In 2001, artist Michael Landy gathered all 7,227 of his possessions — from paintings and love letters to his hifi and his car — in a former clothes shop on Oxford Street, London’s commercial heart, and set about destroying them. A team of assistants catalogued every item before taking them apart by hand or with scissors, razors, hammers and power tools. The nearly six tonnes of debris were sent to a landfill in Essex, just north of London, and Landy was left with only the blue boilersuit he wore during the two-week “Break Down” project.
Wolfgang Tillmans, who in 2000 had become the first photographer to win the Turner Prize, documented “Break Down” and soon afterwards sent his 106 photos to Landy in a box, where they remained for 20 years. FT Weekend Magazine is publishing them here for the first time, ahead of a display at Thomas Dane Gallery in London, along with a new conversation between Landy, Tillmans and FT Weekend Magazine’s Josh Spero.
Josh Spero: Michael, you and your team shredded books page by page; you cut shoes’ soles off; you removed every nail from chairs and every stitch from fabrics; you took the tape out of your cassettes and the wires out of your hifi; you weighed mugs and smashed them with a hammer; and then you disassembled your car and used heavy-duty tools to cut it into pieces. Tell us about how you came up with this idea.
Michael Landy: I was at home in Tabard Street and I had just sold “Scrapheap Services” , my fictitious cleaning company, to the Tate, and things had been a real struggle. Then suddenly I was ahead financially for the first time in my life and it popped into my head as I was at the kitchen table with a blank A4 piece of paper that I would destroy all my worldly belongings. Three years later, that’s what I did.
Everything had been a struggle up until that point and suddenly I had a Richard James suit, I had a Saab 900 car, I had things, and then I started to think what that struggle was about and what did that all mean. Then I started to think about how I could go about destroying all my worldly belongings and I made about 17 drawings of different ways . . . You can give it away, you can do all sorts of things, but my choice was to destroy all my worldly belongings in front of people.
Wolfgang Tillmans: It’s an ultimate self-effacing gesture and at the same time it puts all the focus on to you as a person. But I’m also intrigued — catching up on you talking about it and speaking about how you enjoyed being on that platform. I mean, you were like a performer. I remember, it was so enigmatic.
ML: Ultimately, there’s nothing to buy — I mean, [visitors] stole things — but it’s the experience. This is the experience of you watching this happen. That’s the main thing I was really interested in: what people came away with. As an artist, what you really want is for people to talk about it. It’s not in an art gallery, it’s in C&A on Oxford Street, where people go to consume things. People just wanted to know what motivated me to do it. I’d read a lot about consumerism beforehand so I was armed and primed to deal with that.
JS: How did “Break Down” work?
ML: We created these guidelines to break everything down, all my worldly possessions, into its material parts. It was very basic — metal, glass, ceramic. Obviously no one had done anything like this before, and we had 7,227 items to break down over a two-week period. Everything got inputted into this spreadsheet.
All that being very methodical about it was very labour- and time-intensive. After about a week, James Lingwood from Artangel [the organisation funding the project] said: “We are going to have to speed up the process because we are well behind.”
JS: Why did you want to take such care with the objects when disassembling? In theory, you could have just put everything in a trash compactor or even just thrown everything away.
ML: Oh yes, it was based on a material reclamation facility. Its sole purpose is to take things of value out of the waste stream. I was interested in people seeing my worldly belongings in different states, from a whole teddy bear to a teddy bear that has been disassembled and had all its guts taken out and broken down into its material parts.
JS: I want to ask both of you about consumerism, because it seems to be a theme in both of your work: consumption, destruction. Do you think that consumption has changed from 20 years ago to today?
WT: To be honest, I really don’t see “Break Down” as so much about consumption because, come on — Michael wasn’t a powerful consumer.
ML: No, I’m not Elton John!
WT: He had a very nice car. But I thought it was much more spiritual, much more — looking at what is material. Not so much about, “Hey, I bought all these useless videocassettes.” You had like 10 or 20 videocassettes, you didn’t have 5,000. It wasn’t about excessiveness.
ML: Our society judges people by how much they possess, to an extent, and obviously the more possessions one has, the more successful you are perceived to be. It was the experience that really interested me, when people came to “Break Down” and what they witnessed and how my possessions somehow mirrored their own possessions. People would talk about their own feelings of what they would go into a burning home to save, and it wasn’t normally the VCR — it was family photographs, or things of some other different value to monetary value. At the time, I spoke about how I was witnessing my own death and also moments of elation and it being the happiest two weeks of my life.
WT: How did you feel when I gave you that box of photographs?
ML: I was relieved that you gave it to me afterwards, because obviously if it came into my possession during then I would have had to destroy it. It was great; people were very kind to me afterwards. People bought me things, people sent me clothes.
We had people of the cloth who came to the exhibition and gave sermons. We kind of created a forum for people to be able to talk about their feelings about ownership and self.
JS: Wolfgang, your “Break Down” photos are an act of creation which came out of an act of destruction. What informed them when you were making them? Was there something in particular you focused on? Did you intend it to be as much documentary as philosophical?
WT: There are different modes of motivation behind me making photographs. They can be very disparate. One of them is when I see something, experience something and when I feel a sense of beauty, wanting to preserve something — wanting to record something for history that I find valuable. That really is the origin of, for example, my nightlife photographs. It was born out of a sense of this is such a unique setting . . . a rare moment, and I can record it, I have the skills to record it in a brief interaction without disturbing people. I do it.
The same was [true] here: I witnessed this, I came as a viewer, a visitor, and I was, basically, touched. I don’t want to say overwhelmed but I was totally compelled, and the number 106 [photographs taken] shows that I was fully drawn in. I didn’t come with the intention to photograph but then thought, “This is all going to go and so somebody better record it!”
ML: It was very kind of you to give me the box of photographs. I remember Gillian [Wearing, artist and Landy’s partner] paid for someone to video-record it and I was very reluctant — what I’m always talking about is how people experience it and not . . . I didn’t necessarily want any other record of it. But obviously, in retrospect, it’s a great record to have.
JS: In some ways the piece was extremely ahead of its time, the way that it examined possessions and ownership is very ahead of today, but at the same time, now we would never think of putting six tonnes of objects into landfill.
ML: No, that wasn’t my original idea actually.
JS: What was your idea?
ML: To put it in a shopping centre — to put it underground in a shopping centre. To have it as some kind of monument to consumerism, with some sort of headstone, saying, “Here lies all of Michael Landy’s worldly possessions” — but by the end of it I think I’d invested so much time in it — three years — that I wanted to be rid of it, to be honest.
WT: At the time, in the 1990s, I found it incredibly difficult and inappropriate to throw everyone in one bag, under one label, because there were really very opposite tendencies going on. Michael and Gillian Wearing, for example, were completely opposite to other people, and this generalisation, which gave YBA a lot of audiences and a great deal of exposure around the world, was also a problem because it didn’t allow people to look in a more differentiated way.
ML: I think everyone just got lumped in together because it was easier to package people that way and to sell it as something.
WT: It’s not easier — that’s probably not the right way to describe the motivation, because something actually did happen in the 1990s. There really was suddenly this large activity. People were trying to describe it — they looked for ways to describe that energy.
JS: Do you feel that it was a useful thing to have been part of, even if you didn’t feel part of it? What legacy has it had?
WT: I think that period, 1991 to maybe 1997, when the “Sensation” exhibition opened [with works by YBAs owned by collector Charles Saatchi] — it was a very insular phenomenon, it was British people, and by the end of the 1990s, London had fully opened up to art from all over the continent and it really was a place where you could see international art. The last 20 years were incredibly different in London because a variety of art from all over the world is represented. I guess it needed that insular, navel-gazing moment for the first time to self-confidently say we are a proud modern art nation. Maybe we looked at these culturally enriching exchanges happening without quite noticing the storm [Brexit and its cultural backlash] that would be brewing.
JS: How did you feel about destroying other people’s artworks, Michael, including your friends’?
ML: I never actually physically destroyed anything apart from maybe the Gary Hume painting. As I was destroying it — as I set the blowtorch on to the gloss paint — apart from the fumes, I did feel odd about doing that. I can’t say why.
WT: What I find difficult, what I regret, in a way, is that the piece lends itself to trivialisation and to the more “outrageous” bits, to the anecdotal, and I find . . . that there’s a spiritual element in trying to look at matter.
Some of the photographs zoom in on stuff that is broken-down material. I was wondering: what did you learn? Years later, I took my colour photocopier apart and I found that super interesting also to look inside. I saw you holding a Yashica camera: wasn’t it hugely interesting to look inside?
ML: Yes. As a child, I loved taking things apart because I wanted to know the mechanics of them. Once you go past the veneer of something, you want to see the guts of it and you want to see what’s in it, and the only way to do that is to literally take it apart. You’re basically taking it back to where it came from — its material parts — and then you start to see how things are articulated and created. Our production line was reversed — I reversed the idea of production into a disassembly line.
JS: Wolfgang, were you expecting that the photos would be shown?
WT: No, I never personally exhibited them. I have a huge archive of pictures of exhibitions — I do photograph art I like, and it’s kind of a reservoir I hope maybe will be useful . . . a document of art history.
I’m really happy that I made them, but they came to me as a surprise when I got your email and the picture of the box. I didn’t have unreserved, only positive feelings about this at the time. It was a bit unsettling. It makes you question all sorts but it does make you go beyond the comfortable. Today I would say I feel more positive about the work — I think it really is a valuable, crazy thing.
ML: Yes, it is crazy!
JS: If you look at the way the world has changed in the past 20 years, many of us don’t own a car, we use Uber; we don’t cook so much, we order in; we don’t own CDs, we get Spotify. If you were to make “Break Down” now, do you think you could make it in quite the same way, or do you think there are aspects of consumption that it just couldn’t take in because our lives are so digital?
ML: I’m not quite sure how you destroy data.
JS: In some ways, it was the last moment before the digital revolution that one could have made such a work, where everything you had was physical.
ML: Yes, I don’t think I had a computer at that point apart from maybe the PC we inputted all the inventory on. I had a pay-as-you-go mobile phone. I probably had a Game Boy as well. Yes, we consumed things very differently back then, as you were saying, to how we archive things and digital data, how we can store things now.
WT: We are describing that time now as incredibly analogue, but [it was] not so. It was the moment before the dotcom bubble and at the time we felt incredibly advanced, incredibly digital — wow, the internet was everywhere, and of course we had no idea that it could go faster five or 10 years later. It’s just good to remember sometimes that one always thinks one is at the vanguard now. At the time, things were feeling very futuristic.
JS: Michael, you said: “I’m always trying to get rid of myself so that I can move on.”
ML: As a creative person doing “Break Down” . . . I didn’t know what to do afterwards, because it seemed like such a full stop, in a way. Just how to move on as a creative person I found very difficult.
JS: It’s broadly still your best-known work. So in some ways, the act of destruction has never left you — it’s just created something new for you, is that right?
ML: I think other things came out of it, like I did an “Acts of Kindness” project on the London Underground, and I did think about kindness during “Break Down”. I remember thinking — how can one articulate kindness between two complete strangers?
JS: One final question: if you had to pick one object to destroy, today or tomorrow, what thing would it be? You can’t destroy a government or a policy such as Brexit — you have to destroy one thing.
WT: There’s already been a destruction — the toppling of that statue in Bristol [of Edward Colston, a 17th-18th-century merchant involved in the slave trade]. It was this one pointed moment, this particularly crude contradiction in this free-thinking town, this sore thumb — an act of destruction that felt literally positive. I normally don’t like destruction at all — I’m a little bit phobic of it. And I’m a little bit of a hoarder — I find it incredibly difficult to even throw a daily newspaper away.
ML: Oh really? You’re a project, Wolfgang. Well, like I said, I destroyed my artist archive. That was the ultimate, in a sense, because a lot of things only exist as images of previous works. So I can’t think of anything to destroy. That’s a bit worrying!
[“Break Down”] was liberating, especially at the zero point, when I had nothing left. I could be anything. It was liberating in that respect. You don’t have to feel like things tie you down or weigh on top of you.
Thomas Dane Gallery will present materials from the ‘Break Down’ archive at 3 Duke Street, St James’s, London when the gallery reopens after lockdown
Photographs: Wolfgang Tillmans/Marian Goodman
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