Peter Vanezis, a forensic scientist who specializes in human identification, was recently asked on British radio about the emotional demands of the human rights work he undertakes in places such as Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. He replied that his professional composure was tested most when the bodies he examined still bore personal effects: a toy clutched in a child’s hand, for example. Even in the era of global capital, a possession can be something other than a commodity. Nevertheless, when Michael Landy was planning Break Down, 2001, his Times/Artangel Open commission, he decided to catalogue, weigh, dismantle, and pulverize all his worldly goods, irrespective of their commodity value or personal significance. Landy sums up his project as a portrait of the artist as consumer, not a study of his personal history or feelings. Even so, it’s impossible not to speculate about the emotional aftershocks of losing all one’s belongings – irreplaceable photographs, letters, and hand-me-downs included.
That noted, Break Down in reality exuded a faint carnival atmosphere, and its location – the ground floor of a vacant Oxford Street store – was a huge coup de theatre (traces of the previous tenant, the now-defunct clothing chain C&A, were still evident). Working around a snaking industrial conveyor belt clearly designed as much for spectacle as functionality, a brisk Landy and his team took two weeks to reduce the artist’s 7,006 possessions to rubble. These were itemized under nine headings, including Reading Material (“Kuoni Maldives holiday brochure 1997,” for instance), Clothing (“Check nylon shirt”; “‘Darth Vader’ Star Wars badge”), and Motor Vehicle (a single entry: “I Saab 9000 Turbo 16S”). The category Artworks listed some 400 pieces, mostly by Landy (including some fondly preserved teenage exercises) but also by others: a Tinguely drawing, a Chris Ofili print, a Gary Hume painting (Clown, 2000). All were minced. Inquisitive shoppers strolled in, anticipating bargains; a light-fingered few left with Landyabilia under their coats. The artist’s hi-fi played on into the show’s closing moments, then, like the band on the Titanic, fell silent and (along with a coat inherited from Landy père) was bundled into the voracious jaws of a hired industrial shredder. Exit a tired but cheerful Landy, to much applause.
To query the critical substance of Landy’s project feels a bit like kicking a man when he’s down. But despite the artist’s evident sincerity, one could be forgiven for wondering whether Break Down’s rationale might not serve to naturalize rather than criticize dominant ideas about consumption. Landy’s art is essentially one of reiteration. Works like Closing Down Sale, 1992 (shopping trolleys crowded with junked goods and handwritten sale signs) or Scrapheap Services, 1996 (an installation promoting a fictitious corporation dedicated to the clearance and disposal of redundant human beings), parodied, without offering any legible authorial super- or subtexts, familiar economic events and political attitudes. Break Down’s coherence hinges on an unreflective reassertion of the sovereign rights of private ownership (Landy has dubbed his action “the ultimate consumer choice”). Although the piece reproduces the hierarchical labour relations and “production line” of the average workplace (many of Landy’s full-time assistants were hard-up students, paid a token sum), it seems to posit individual, rather than corporate, action as the commodity system’s foundation. High on polemical entertainment but short on analysis, Break Down ended up forcing the familiar question: under what circumstances can reiteration become genuine critique?
Michael Landy: Break Down was curated by Artangel and showed at C&A, Oxford Street, London, UK across February 2001
Copyright Rachel Withers and Artforum International, 2001