Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Kitty Hauser Seven Artists from the John Kal­dor Fam­ily Col­lec­tion

Michael Landy, Michael Landy’s (Life­style) House­hold Contents (1998). John Kal­dor Fam­ily Col­lec­tion, Art Gallery of NSW, Syd­ney. In Fe­bru­ary 2001, Bri­tish artist Michael Landy pub­licly de­stroyed all of his be­long­ings in a work called Break Down. It’s the thing for which he is best known. For two weeks, Landy and his helpers dis­as­sem­bled, pulped and shred­ded his pos­ses­sions in the then re­cently va­cated C&A depart­ment store on Lon­don’s Ox­ford Street. More than 7000 items were de­stroyed: every­thing from wire coathang­ers to the artist’s car. His birth cer­tifi­cate went, his let­ters, pho­to­graphs, all of his clothes and all of his un­sold art­works to date. More than 40,000 peo­ple, most of them shop­pers pass­ing by, came to see what he was do­ing. Nearly six tonnes of crushed and gran­u­lated ma­te­rial went to land­fill.

The event was taken up by the mass me­dia and the church, mak­ing Landy saint or id­iot de­pend­ing on your view. Psy­chol­o­gists pon­tif­i­cat- ed about whether he would need ther­apy af­ter­wards. His mother cried, con­scious of the time and hard work it had taken her to ac­cu­mu­late the things she owned. Back­ers who had helped to fund it were an­noyed he did not — as promised — hand over bags of shred­ded stuff for their col­lec­tions. Some artists, in­clud­ing Tracey Emin (whose works were among those in Landy’s pos­ses­sion) thought it wrong to de­stroy art­works. Ar­guably this was the rea­son Landy was not nom­i­nated for the Turner Prize.

For Landy the project was the cul­mi­na­tion of a long-term fas­ci­na­tion with con­sump­tion, in­built ob­so­les­cence and waste. In­ter­ested in the ways our pos­ses­sions de­fine us, he wanted to see what would be left if they were all taken away. As cu­ra­tor Ju­dith Nes­bitt wrote, he wanted to see if it was pos­si­ble to de­tach “I am” from “I have”. And he wanted to do it pub­licly.

Break Down was com­mis­sioned by The Times of Lon­don and arts or­gan­i­sa­tion Ar­tan­gel, but Landy had been think­ing about the project for years. An ear­lier ver­sion called Michael Landy’s Life­style in­volved Landy do­ing pen-and-ink draw­ings of his things, ac­com­pa­nied by notes about them. There’s a comb here, a cheque book and a Sony tele­vi­sion set (“a panic buy”), along with ob­ser­va­tions about the work­ings of con­sumer cap­i­tal­ism. Some of th­ese draw­ings were bought by John Kal­dor and given to the Art Gallery of NSW as part of the John Kal­dor Fam­ily Col­lec­tion.

Landy found the process of de­stroy­ing his things elat­ing. He com­pared it to at­tend­ing his own funeral: “This is a cel­e­bra­tion of a life,” he said, “but I’m still alive.” For five min­utes or so he had no pos­ses­sions. Then some­one gave him a Paul Weller CD. And be­fore long he had to go shop­ping again: for un­der­wear, a shaver, to get new keys cut. Peo­ple sent him things, too: a Craig David al­bum, for in­stance. (“He’s not as good as David Bowie,” went the ac­com­pa­ny­ing let­ter, “but I quite like him.”)

It was his ex­pe­ri­ences of the kind­ness of strangers that led to Acts of Kind­ness, a project Landy brought to Aus­tralia for the Kal­dor Pub­lic Art Project in 2011 in part­ner­ship with Art and About. Landy col­lected sto­ries of com­pas­sion­ate or gen­er­ous ges­tures from across Syd­ney’s CBD and mapped them out in an in­stal­la­tion at Martin Place and across 200 sites.

is at the Art Gallery of NSW un­til April 26 next year.

Pen and ink on pa­per, 70.5cm x 100cm

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