If I’m honest, I’m a bit of a hoarder. I know I really need to start throwing things out, but somehow I don’t get round to it. And being an artist gives me an extra excuse, or so I tell myself. I have all kinds of junk squirreled away as stuff I might sometime use to make work. Yeah, right. But however much I know I need a clear out and however much I like art that is driven by obsession – a lot, on both counts – I know I could never have made Break Down. The extremity of Michael Landy’s project fascinates and terrifies me in equal measure.
Michael Landy started by going through all his possessions and making an inventory. (Well, in fact he started by making drawings and writing a proposal, I would think, but lets not go in to the way projects like this get commissioned or how artists think ideas through using drawing. That’s for another day, perhaps.) There were over 7,000 items on it including his own work and art he owned by other people, the contents of his studio, all his clothes, books, furniture etc. And then he destroyed it. All of it. Everything he owned. Except his cat. (But then there’s a strong argument that says cats own us rather than the other way around, so really there’s no conceptual failing in letting the cat survive.)
Items were bagged and tagged with their inventory references. A production line – or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a destruction line – was set up in a large empty shop – once C&A, now Primark – on Oxford Street – probably London’s best known shopping street – and overalled operatives were engaged to dismantle, shred and smash everything.
The result was a mass of stuff. Bags and bags of paper, metal, cloth and pretty much any other material you can think of. Of course there would have been a temptation to sell it off as art but then the process would have been about transformation rather than destruction and that would have been a completely different work, so the residue was treated as waste material, presumably ending up incinerated or in landfill.
It was an extraordinary process to watch. To begin with, I spent a very long time reading the inventory; there were smiles of recognition at the accumulation of odd socks, leaflets about exhibitions and at cards and letters kept for years. The level of detail was fascinating. Ultimately, the inventory was a portrait of Landy as a list of everything he owned. I’m not sure many of us would be ready to make such a list, leave alone to make it public.
That the project – installation, performance, call it what you will – took place in an empty shop was interesting not only in immediately situating the work in some way as a comment on consumerism and the degree to which we find ourselves defined by possessions – what clothes we wear, which car we drive, what food we eat etc – but also because the large plate glass windows onto Oxford Street meant not only that the work was visibly situated in that context but also – crucially – that people who might never normally look at contemporary art wandered in to see what was going on.
I visited Break Down several times. It was always intriguing to see what was being destroyed. Rumours abounded about which artists were okay about their work being detsroyed and who minded. Some things, like a sheepskin jacket that had once belonged to Landy’s father, were held back; their destruction inevitable but nonetheless delayed as long as possible for sentimental reasons.
In the end, Landy walked away with nothing but the overalls he was wearing. And his by now toyless cat.