"Mike, is there life on Mars?"
This is what Dave Nutt, my Buddhist Saab mechanic would shout up at me standing on the platform, as he was ripping through my Saab 900 165 turbo 16S, as we listened to the umpteenth David Bowie record on my B&W speakers.
For two weeks, and two weeks only, we had set ourselves the task to destroy my worldly possessions, all 7,227 of them. I hadn't really considered whether we could do it or not, since to the best of my knowledge, no-one had attempted this feat before.
Within no time at all, dismantling my belongings or watching them travelling around in the yellow trays on the 100 metre conveyor belt in front of would be shoppers became normal.
This is what I did along with 12 of my operatives – whom I now call 'disciples'.
Morning – put my blue Artangel overalls on; walk to London Bridge station to catch the Jubilee Line to Bond Street; walk along Oxford Street, looking at the new, never used DVDs and digital cameras in the shop windows; go into the former C&A building (Marble Arch branch); re-stock the yellow conveyor belt rays. Clive Lissaman (janitor) then switched on the power.
We would always start with the same song in the morning – Breaking Glass – and finish with the same song every evening – Joy Division's Love Will Tear us Apart. Standing on the nine foot high platform from which I could oversee the whole destruction process, it was my job to separate the dismantled materials into their individual containers, i.e. paper, metal, plastic, etc., as well as looking out for potential shoplifters.
I really enjoyed being on my high platform. It separated me from the activity down below. When I stepped off onto my £450 ladder and walked on the ground floor, I felt vulnerable. That is not something one should be doing in the consumerist mecca of Oxford Street.
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. We would have to explain to them that they wouldn't be able to get their money back or exchange them with other items. One man said he was a Times newspaper shareholder and it was a complete waste of money (The Times sponsored the open competition in which my project was selected). Basically we could have spent the whole time talking to people about what we were doing. The invigilators were exhausted by the end of the day.
At 6pm a gang of us went to the pub to unwind and exchange stories about what had happened earlier that day... One of the stories was about a man who took my Chris Offili print – which I had won in a Time Out competition, in which the question was: "who won the 1997 Turner Prize?'. I know that one, since it was my girlfriend – from the yellow tray and started to walk away with it. But Clive had spotted him doing it so he grabbed the other end of the print and managed to grab it from him. "He doesn't really want this, he's getting rid of it anyway," was the man's response.
I was amazed that we managed to secure C&A as a venue. The Production Manager, Tracey, had spotted the headlines that C&A was closing down and managed to have Artangel meet up with C&A's property manager. The whole deal was almost blown out when a headline in the Evening Standard appeared just before we opened. "Madman at C & A" suddenly seemed to jeopardise the entire project. Artangel saved it with a quick charm offensive.
Nearing the end of the two weeks, the platform had transformed into my gallows. Apart from expecting Heath & Safety to come and close us down any minute, there was a tense atmosphere. I spotted my mum crying and it started to feel as if I was preparing for my own funeral. So I had to come down the ladder and throw her out. I wondered whether I was the first artist ever to throw his mum out of his own exhibition.
Last year I met Jo Strummer from the Clash. He'd heard about what I did and told him that the project had included destroying their album London Calling. He seemed quite philosophical about it, mentioned something like, "it's only a piece of vinyl".
I gave an average of six interviews a day, which had been arranged through Artangel. I talked to people from Brazilian radio and to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun. During the two weeks that project lasted, it seemed as if pure adrenaline surged through my veins. Post Break Down, Gillian (my girlfriend) and Clive said that I had changed for that short amount of time. They sounded a bit disappointed but I pleaded mitigating circumstances. The only thing I didn't give up was smoking. When I felt the need I would ask one of the operatives to take over the platform as I went around the back for a cigarette.
In the late afternoon we had the daily ritual of drinking a cup of tea inside what was left of my Saab 900. We would have a bit of a gossip. At the beginning of the stripping down of the car, it didn't feel like it was mine, until I sat back down inside it and started playing with the steering wheel (which was still attached at the time to the rest of the car). It only then felt like it was mine, but not for much longer.
For the first week our mascot was Rocky the Lobster, which I had bought from the Gadget shop on Oxford Street. He chirpily sang from 10 am until 6 pm, the two songs Dowhadiddy and Rock the Boat, until his time was up when we dismantled and granulated him.
For the most part I was hung over, exhausted, and kept myself going on Solpadeine. For those fourteen days it was like a holiday from everyday-life, destroying your belongings in front of complete strangers. C&A became this exclusive anti-consumerist holiday resort as all around us shoppers purchased the latest consumer durables.
The only people to have physical access to my possessions were the operatives. Heather, who was a first year student at Byam Shaw School of Art, spent her whole time reading my love letters and other literary material and then shredding it. Another operative on one day came up to me and said I was a bit of a bastard, which he had gleaned from reading one of my letters, written by an ex girlfriend. Jess's (another operative) job was to dismantle my soiled Calvin Klein underpants.
After Break Down I really got the taste for dismantling objects. My value system was without value. I would sit on a bus (since that was my only form of transport then) and think about what the best way of taking it apart would be. Talking about value: the only time I even thought "Christ what am I doing?" was when I set about blow torching the gloss paint from Gary Hume's painting in front of Canadian and German TV crews.
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.