Artist Michael Landy publicly destroyed all his possessions in a physical manifestation of ‘mind over matter’
In February 2001, artist Michael Landy installed a custom waste disposal facility in the former C&A department store on London’s busy Oxford Street. Over the following two weeks, as shoppers looked in through the large plate-glass windows, he systematically took apart and destroyed – granulated, smashed, pulped, powdered and shredded – all of his worldly possessions. The remains were then sent to landfill.
On the walls surrounding the conveyor belts was a printed list of everything Landy owned, classified into ten different categories: Artworks (A), Clothing (C), Electrical (E), Furniture (F), Kitchen (K), Leisure (L), Perishables (P), Reading (R), Studio (S) and Vehicle (V). Amounting to 7,227 items in total, this inventory was an important part of the work itself and had taken Landy three years to compile, far longer than originally expected.
A8: Damien Hirst – Paperweight, white spots in clear square of resin
C504: Calvin Klein medium size black cotton underpants
E921: Philips HD4575/A broken cream-coloured plastic toaster with burnt crumbs in catchment tray
F1283: Metal Silca door key
L2010: David Bowie, Heroes, 33rpm LP album, NL 83857, RCA
L2019: National Westminster Bank plc cheque book stubs<
R4139: Machine sewn love letter on paper from Jackie Lee with text ‘The Embroidery Course is driving me crazy.’, 1983
S6267: Five clear nylon 12″ cable ties
V7227: Saab 900 Turbo16s, Cherry Red, 3 door hatchback with black leather upholstery, 105, 455 miles, registration E743CGJ, 1988
Enacted in a location emblematic of British consumerism, Break Down was initially seen by many as a protest against materialism. But beyond this critique, the project had a variety of life-changing consequences for the Landy, practically, financially and emotionally. Nothing was spared in the process, from his entire wardrobe of clothes to his recently purchased car. Keepsakes such as photographs and love letters proved the hardest things to sacrifice, making Landy more fully appreciate the connections between physical objects, memories and people, and that different types of objects hold different kinds of values.
It’s my life going round in those yellow trays.
It wasn’t only his life, either. Break Down‘s all-encompassing approach also saw Landy destroy possessions that he had received, inherited, borrowed or stolen from others. The problem of ownership became all the more complicated when he destroyed works by other artists, including a Gary Hume painting with an estimated six-figure value. Hume, apparently, initially salvaged the painting from Landy but later returned it once he realised the weight of the project and Landy’s total dedication to it.
After Break Down, Landy was left with an empty home and mixed feelings. Before, memories of his past were brought vividly back to life by the sight, feel and smell of his belongings; after, the black-and-white digital inventory that remained was not so evocative. That said, the bold experiment was also a liberating revival for Landy, and a crucial moment in his career as an artist.
It’s a kind of new beginning for me. That’s full of pitfalls but it’s also rich with new potential … I don’t feel I’ve got anything to lose anymore.
What’s your view on Michael Landy’s Break Down? What impact would a ‘break down’ have on your life?