Visualising an idea: Michael Landy’s Break Down

Michael Landy Breakdown drawing

Michael Landy, P.D.F. Product, Disposal Facility, 1998

As an idea, setting up a disposal facility to destroy all one’s possessions is pretty unusual and it’s certainly not one that conjures up an immediate image in the mind. There would be many ways to go: a big crushing machine perhaps, or maybe some sort of funnel and an industrial scale waste disposal unit like the ones you sometimes see in kitchen sinks but huge, or, well all sorts of other possibilities really. Which is what makes Michael Landy’s P.D.F. (do you see what he did there?) so fascinating.

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Stuff and nonsense

Michael Landy, Gameboy drawing, 1998

Michael Landy, Gameboy drawing from Breakdown

I’ve written about Michael Landy’s Break Down here before, but at the time I focused firmly on the event and the photographic documentation. Breakdown, an Artangel commission that saw Landy destroy all his possessions with the help of a team of overall-clad operatives and a production line style ‘disposal facilty’ set up in the former C&A store on Oxford Street, came back to mind for a few reasons. Mainly, I’ve been trying to reduce the clutter levels in my house and while there’s a long way to go I’ve become pretty familiar with the local charity shops and reacquainted myself with stuff that’s long been lurking in what can only reasonably be described as the junk room. While I’m probably worse than most people at getting round to dumping the clutter, I think many of us do attach memories to things in a way that can make it hard to acknowledge our lack of practical need for objects that may hold sentimental value, however slight.

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Class war restaged

Deller Battle of Orgreave 4

Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave, 2001

As the media marks the death of Margaret Thatcher with blanket television coverage looking back at her time in office some familiar images are brought back to mind. But sometimes it’s hard to disentangle the memories: which of the images am I really recalling from the 1980s? In the case of the images of the 1983/4 miners’ strike, the boundaries between news footage and re-enactment are very blurry in my head. I remember the strike very well; I remember the marches and the benefit gigs, I remember throwing money into collection buckets every day on my way to and from work, probably with a ‘coal not dole’ badge on my coat, and I remember the news reports. At least, I think I do. But there’s a distinct possibility that some of that memory is somewhat second hand. The images of Orgreave that are so clear in my mind come not just from the news reports of the time, shocking though they were, but also from Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the event, filmed by Mike Figgis.

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The power of place

Yael Bartana, An Europe will be Stunned, exterior installation view, Polish Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2011

Given the subject matter of identity and nationhood that lies at the heart of Yael Bartana’s And Europe will be Stunned and the way the trilogy explores the possibility of return and the dangers of nationalism and totalitarianism, the context in which I first came across the work – in the Polish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale – was a fascinating one. It is unusual but not unheard of for an artist who neither lives in nor comes from a country to be selected to represent it at Venice and this was the first time Poland had been represented by an artist who wasn’t a Polish national. And, of course, the history of the Venice Biennale along with the architecture of the national pavilions, the positioning of them within the Giardini and factors like when different countries built or acquired their pavilions offers an interesting, albeit inevitably incomplete, picture of the politics of Europe in particular. Add to this the fact that in 2009 Poland was represented by Krzysztof Wodiczko, who left Poland in 1977 and has been a Canadian citizen since 1984, with Guests, a work about migration and the status of immigrants who remain forever ‘guests’ in their new homes, and the Polish pavilion becomes a fascinating, and intensely loaded, location for Bartana’s installation.

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More questions than answers

Yael Bartana, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), 2007

I don’t go to see art expecting easy answers. I like work that makes me think. (I like work that just bowls me over visually too, but I’m going to assume that’s a given rather than getting bogged down by trying to make an exhaustive list of types of art I like. Let’s just work on the basis that I like art. And, for my purposes here, that thinking is a bonus and a bit of confusion is fine.) I’m not scared of challenging work and I don’t necessarily expect to get it straight away. I’m pretty tenacious; I’ll go back for a second look (if I can, my tendency to see exhibitions on the day they close can be something of a limitation in this respect) or read whatever background information I can find. All of which should be borne in mind when I say that I’ve seen Yael Bartana’s And Europe will be Stunned three times now and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I think about it.

The work is made up of three connected films – Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), Mur i wieża (Wall and Tower) and Zamach (Assassination) – made over a period of several years and is based around the premise of a movement encouraging the return of Jews to Europe. You won’t often find me focusing on biographical information, but it’s relevant here: The artist, Yael Bartana, is an Isreali Jew whose grandparents died in Poland during the Holocaust.

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True blue

Roger Hiorns, Seizure (detail: crystals on wall), 2008

Although I knew the basis of the work – a flat full of copper sulphate crystals – nothing could quite have prepared me for Roger Hiorns’s 2008 installation Seizure. Unlike the installations I’ve written about in the last few posts, this wasn’t remotely disorientating – that wasn’t the idea at all – rather, it was the astonishingly beautiful result of a process that was both hugely ambitious and possibly a little bit crazy.

With the support of Artangel – who make it possible for artists to realise unusually difficult projects such as this one, or Michael Landy’s Breakdown – Hiorns sealed one of the flats before introducing copper sulphate solution which was then left to crystallise. The result was a blue wonderland in a run-down low-rise block in inner London.

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Gathering, listing and smashing

Michael Landy, Break Down, 2001

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.

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