A whisper into the millennium and under Michael Landy’s instigation, apocalyptic anxieties were played out on Oxford Street. Through the empty display windows of the former C&A department store, over the course of two weeks (10–24 February 2001), shoppers observed an eleven-strong team in blue overalls systematically destroy everything Landy owned. All 7,227 items were labelled and catalogued on a database, then passed down 100 metres of conveyor belt to be reduced to their basic materials on a disassembly line. They were finally crushed or granulated, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, generating 5.75 tonnes of material for landfill in direct proportion to the sprawling questions around consumerism, sustainability and personal identity. Moreover, as a performance, Break Down became about shared experience, attracting 45,000 visitors and outbursts of concern, moral outrage, hero-worship. ‘I liked the idea that the things that were in people’s carrier bags were the same things that were travelling round in the yellow plastic trays on the conveyor belts to be destroyed.’ Attuned to Big Brother and 24-hour news, consumers were receptive to another public breakdown. ‘I was scared,’ Landy admits. ‘That’s what pushes me on.’
Like a phoenix from the ashes, this drawing was part of the process of recapitulating an experience that left Landy with nothing. It amounts to an existential anti-shopping list. ‘Having nothing was a kind of regression, so I was interested in going back to being a child, to just having a drawing pencil and paper.’ Retrospectively, he traces the stages of the disassembly process in pen and ink, employing a line-by-line precision with the pedantry of a military re-enactment. He anatomises his life in terms of the humdrum, a vision of wheelie bins, goggles, odd socks and camera crews, scrutinising the idea that ‘somehow at some point we begin to create our own biographies from the things we own or possess’. It is a titanic drawing of minuscule detail, approaching not just a factory floor plan, but medieval cartoons of the Last Judgement categorising the mansions of the righteous and the chambers of the damned (Landy’s version is totally devoid of salvation).
Among the legendary Goldsmiths generation of the late 1980s, Landy has emerged as the ultimate Recession artist. His works are few and far between but slice incrementally into the nation’s socio-economic crust. ‘Worth and value are all wrapped up in what I do.’ Following ‘Freeze’ in 1988 (curated by Damien Hirst, who was in the year below Landy at Goldsmiths) Landy spread his wings in the profusion of disused spaces which pervaded slump-bound London. The C&A’s ‘closing down!’ posters and disembodied checkout signs lingering above the Break Down conveyor belts came as a ghostly echo (fortissimo) of Landy’s earlier end-of-the-world scenario, ‘Closing Down Sale’ (1992). The Karsten Schubert gallery had been turned into an apocalyptic bargain basement, full of trolleys of oddments from skips and day-glo starbursts – ‘Meltdown Madness Sale!’ ‘Everything Must Go!’ ‘Last Day!’ – under a voiceover urging visitors to buy (‘crazy! crazy! crazy!’) in tones of spiralling hysteria. (Nothing sold and it all ended up in landfill via Break Down.)
A forefather to Landy’s modes of destruction is Jean Tinguely – Landy remembers visiting the Tinguely retrospective (Tate Gallery, 1982) as a textiles student at Loughborough College of Art, and being deeply impressed. Both are nuts and bolts artists, exploring the relativity of component parts. Most conspicuously, the present drawing has Tinguely’s enormous Méta-matic 17 (1959) in the background, a car-like machine made out of scrap materials that produced 40,000 drawings by means of a balloon filled with exhaust gas. Landy’s intricate drawing ricochets off Tinguely’s automatic scribbles. Carefully worked, and inscribed with his personal style and signature, it is a precious, poignant item and a sly postscript to the cataclysm of the Break Down performance.
(C) Dorothy Feaver 2009
2 Landy, in conversation at the Prince’s Drawing School (January 2009).
3 Landy (2008), 109.
4 Ibid., 107. = Landy (2008)
5 Landy, Prince’s Drawing School (2009).
6 Moderna Museet, Stockholm.