On a recent visit to Cork, Michael Landy toldabout his dramatic decluttering project and how the Young British Artists movement he was a part of have inevitably become assimilated.
Long before Marie Kondo sparked the current trend for minimalist living, the artist Michael Landy decluttered in the most drastic way possible: he destroyed all his earthly possessions in a performance installation called Break Down.
Everything from his car to his passport to his record collection, all 7,227 objects that he owned, were painstakingly catalogued and shredded in a vacant clothes store in London. Over 45,000 people came to see the two-week installation, which saw teams of workers, clad in overalls, dismantle Landy’s possessions on a factory-like conveyor belt system.
That was 18 years ago, but Landy’s career — and his interviews — have been dominated by the shadow of this grand gesture ever since.
“It’s definitely been the elephant in the room,” he says. “It’s the thing I’m best known for, and the thing I knew I’d be best known for when I did it. For me, it was quite a long time ago so it’s abstract now; I remember doing it, but it’s an artwork, not a way of life. I wasn’t going to do it and then go off and disappear. I wanted to continue making art.”
In retrospect, then, how does he remember the experience of breaking down all his earthly possessions?
“It was the happiest two weeks of my life, but also like witnessing my own death, kind of a combination of the two. The things we own are part of what we are, part of what articulates you as you and me as me. To an extent, our possessions define us.
“Some people were really appalled by it. It worked because people would see objects similar to what they possessed, and it reflected back onto their own sense of possession and worth.”
The 56-year-old Londoner was in Cork for a flying visit, where a collection of his delicate etchings of weeds is on display in the Lewis Glucksman Gallery. Even this quiet, introspective series, which brings to mind illustrations from a scientific treatise on botany, is in some sense connected to Break Down, Landy acknowledges. The prints, collectively titled Nourishment, were made in 2002, in the year following his seminal performance work.
“Nearly 50,000 people came to witness Break Down so I had to be very open about the whole thing and I had to talk to people about what the project was about,” he says. “Afterwards, I kind of withdrew back into myself.
As a child I used to like drawing and it was this simple activity that I could do by myself, so that’s what I did; I started noticing all these little plants on waste sites and growing in cracks.
Weeds are, he says, “life-enhancing, stoical things that don’t really need us and will probably be around after us and don’t need much nourishment to survive. They’re very entrepreneurial; they’ll find a little crack and start to prosper and grow.”
Landy’s affection for the interlopers of the plant kingdom actually began before Break Down, and some of his earlier drawings of hardy little plants were amongst the items catalogued and destroyed during Break Down, alongside artworks by his Young British Artist peers.
For Landy, a graduate of Goldsmith’s College, is amongst a set that garnered the YBA moniker in the late Eighties and early Nineties, alongside others including Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Landy’s wife,Gillian Wearing.
It was an exciting movement,capable of turning any abandoned industrial space into a setting for art that, even when it enraged, was always thought-provoking. But in the intervening years, Landy, now a member of the Royal Academy, and his peers have become the art establishment.“The last time I saw one of my contemporaries’ work in a museum and it looked just like everyone else’s work,” he says. “It shocked me a bit, because I thought we had something different to offer. But it just shows how quickly things become assimilated into everything else.”
Despite the YBA’s seeming iconoclasm, Landy says they weren’t anti-establishment. “What we were offered up was Britain in the late Eighties, which was coming from a manufacturing base to a service-led industry. There were lots of empty factories and no-one gave two hoots what we did and we had lots of initiative, so we put on exhibitions in those empty buildings.
“We were young and we wanted to do it for ourselves; we didn’t want to wait around for 20 years until someone gave us an exhibition. That’s entrepreneurial; it’s That cherism, really. I lived in a squat and I had nothing, but like the weeds, I always survived.”
Landy was always the quiet one: in college, he confesses with a chuckle, his silence earned him the nickname ‘Blandy’.
Throughout his career, he has produced grand, extraverted statements like Break Down, but also Semi-Detached, which saw him recreate a life-size replica of his parents’ suburban Essex home inside the windturbine hall at Tate Modern, or, most recently, his “Brexit kiosk” at Riga Biennale. But he has always oscillated between these and quieter, more introverted periods of drawing: the Nourishment series, but also his portraiture.
Both Landy’s parents are Irish: his father from Golden, Co Tipperary, while his mother was born in Ballina, Co Mayo.
Brexit, then, is a particular source of both interest and artistic inspiration for him: “In Latvia, I converted a Russian kiosk into a Brexit kiosk at the Riga Biennale and sold British goods. This was at the stage where Theresa May was saying we were still open for business. I had things like marmite, but I also made my own range of things: ‘Up Yours, Delors’ t-shirts and ‘Hard Brexit’ condoms.”
Next, he’s planning a project based around his long-standing fascination with the early nineties stereotype of Essex Man, a typified Little Englander who reared his head in Landy’s work for Semi-Detached. “I want to do a project about where Essex man is now, because obviously he’s become Brexit Man,” he says.
Landy was born in Hackney, but his parents escaped to suburbia in Essex when he was a child; now, he lives in London with his wife, Gillian Wearing, who won the Turner Prize in 1997. Their house is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a very minimalist affair. Old habits die hard, he says:
I chuck stuff out, and I chuck Gillian’s stuff out too; I’ve been told off for that. After Break Down, I didn’t want to own things anymore, because it had a profound effect on me. Eventually things started to seep back in. But I still purge things and try to accumulate as little as possible.
Materialism and consumerism are timely considerations. Landy believes phenomena like Extinction Rebellion are sign that the Western economy is facing “the material constraints of what the Earth can offer up to us. There are too many people on the planet and everyone wants a TV and washing machine; how can we all have a TV and washing machine and still have a planet?
“Humans are very versatile, so maybe we’ll find a way to do it, but younger generations might look back on us as very materialistic because they will come up against constraints in travel and in ownership of things.”