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LETTER FROM LONDON: Leo Walford on Break Down, Michael Landy’s recent Artangel project

Break Down by Michael Landy was organised by Artangel at the old C&A Building, Oxford Street, London February 10-24, 2001.
Find out more about Break Down at the Artangel website

all images © Artangel

“Burn what you love and love what you burn”

'What is he going to do now?' has been the response of most people I have spoken to about Michael Landy since Break Down, his performance-cum-installation earlier this year at the old C&A building, the recently closed-down department store in the heart of London's shopping district. This question works on two levels: the artistic one - how will he top this? And the practical one - how will he live now?
In the last few years the work of 37-year old British artist Michael Landy has centred around issues of consumerism and waste. Break Down, a project organised by the innovative commissioning body Artangel, took this exploration to its logical conclusion. Landy has destroyed all his possessions. However, this has not been done with nihilistic rage, or random destructiveness, but in an extremely measured, organised, one could even say bureaucratic way.
Every one of the 7,006 things that he owned - from his car to a single postage stamp - was categorised, entered onto a database, labelled, and bagged.

The final, and public, part of this three year project took place over two weeks at C&A. Assisted by a team of helpers dressed in
matching blue overalls, Landy set about reducing everything to its component materials and then crushing or granulating these beyond recognition. In the same spirit of rigor as the cataloguing exercise, this destruction involved assembly-line efficiency.
Individual items in bags travelled round a conveyor belt in yellow plastic trays, periodically being removed, broken-down by the blue-overalled workers and replaced on the trays for Landy to select for further destruction. The amount of care taken seemed out of all proportion with the concept of throwing things away.  The insulation was stripped from wires, with the copper core going in one tray and the plastic in another. Large shredding and grinding machines were periodically started up to reduce these component parts of Landy's possessions even further. Henry Ford would have been impressed by the differentiation of tasks, the ergonomic layout and the industry of the set-up. Landy's anti-consumerist point was well-made simply in showing how difficult it is to get rid of things properly.
However, the installation seemed to work better on a more personal level, and I don't mean by that the exploration of Landy's personality. Seeing all his possessions travelling around in front of us seemed to say virtually nothing about him, except that he had the same sort of stuff that other people had. Some of his things obviously meant more to him than others, and there was a suggestion that he was a little peeved by the thoroughness with which operatives despatched his family photographs - scribbling on the faces
before tearing them up. But his possessions did not provide any sort of window into telling me what sort of a person Michael Landy is.
Until fifteen minutes before the end, his stereo system was used to provide a musical accompaniment, and presumably to allow him a last listen to his records, tapes and CDs before they were crushed. The last music played before his stereo was consumed was a David Bowie compilation. If there is any significance to the choice of this, then it is not obvious, but I will never again be able to hear those songs without thinking of Michael Landy, and I have considered buying the CD for just that purpose. This is what I mean about the personal impact of Break Down. In the time I spent looking at this installation - probably over four hours in total on two visits – I periodically wanted to rescue (for which read 'have for myself') some of his things, or to take a little bit of shredded paper or a knife blade as a souvenir. From time to time I wanted to add an item, or to provide him with a replacement copy of a book I saw about to be shredded. Some people seemed
actually offended by his decision to dispose of everything, suggesting that giving it to charity would be more appropriate. Others seemed hurt by his inclusion of works of art given to him by other artists (the reviewer in
Time Out magazine seemed especially miffed by the destruction of a Chris Ofili print that Landy had won in a competition in the magazine). Landy had got us to think about how we feel ownership for other people's possessions,
and how it's possible to think we have rights over stuff that we really don't have. He had also got us to want to interfere.
There was another aspect to this. As time was running out (and there was a nice, barbed comment here on the house/ garden/life make-over programmes which now dominate British TV, and which work to a fixed budget and timescale for transformation of room, garden or personality) the destruction became a little more hurried and a bit more frantic. With this haste, odd little bits of possession got missed, or weren't destroyed as carefully as they could have been. The most striking example of this was a fist-sized piece of fluff, that had once been part of Landy's father's sheepskin jacket (the possession seized on by the media as the symbol of the whole exercise). After being shredded separately from the waste, the coat was kept carefully on one side (to be exhibited later perhaps), but this fist-sized bit of fluff was missed. In many onlookers, this omission seemed to cause a certain resentment, as if the project was somehow invalidated by not being perfect. The ability of what is billed as a work of art to engender such a desire for control, and for perfection (in what, after all, was meant to be a destructive process) was fascinating.
Strangely, by destroying all his possessions in a methodical way, he made us think about our own desire for control, our wishes to interfere in the business of others and our own feelings of ownership over other people and
their things. I think this is quite an achievement. I can’t say Break Down particularly changed my consumerist tendencies (though the time spent watching probably  stopped me spending some money) but it did make me think about my attitudes to possessions, especially other peoples'. I don't really know anything more about Michael Landy having spent four hours with him, except that he has nothing now, and that he will be dogged by people wanting to know what he's going to make, or destroy next, or for that matter do with his acquisitions.

© Leo Walford 2001