All gone, no regrets

There was that guy who accidentally deleted his entire company, but do you remember Michael Landy? He’s one of the Young British Artists, the one who methodically catalogued, disassembled and then shredded all of his possessions — all of them, including clothes, family photos, passport, artwork, car — over a two week period in a performance art piece called Break Down.

Michael Landy on Break DownArtangel
Certain people criticised Break Down as a spectacle, but a spectacle is passive, and this wasn’t. Shoppers wanted to know what was going on; you could divide them into two groups. People who had heard about the project (knowing faces) and people who walked in from the street (quizzical faces). Certain shoppers thought this was a new way of selling things – they would offer me money for parts of my car, little old ladies would bring back clothes, which they had bought at the C&A closing down sale. […]

One day a young woman approached me whilst I was on the platform. She asked would I consider swapping my dad’s sheepskin coat for what she had in her duffel bag. I told her I couldn’t swap it, but she was more than welcome to try and steal it. Eight months later I was with Gillian in Tesco’s in Bethnal Green and I saw exactly the same sheepskin coat, worn by a man, maybe one size smaller than my dad’s. I wondered whether she did steal it in the end and it was having a second life.

So where does one go after something like that? Back to the drawing board.

Break Down – Michael LandyGoogle Arts & Culture
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’.

That was twenty years ago. How does he feel about it all now?

‘Like witnessing my own funeral’: Michael Landy on destroying everything he ownedThe Guardian
The minimal aesthetic suggests that Landy’s lifestyle tends towards the ascetic, rather than the accumulative. But still: regrets? “I don’t miss anything,” he says. Then he hesitates. “I’ve never owned up to it, so I can’t own up to it now. I’ve always stuck to that. No, I literally can’t think of anything that I miss.” That’s his story and he’s sticking to it. […]

What was it like when it was all over? In the pub on the last night, he says: “I got very paranoid. I have talked about it as the happiest two weeks of my life, but it was also like witnessing my own funeral. People would come along who I hadn’t seen for years, and then I worked it out: I was only seeing them because I’d in a sense died.”

His work certainly struck a chord, and is as relevant today as it was then (sadly).

The man who destroyed all his belongingsBBC Culture
Break Down – which remains Landy’s best-known work – is considered a provocative masterpiece of recent British art. Moreover, because consumerism in the West has only accelerated since 2001 – witness, for instance, the rise of YouTube vloggers such as Zoella who devote entire videos to rummaging through shopping bags in order to celebrate high-street ‘hauls’ – it has also come to seem remarkably prescient.

Uplifted by Break Down: Breaking down consumerismArt Breath
In your artwork, were you also referencing that we possess more than what we own? In a sense, even with nothing we have a lot we have our integrity

Yes we do, I think we are more than the sum of our parts.

Actually that cropped up afterwards with the artwork Acts of Kindness on the London underground. It refers to when we don’t have the economic means to offer material things, we have our kindness and humanity to offer, which actually gets overlooked a lot. People don’t even notice they have those elements but they are being kind and humane to others without even realising they are doing so.

I think that is what came out of Break Down too. People were really kind to me and really open and when I literally had nothing I started to think, what makes us human, and basically that was humanity and a connection between a person and a complete stranger, that kind of emotional bridge between the self and other.

He received a CBE recently. I can’t see him throwing that away.

Author: Terry Madeley

Works with student data and enjoys reading about art, data, education and technology.

4 thoughts on “All gone, no regrets”

    1. I like the idea of starting from a blank slate, but I can never imagine myself being brave enough to go through with it. But we could certainly do with less clutter. I wonder if Marie Kondo has heard of him. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Me neither, it would be quite weird to go that far and destroy even your passport, drivers licence, photos that kind of thing. I was sort of thinking he may have scanned everything in digital form to preserve it beforehand, and in this way maybe still keep it in some form. It would be terrifying to shred it all. I have backpacked around the place when I was younger and that was very liberating, having nothing except for what I owned on my back. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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