junk, bicycle wheels, electric motors and pulleys. This was inspired by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures from the 1960s and '70s. I liked the idea that we as a culture have forgotten the idea of saints, and that I come along with this junk – which is also forgotten and neglected – and use it to bring the saints back to life.
I had previously made a kinetic credit card machine, which destroyed 400 credit cards during the Frieze Art Fair in 2012. The idea was that someone would give me their credit card and they would get a drawing made by the machine in exchange. The machine destroyed the card but gave a gift.
The exhibition brings to life the physical suffering and self-destructive qualities of the saints. Why were you drawn to that aspect?
I am drawn to the fact that the saints are martyrs. They are willing to go to their death for their convictions. They are also anarchic, like kinetic sculptures. I like that the public is involved with this persecution by pressing the buttons and pedals that create this violent destruction.
Are you nervous that people might be rough with the art, if they’re encouraged to touch it and crank levers?
At the National Gallery, people aren't allowed to touch things, but for me it was important that the public could interact with the work in a way that is different from how they negotiate looking at paintings. That’s why I reference an exhibition I saw back in 1982 at the Tate gallery by Jean Tinguely. At that exhibition I saw people laughing and smiling whilst interacting with sculptures made out of junk.
I like the fact that, by operating the machines, the general public are responsible for their destruction, and you can even come away with a t-shirt given out by St Francis.
The interactivity element with some of the sculptures seems to be reminiscent of arcade or fairground games. What's the significance of this reference?
That was intentional. I have a St Catherine’s wheel, which is three metres in diameter, based on the ‘spin the wheel’ game show device. My wheel is obviously based on the legend of St Catherine.
I also have a donation box based on a Sandro Botticelli painting of St Francis. You put a coin into the donation box and this operates a mechanism which makes him hit himself in the head with a crucifix; or your might win a t-shirt from my other St Francis, that is based on one of those coin machine games that scoops up cuddly toys.
How do you think the exhibition is viewed in Mexico, compared to in the UK?
In Mexico, people have a lot more faith. Saints are still a part of life – everybody has their favourite saint. For instance, there's a tradition in which a statue of St Anthony will be turned upside down until a single person finds a partner.
Every day as I walked to San Ildefonso, where the exhibition is being presented in Mexico City, I would pass through the markets selling saints statues, ornaments, pendants. I got a strong sense that people's faith there was very real, that they love their saints. I found that very humbling.
At the National Gallery, all my saints were in one space, whereas in San Ildefonso I had six spaces. It is also a former monastery, so bringing the work into a space that was originally a place of worship was almost like a 360-degree turn from exhibiting in a museum.