Michael Landy in Conversation with James Lingwood


James Lingwood: What determined the length of the project?

Michael Landy: We kind of made it up. There was a conversation about how long the Saab, which was the biggest single object, would take mechanic, Dave Nutt, and his assistant to dismantle. Of course it was also partly how long we actually had at C&A. So we set a two-week period to destroy 7,227 things, but at the same time we didn't know how long everything would take to go. It's not like there is any kind of rulebook for this kind of project.

JL: Except there was a rulebook!

ML: There were procedural guidelines, so the team knew what to do and how to do it. I wanted it to be very bureaucratic, very regular and methodical, like a kind of assembly line or production line but in reverse.

JL: It wasn't parodic, or carnivalesque, it was like being in an actual facility.

ML: Yeah, but on Oxford Street, which can be a bit frenzied. So you had people out to buy and they would pop into C&A's and see people disassembling and breaking things up. 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. The same kind of stuff they had at home too.

JL: Were there points when you had doubts about whether you really wanted to do this?

ML: I doubted whether the project would be any good but I didn't have any doubts about destroying my worldly belongings. Not at all. I decided that if I could destroy my artist's archive, all my photographs and documentation, then I could destroy anything really. That was my rationale.

JL: This idea of divesting yourself has parallels in religion - saints or monks or Buddhists who avoid the corruption of material wealth.

ML: No, I certainly didn't see it like that. A lot of people destroy their worldly belongings or they find they have been destroyed in a flood or a fire. It was a rational decision but I didn't see it as being a sacrifice. I thought about it being an examination of consumerism, about me being one of many millions of consumers and somehow at some point we begin to create our own biographies from the things we own or possess. And to realise the power of things and possessions. It was anti-consumerist but it was almost as much to do with people's love of things, and of different values and value systems. Because I was dealing with love letters and family photos and personal material like that, and they are very important to almost everyone.

JL: Most of the 50,000 people who saw Break Down were fascinated by this personal dimension. Most people were able to separate what they could at a push do without from the possessions that they would be really distraught to lose, so there was this powerful tension between possessions which had economic value and those which had sentimental value.

ML: And that was the point when it became much more extreme. Most people could just about give up the flat screen television and the DVD and the digital camera, but when it came to the love letters and the photographs, that was more difficult. We live in an affluent country, and if you have the money you can go out and replicate these things up to a certain point, but then obviously much more personal things like my Dad's sheepskin coat and things that have much more sentimental value you can't. The sentimentality of it... that's what drew people in really, that really hit people in the bottom of their stomach.

JL: You wanted Break Down to be completely unsentimental?

ML: I was more immersed in the anti-consumerist position, thinking about the status of commodities - people don't feel the need to question the validity of consumerism as a way of life.

JL: Despite your being on your guard against sentimentality, there were some decisions that you made, or were made on your behalf, that opened the door to emotion. I'm thinking particularly that the final object that you destroyed was your father's sheepskin coat.

ML: I think the sheepskin coat was there on the conveyor belt from the first day and it just kept travelling round and round. A few of the things I had more attachment to I destroyed last. I also had my record collection playing throughout the two weeks and this jollied the whole occasion along. It made us more destructive in a productive sense. 
The sheepskin coat was something that my Mum had bought for my Dad, but then he had a mining accident and couldn't wear it any more, so it was stored away in a cupboard. Over those two weeks the coat became my Dad in a way. My Dad is still alive but somehow it became him. It was the last object that we destroyed from all the 7,227. Just before that we'd destroyed my BMW speakers, my record collection, so for the first time it was quiet, sombre, though there were thousands of people in the store that last day. All that was left was my Dad's sheepskin coat... One of the operatives, Barry, shredded it and then there was nothing left.

JL: Except all the shredded, granulated material.

ML: I remember a conversation with you about how people wanted to see all of the granulated and shredded goods. Originally it was stored in the back room but we had them in front of the paned glass windows at the front of the store so that everyone could actually see the evidence. It was really important for people to see the material residues displayed.

JL: Looking back, what surprises you about Break Down? What did it come to mean which was different from your expectations?

ML: I think the general public really accepted it because I was offering up not just my worldly belongings but also myself, and as a whole people were very positive about it. Okay, some of them were appalled, but most people were more intrigued or fascinated-and that's what surprised me. I imagined that there would be a lot of people feeling very angry about it because obviously people spend their whole lives working to acquire all these possessions. Who am I to destroy them? Living in this society you just acquire things; it's almost impossible not to be a consumer. It is coming at you all the time, it is relentless.

JL: There was a wide range of responses from your artist friends about your destroying their art.

ML: When Gary Hume heard about the project, he asked for a painting back, what he called a clown painting, gloss paint on hardboard, because he wanted to base a whole series of paintings on it, so I gave it back to him and he gave me another one in exchange, so I could destroy that one instead. But he was so touched by the experience of visiting Break Down that he came back to Oxford Street with the original painting, so I ended up destroying the clown painting.

JL: That was an incredibly generous gesture. It reminds me of Hemingway accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature on the basis that he could then hand it on to Ezra Pound, who was completely outcast at the time. There was real solidarity from the artists.

ML: One or two were a bit shocked. I didn't realise it at the time, I only became aware afterwards.

JL: You had crossed an ethical line because these were gifts?

ML: They were gifts and they were artworks and in some ways artworks are not in anyone's possession as such. They're just passing through people's hands. But what I think is you can't ever iron it all out, it's never going to be tidy. I couldn't keep the artworks because that would have been a cop-out. I thought that the artworks should be treated just like everything else and shouldn't be given any special kind of treatment.

JL: Apart from becoming a public figure - 'The Man who Destroyed Everything' - how did the project change you?

ML: I don't have that kind of biography any more, or at least not the evidence of it. I don't have 7,000 things. I keep hold of things a lot less now, just try to keep what is essential. It changed me as a consumer and it made some new problems for me as an artist. It was such an ultimate project to do that it was difficult to move on.

JL: How did you work yourself out of that?

ML: Time, and going into financial freefall. 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.

JL: What were you drawing?

ML: Little plants that grow in the streets. Weeds.

JL: Survivors.

ML: Yeah, survivors.

Interview extracted from the monograph Michael Landy: Everything Must Go from Cornerhouse