Michael Landy in Conversation With Dave Nutt

The South London Gallery, 20 February 2010

In early 2010, nine years after Break Down, Michael Landy installed a 600 cubic metre see-through bin - Art Bin - into the South London Gallery, into which he asked artists to throw their creative failures. "There's no hierarchy in the bin, all artists are the same," he said, "and I've left it up to them to interpret what failure means".

Dave Nutt was the mechanic who dismantled Landy's cherry red Saab in 2001. The car was the sole entry in the 'vehicle' category of Landy's Break Down inventory. As the bin slowly filled, we asked Nutt to talk to his former client...

Two operatives underneath a raised red Saab car dismantling with hand tools

Dave Nutt: Michael.

Michael Landy: Dave Nutt.

D: How are you?

M: I'm fine. What a great name that is - Dave Nutt.

D: Is that why you gave me the Break Down job do you think?

M: No, it's more that you talked to us about the ethos of Saab for about two hours outside my council flat near Tower Bridge. That's what really attracted me to you.

D: But it helped a little bit that I was called Dave Nutt?

M: That was just the icing on top of the cake, but I phoned up someone didn't I and there was a chap who recommended you. We interviewed you.

D: It was interesting that we hadn't met before.

M: Because you already had a connection.

D: I already had a connection because Peter Doig had been very generous, going round and telling everyone in the London art community to either buy a Saab and let me look after it or if they already had one that I should look after it. So you actually had one of my leaflets didn't you?

M: I did, yes.

D: It went into Break Down.

M: Yes.

D: But after that time, after Break Down, you've come such a long way.

M: Well Break Down was the defining point for me as an artist in a sense and I kind of knew that as it was going on, that I would always be known as that person who destroyed all his worldly belongings. It's just one of those things you've got to live with. But some of the issues I raised in Break Down I also touch on in Art Bin – such as the destruction of art, obviously. In Break Down I remember some people were appalled by that particular form of destruction and I found that intriguing. I was always going to touch on it again.

D: I remember that issue and I remember that you dealt with it in a very humorous way - "so and so doesn't like me destroying their art but I'm just going to go ahead and go through the process". And you kind of took the whole thing on with a sense of detachment.

M: Well the artwork was just one segment of what I was doing. I didn't want to get the whole thing hijacked by the destruction of art - obviously I am an artist and I have a role within the art world but Break Down was a much wider project. It wasn't in a gallery, it was on Oxford Street in the former C & A building. We had all sorts of different people going in.

D: I remember driving the car into the C & A space, this huge, empty department store. There was someone from C & A there and I went up to them in the car and I said "can you tell me where men's shirts are?". But also one of the really enduring memories I have is of when James Lingwood took you out of the space once it had all finished. That sense of emotion was absolutely phenomenal, but you had this detachment through the whole thing. You weren't trying to create an emotive environment, it was just happening of its own accord. Then as the final objects were being put into the crusher and the seconds were counting down I just remember James leading you off and it was indescribable, from the point of view of just looking at you. What you must have felt like, I have no idea, because that must be off the scale. What did that feel like?

M: As you said, there was a certain sense of detachment, because obviously I was also overseeing the whole project so I was having to look at how the project was managed, to make sure it was running correctly. The issue of destroying all my worldly belongings within the two-week period wasn't such a big deal to me. I thought the idea of doing it - the intent - was enough but it became a real thing with the audience, that we had to destroy all of the 7,227 things by the end of the two weeks. And I remember when all the machines stopped and we had no music any more, which was what had jollied the whole two weeks along, in that workaday fashion.

D: Life on Mars.

M: Yes, exactly. Then it was suddenly all deathly silent and there was just the hum of the conveyor belt going round, people applauding and then it was over.

D: So the powerful thing about the way it ended wasn't so much about the worldly goods, it was the tumultuous moment, the crescendo? I'm thinking about this element here at Art Bin, the way you've moved on. This is about everybody else's items. You've 'done yourself' as it were and now this is for everyone else to make an offering, to go through some of that emotional transformation.

M: Yes, I've offered the bin up for everyone to take part in – it’s a collective ruin. For me, I'm a practitioner, I make art and not all of it's as good as the rest. I've thrown away portraits of people that don't look like the subject... But it's mainly about works you feel indifferent towards. They don't make any difference in the world, so it doesn't matter if they don't exist any more.

D: You say that, but you must have memories, a certain kind of attachment to the work. Everyone must go through a process of looking at those memories and attachments and then eventually, if they make it to here then they've said "OK. I'm happy to let it all go."

M: Some people have thrown in works made with a former partner, which represent a failed relationship. They're quite happy to get rid of them...

D: You must have gone through a lifetime's worth of those feelings during Break Down.

M: I did, yes.

D: Especially with the sheepskin coat.

M: Yes, there were things with monetary value and there were things with sentimental value - there were all sorts of different values. It worked best when it was a shared experience, when people looked in the trays and made a mental inventory of how much they themselves possessed.

D: I think what you did with Break Down was to make it about the perceiver. You left it completely open. It wasn't about your projecting your concept and then they either got it or they didn't. They could make of it whatever they liked.

M: I tried to not lambast people for being consumers because I understood that possessing things is a human characteristic. People spend their whole lives working hard to acquire things and if I'd just been completely dismissive of that, it would have alienated a lot of people. I was really surprised by people's reactions, by how positive they were. I came away thinking that the general public are alright on the whole.

D: Can you say the same ideas are being examined here?

M: Not really, because I think that Break Down was about an examination of consumerism, taking it all apart so we can understand it. It was also active the whole time - bits moving around, things being separated on conveyor belts, people disassembling things, objects being stripped. This has a different kind of activity. Sometimes it acts a tableau, but it works best when someone just comes in the door with an artwork, fills out a form and throws it in the bin.

D: And it's for the people, by the people.

M: Yes, there's no hierarchy in the bin. There are well-known artists and completely unknown artists.

D: I love the way that you have a list that changes every day. If you contribute, you're on the list. Whether you're great or good or not, it doesn't matter - you're on it.

M: It's interesting this whole idea about worth and value and also, as a society, what worth and value we give to rubbish. We put it underground. We don't want it around us. People can see that here, in a sense - this huge ruin. In Break Down we were dealing with fully formed objects that we separated and turned into granules, or shredded.

D: Many wondered how you could survive without any of your items. 

M: That wasn't really of interest to me to be honest because I knew I would survive and there was nothing wrong with my life. I was more interested in what happened during those two weeks. I knew I wasn't in control of everything else anyway. That was just everyday life and I was just going to have to get on with it, start again. But that didn't really interest me - I thought that part of the process was probably wasted on me.

D: Being a practising Buddhist, which in some ways is all about renunciation, it struck me back then as being kind of a spiritual process, something that somebody like me would always aspire to. To become unattached and to just have simple clothes, the simple necessities of life. And to meet you proposing that for yourself struck me as being a natural, spiritual concept. How do you feel about that and how does Art Binrelate to it? Do you see things in that way or have any kind of spiritual ethic?

M: I don't think I do. Sorry.

D: I think that's what you said to me at the time as well.

M: I'm an artist and I rationalised it as an artwork. We had nuns and priests coming along and obviously people talking about possessing things and how much one possesses, how much of ourselves is wrapped up in those possessions.

D: It's a metaphysical question. It's going into the same domain as they would call spirituality. And it's almost a prerequisite of people going down that path. It's another example of what an open book the process was. You opened it up to all different kinds of people to make of it what they wanted to make of it.

M: I seem to remember you sprinkling some of my shredded Saab car underneath a sacred tree in India. Not that anyone was allowed to take any of the parts, but you somehow managed to get some out.

D: It was the sacred Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, which is meant to be the fifth incarnation of the tree that Buddha sat under. But it wasn't actually the Saab itself, just some plastic granules. For some reason I just felt moved to sprinkle some as a kind of offering. Break Down formed part of a spiritual journey that I went on. I went to India a couple of days after it had finished.

M: You're about to become a participant in Art Bin. Tell us a bit about why your art is going to go into the bin.

D: Yes, I've waited three weeks now, three weeks to think about if I really want to give it to you. You go through lots of ups and downs. It makes you realise the nature of materialism and how you are attached to things, your relationship to them. It’s a privilege to go through that, as there aren't many people asking those questions in modern society.

M: Could you tell me why the work is a failure?

D: The nature of the work is about a failure in my life - it represents an aspiration of my youth, to paint and become an artist. The fact that I took a different course in life is somehow emotionally wrapped up in the painting, which I'm offering to you.

M: Which I've accepted.

D: It's about wanting to go to Camberwell Art College when I was younger, which appropriately is just next door. Then the twists and turns of my life took me a different way. So from the point of view of my youthful aspiration it's a failure, or maybe failure's not the right word. It's just something else that happened. It's hard to go through the emotional sleigh ride that imbues, but having said that it's fantastic to go through it and then say, "here you are Michael".

M: And we're at that moment.

D: I would just like to end by wishing you well with the future and to say keep on doing this work Michael.

M: I've got a Lexus now. I apologise.

D: Well yes, but we all move on.


Image: Two of Michael Landy's operatives begin to deconstruct his cherry red Saab situated in the defunct Oxford Street C&A store during Break Down, 2001. Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh