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