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State of the Art

Contemporary art

Art history

The man who destroyed all his


belongings
ADVERTISEMENT

A new exhibition in Basel presents the work of Michael Landy,


who, in 2001, famously destroyed everything he owned as a
piece of performance art. Alastair Sooke meets him.

ByAlastairSooke
14July2016

Onedayinthe90stheBritishartistMichaelLandycameupwitharadical

conceptforanartwork:hedecidedtodestroyeverysingleoneofhis
possessionsinpublic.Theideawassimple.Butexecutingitprovedsurprisingly
complex.So,inordertomakeithappen,heteamedupwithArtangel,thenon
profitartsorganisation,whichspecialisesinrealisingextraordinaryoneoff
projectswithcontemporaryartists,andsettowork.
Threeyearslater,in2001,havingcompiledanexhaustiveinventoryofhis
belongingsthatranto7,227items,hefoundhimselfstandinginanemptyshop
inOxfordStreetincentralLondon.Beforehim,inyellowtraysplacedupona
conveyorbelt,werethebelongingsthathehadamassedoverhis37years,
destinedforlandfill.

"
Whentheyhadfinished,theartistownednothingat
all,apartfromtheblueboilersuithewaswearing
Duringthecourseoftwoweeks,everysingleoneclothes,loveletters,
artworks,hisSaab900Turbocar,evenhisfatherssheepskincoatwas
stripped,shredded,crushed,dismantled,orotherwisedestroyedbyLandyand
histeamof12assistants,whilelisteningtoDavidBowieandJoyDivision.When
theyhadfinished,theartistownednothingatall,apartfromtheblueboilersuit
hehadbeenwearingthroughout.HecalledtheprojectBreakDown.

In2001,MichaelLandydestroyedallofhisbelongingsincludinghisSaab900Turbocar
(Credit:BreakDown,MichaelLandy,2001.AnArtangelcommission/ParisaTaghizadeh)

Itwasthehappiesttwoweeksofmylife,Landytoldmerecently,speaking
shortlyaftertheopeningofOutofOrder,hisraucousmidcareerretrospective
attheMuseumTinguelyinBasel,whichfeaturesampledocumentationofBreak
Down.Atmoments,admittedly,IfeltlikeIwaswitnessingmyowndeath,
becausepeopleIhadntseenforyearswouldturnup,andIthought,Well,
theydonlyturnupformyfuneral.ButoftenIdidfeelrealelation.Noonehad
everdestroyedalltheirworldlybelongingsbefore.
Dyingofconsumption
Fifteenyearson,BreakDownwhichremainsLandysbestknownworkis
consideredaprovocativemasterpieceofrecentBritishart.Moreover,because
consumerismintheWesthasonlyacceleratedsince2001witness,for
instance,theriseofYouTubevloggerssuchasZoellawhodevoteentirevideos
torummagingthroughshoppingbagsinordertocelebratehighstreethaulsit
hasalsocometoseemremarkablyprescient.

Landystandsinfrontoftheexhaustivecatalogueofhis7,227ofhisbelongingsinthe
endallthatremainedwashisblueboilersuit(Credit:MichaelLandy/ParisaTaghizadeh)

Weseeartworksthroughtheprismofourcurrentconcerns,explainsJames
Lingwood,whocommissionedBreakDown,andhasjustcelebrated25brilliant
yearsascodirectorofArtangel.Theinsistentpressuresonpeopletoconsume
havebecomemoreandmorepresentinourculture,andthereisanincreasing
feelingofdiscomfortabouthowalienatingthesepressurescanbe.Michael,
throughBreakDown,puthisfingeronadeeplytroublingpartofour
contemporarycondition.

"
BreakDownwasakindofbonfireofthevanitiesfor
the21stCentury
Atthetime,though,thereactiontoBreakDownwasambivalent.Itwasstaged
inaformerbranchoftheDutchfashionchainC&A(thesamebuildingnow
housesabranchoflowcostclothingretailerPrimark).Thatwastheperfect
placeforit,Landysays,becauseitwasntsetinanartgallerybutaplace
wherepeoplegotoconsume.Moreover,becauseittookplaceonOxford

Street,themeccaofconsumerisminBritain,asLingwoodputsit,people
wanderedinunawarethattheywereabouttoencountercontemporaryart.At
first,theyassumedthattheyhadenteredsomekindofsale.AccordingtoLandy,
oneortwolittleoldladiesevenbroughtbackclothesthattheyhadboughtin
C&Asclosingdownsale.ButasobserverswatchedLandyspossessionsgoing
pastonmechanisedrollers,andsawallthestuffbeingsmashedup,theywere,
saysLingwood,deeplyunsettledandsometimesappalled.

Landysfatherssheepskincoatwasamongtheitemsshredded,torn,smashedand
pulverised(Credit:MichaelLandy/ParisaTaghizadeh)

Whyappalled?Well,hereplies,itsnotverydifficult,formanypeople,to
witnessthedestructionofhouseholdobjectssuchascrockery.Buttoseethe
destructionofpersonalmementoes,letters,photographs,worksofartthatis
deeplydisturbing.
Smashingeffort
Asaresult,evenwhenthevenuecontainedthousandsofvisitors,themoodwas
oftensombre,aspeoplebegantothinkabouttheirownrelationshipswith
possessionsandobjects.Ononelevel,BreakDownwasakindofbonfireofthe
vanitiesforthe21stCentury,excoriatingthewasteandexcessoftheWest.In

asense,themessagewas:whereareweheading?Landyexplains.Themore
stuffpeoplehave,themoresuccessfulweperceivethemtobebutifweall
endupwith7,227things,thenwewonthaveaplanet.

"
Therewassomethingexhilaratingaboutseeing
somebodyliberatingthemselvesfromthetyrannyof
ownershipJamesLingwood
Inaddition,BreakDownfunctionedasacontemporarymementomori:allofus,
todifferingdegrees,usepossessionstoconstructouridentitiesandproject
ourselvestoothersyetherewasamanwilfullyobliteratinghismaterial
existencetothepointoftotalannihilation.
Atthesametime,saysLingwood,Therewassomethingexhilaratingabout
seeingsomebodyliberatingthemselvesfromthetyrannyofownership.The
workpointedintwodirectionsandperhapsthatswhereitsgeniuslay.

Ateamof12assistantshelpedLandydestroyhispossessionsintheoldC&Astorein
LondonsOxfordStreet(Credit:MichaelLandy/ParisaTaghizadeh)

Indeed,LingwoodbelievesthatBreakDownwasntsimplyafrontalattackon
consumerism,butsomethingabitmorecomplexabouttherelationship
betweenwhoweareandwhatwepossessanddesire.Ofcourse,BreakDown
wasaboutWesternsocietysobsessionwithstuffandownership.Butitwasalso
aboutamoreexistentialquestion,whichwas:whoamI?
Landy,himself,saysthatBreakDownwaspartlyaselfportrait:thetitleeven
playedontheideaoftheartistexperiencingamidlifecrisis.Theinventorythat
hepreparedforit,whichassignedcataloguenumberstoeachofhis
possessions,andtookmorethanayeartocompile,iscurrentlyondisplayinthe
formofagiganticlistonawallintheMuseumTinguely.Landywasadamant
thathehadtoincludeeverythingIownedevenbitsofmouldyplasticthathad
fallenofftheVCR.Accordingly,hisindexincludestedioustalliesofmundane
objectsincludingmatchboxes,wirewool,toiletroll,andplasticbags.
But,hereandthere,intimate,andsometimestongueincheek,allusionsto
Landysrelationshipswithloversandfriendscanbefound.ItemR3356,for
instance,wasahandwrittennotetohispartner,theartistGillianWearing,
askinghernottoleavetowelson[the]bathroomfloor.R3409,meanwhile,was
hisfineartdegreethesisthattheartistAbigailLane,anexgirlfriend,andfellow
studentatGoldsmithsartschoolineastLondon,waspaid100.00towriteon
hisbehalf.

Itemscirculatedonaconveyorbeltinyellowtraysbeforeeachwasremovedand
destroyed(Credit:MichaelLandy/ParisaTaghizadeh)

TherearealsoreferencestoearlierartworksbyLandysuchasMarket(1990),
oneofthreemajorinstallationsprecedingBreakDownthataskedsimilarly
searchingquestionsaboutvalueandsociety.(TheothertwowereClosingDown
Sale(1992)andScrapheapServices(1995).)LandycreatedMarketafter
graduatingfromGoldsmiths,wherehebelongedtothegeneration,alongside
DamienHirst,thatwouldbecomeknownastheYoungBritishArtists.The
installationtooktheformoftemporarymarketstalls,cobbledtogetheroutof
plasticbreadcratesandartificialgrass,arrangedinavast,disusedbuildingin
eastLondon.Ordinarily,humdrumstallslikethesewouldbeusedtosellfruit
andvegetables,butLandysmarketwaseerilyempty.
InBasel,recreatedstallsfromMarkethavebeenplacedthroughoutthe
retrospective,whichfollowsnochronologicalorder,butinsteadmixesup
Landysartworksanarchically.TheMarketstallsgelthedisparateelements
together,Landyexplains,liketherollinghillsoftheEnglishcountryside.
Personaleffects
WhileplanningBreakDown,Landyspentalongtimeconsideringhowheshould

destroyhispossessions:Ididntwantsomeonejusttosetaboutitallwitha
baseballbat,hesays,orsetthewholethingonfire,likeafuneralpyre.Inthe
end,hedecidedtomockupamaterialsreclamationfacility,withdismantling
baysand100mofconveyorbeltarrangedinafigureofeight,likeaScalextric
set.Thatway,hesays,Peoplecouldactuallyseewhatwasintheselittle
yellowtraysforabout10minutesastheytravelledaroundthebelt.

Landyscorrespondencefromthebanaltotheintimatewasrunthroughashredder
(Credit:MichaelLandy/ParisaTaghizadeh)

Whenitwasallover,Landyquicklydiscoveredthatconsumerismwas
unavoidable:Withinaboutfiveminutes,hesays,someonehadgivenmea
PaulWellerCD.Helaughs.Obviously,IdidnthaveaCDplayertoplayiton.

"
Havingthings,creatingthingsthatspartlywhat
makesushuman
But,hecontinues,heneverpromisedtoremovehimselffromsocietyaltogether,
inthemannerofChristiansaints,suchasFrancisofAssisi,whorenounced

worldlygoods.Itisaveryhumancharacteristictopossessthings,Landysays.
Havingthings,creatingthingsthatspartlywhatmakesushuman.Besides,
BreakDownwasaworkofart,notawayoflife.
Unsurprisingly,perhaps,Landysstudio,onthegroundfloorofthetownhouse
thatheshareswithWearinginShoreditchineastLondon,isaminimalistspace
withbarewhitewashedwallsandapolishedconcretefloor.Evenso,thisempty
roomstillcontainsadeskwithspeakersandacomputer,atastefulgreysofa,
andalargebookshelffilledwithpublicationsaboutart.Thereisalso,currently,a
scalemodelthatLandyusedtoplanhisexhibitioninBasel.Someonelookedat
this,hetellsme,andsaid,Forsomeonewhodestroyedeverything,youvegot
alotofstuff.Hechuckles.Thetruthis,itsverydifficulttoescape
consumerisminWesternsociety.Infact,itsalmostlikebreathing:youcant.
AlastairSookeisArtCriticoftheDailyTelegraph.
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