Monday, 23 September 2013


NATIONAL GALLERY until 24th November

 2013, Mixed media; 282 x 76 x 86 cm,
Michael Landy, courtesy of the Thomas Dane Gallery, London
              / Photo: The National Gallery, London

Should I - or should I not - take my young grandsons to see this exhibition? On the one hand, it's not likely that they will get to see Jean Tinguely's hilarious and mesmerising mechanical sculptures any day soon in this country. This Swiss kinetic sculptor is best known for work which cobbles together junk, is dangerous, is fun, and critiques the excesses of our society. In 1984 when Landy saw Tinguely's work in the Tate he loved it. 'Everyone had smiles on their faces’.
Now as Artist-in-Residence at the National Gallery Landy has had the chance to build seven kinetic sculptures representing seven stories of popular saints. (What is it about the number seven - it's everywhere in folk tales and rhymes?) They're made from recycled machinery, broken children’s toys and unwanted junk, and casts from details in the National Gallery's paintings. The number of visitors at any one time is restricted so that everyone has a chance to pull the levers, wrench the wheels and stamp on the foot pedals to get each machine going. It is not a silent show: it screeches and rattles and howls. It is visceral and theatrical in a way that painting cannot be. It's great fun.

What's not to like? Well, St Apollonia is said to have been tortured by having her teeth pulled out. Here she keeps raising pliers to her face, chipping away at the plaster. She destroys a little more of herself each time, reminding us that martyrdom is often embraced with fortitude rather than avoided at all costs. St Jerome beats his chest with a rock, rather than sitting mildly in some peace-laden library with a dozy lion, the way he's usually shown. Most disturbing of all is a story taken straight out of St John's Gospel where St Thomas's finger is shown repeatedly trying to probe the wounded torso of Christ.

What's not to like about these cartoon characters? I respect the power of myths, believing that they can speak the unspeakable, reaching parts words cannot reach. Laura Cummings (see Guardian review below) writes of the show as 'a tremendous event that seizes the viewer, involving us in a spectacle of passion, conviction, suffering and belief driven both literally and mechanically by violence. Their true subject, in this respect, is awe'.

Are my grandsons ready for this? The answer is very probably.

 You may be able to find Adrian Hamilton's perceptive article Heavenly Bodies 20 September 2013 in the inewspaper.

This MOMA link describes one of Tinguely's works as:
'composed of bicycle wheels, motors, a piano, an addressograph, a go-cart, a bathtub, and other cast-off objects...the machine was set in motion on March 18, 1960, before an audience in the Museum’s sculpture garden. During its brief operation, a meteorological trial balloon inflated and burst, colored smoke was discharged, paintings were made and destroyed, and bottles crashed to the ground. A player piano, metal drums, a radio broadcast, a recording of the artist explaining his work, and a competing shrill voice correcting him provided the cacophonic sound track to the machine’s self-destruction—until it was stopped short by the fire department'.

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