Society and culture

BREAK DOWN

BREAK DOWN

2002 Michael Landy (1963 − )

A whisper into the third 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, shoppers observed an eleven-strong team in blue overalls systemati¬cally destroy everything Landy owned over the course of two weeks (10–24 February 2001). 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, sus¬tainability 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.’[1] Attuned to Big Brotherand 24-hour news, consumers were receptive to another public breakdown. ‘I was scared,’ Landy admits. ‘That’s what pushes me on.’[2]

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.’[3] 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’.[4] 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.’[5] 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 check¬out signs lingering above the Break Down conveyor belts came as a ghostly echo 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 star¬bursts – ‘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) then a textiles student at Loughborough College of Art, and being deeply impressed. Both are nuts and bolts artists, exploring the relativity of com¬ponent parts. Most conspicuously, the present drawing has Tinguely’s enor¬mous Méta-matic 17 (1959)[6] 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.

DF

[1]. Landy in conversation with James Lingwood, in Michael Landy: Everything Must Go! (London: Ridinghouse, 2008), 106.
[2]. Landy, in conversation at the Prince’s Drawing School (January 2009).
[3]. Landy (2008), 109.
[4]. Ibid., 107.
[5]. Landy, Prince’s Drawing School (2009).
[6]. Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009

  • Accession Number P7539
  • Dimensions 99 x 144 CM
  • Media PEN AND INK

Glossary

  • Drawing

    The depiction of shapes and forms on a flat surface chiefly by means of lines although colour and shading may also be included. Materials most commonly used are pencil, ink, crayon, charcoal, chalk and pastel, although other materials, including paint, can be used in combination.

Past exhibitions

20 YEARS OF PRESSING HARD: MICHAEL LANDY 1993-2013

  • 2013
    • UK, London, Thomas Dane Gallery

MADE IN BRITAIN

  • 2012
    • Albania, Tirana, National Gallery
    • Greece, Athens, Benaki Museum
  • 2011
    • China, Suzhou Museum
    • China, Hong Kong Heritage Museum
    • China, Xian Museum
  • 2010
    • China, Sichuan Provincial Museum

DRAWING FOR THE RECORD DRAWING CONTEMPORARY LIFE

  • 2003
    • Canada, Vancouver Art Gallery
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