A specially constructed facility modelled on a material reclamation factory was installed and opened to the public in an empty department store on Oxford Street. Landy then set about systematically destroying all his possessions with the help of a team of operatives and a dedicated car mechanic.
Classified into ten categories – Artworks, Clothing, Equipment, Furniture, Kitchen, Leisure, Motor Vehicle, Perishables, Reading Material and Studio Material – the stuff of Landy's life circulated on a system of roller conveyors moving like a large Scalextric track around the empty store. Each individual possession was then systematically taken apart, broken down, pulped and granulated. After two weeks every single thing that Landy had once owned was no more. He was a man without possessions.
In an earlier work, Landy had plastered 'Everything Must Go' over the walls of a London gallery. In Break Down, 'Everything Did Go'. It proved to be Michael Landy's most ambitious – and most extreme – project to date.
I see this as the ultimate consumer choice. Once Break Down has finished, a more personal 'break down' will commence, life without my self-defining belongings… One way or other I'm trying to get rid of myself, so it's kind of the ultimate way without actually dispensing of me. – Michael Landy
Image: Michael Landy's team of operatives at work meticulousy destroying items on the factory line of Michael Landy's Break Down (2001).
A selection of the records, CDs and cassette tapes destroyed by Michael Landy and his team. Spotify users can listen to most of the tracks from this playlist here.
The Specials: Man at C&A
David Bowie: Breaking Glass
Echo and the Bunnymen: The Cutter
Queen and David Bowie: Under Pressure
Stranglers: Strange Little Girl
Diana Ross: Upside Down
Marc Bolan: You Scare Me to Death
Tom Tom Club: Tom Tom Club
John Martyn: Solid Air
Iggy Pop: Lust for Life
John Lennon: Imagine
Talking Heads: Little Creatures
The Associates: Sulk
Bauhaus: Ziggy Stardust
Heaven 17: Fascist Groove Thang
Grace Jones: Warm Leatherette
Cocteau Twins: Peppermint Pig
Joy Division: Love Will Tear Us Apart
Birthday Party: Nick the Stripper
The Police: Message in a Bottle
The Damned: I Just Can't Be Happy Today
The Crusaders: Street Life
The Jam: Beat Surrender
Chaka Khan: I Feel For You
Secret Affair: Time For Action
UK Subs: Tomorrow's Girls
Eurythmics: Who's That Girl
Madonna: Lucky Star
Rolling Stones: Start Me Up
Joyce Sims: All and All
Candi Statton: Young Hearts
Bill Lovelady: Reggae For it Now
Culture Club: Time (Clock of the Heart)
Phil Collins: In the Air Tonight
Dalis Car: The Judgement is the Mirror
Kiki Dee and Elton John: Don't Go Breaking My Heart
OMD: Swing Shift
The Flying Lizards: Money
Style Council: Money Go Round
Funeral Directors: Corpsegrinder
Fun Boy Three: Summertime
Gymslips: 48 Crash
Total Contrast: What You Gonna Do About It
Adam & the Ants: Deutsche Girls
The Creatures: Drive in Saturday
Hi Fi: Don't Break the Spell
Frankie Goes to Hollywood: Relax
Siouxsie and the Banshees: Melt!
Japan: Quiet Life
Blur: The Debt Collector
Jim Reeves: Old Tige
The Verve: Lucky Man
Paul Weller: You Do Something to Me
Radiohead: Nice Dream
Orbital: Halcyon and On and On (Live)
Happy Mondays: Lovechild
Nirvana: In Bloom
Garbage: I Think I'm Paranoid
Squeeze: Cool for Cats
The Cure: A Forest
B52s: Rock Lobster
Cameo: Single Life
The Clash: London Calling
Lou Reed: Satellite of Love
The Human League: Being Boiled
Level 42: Something About You
Gary Numan: Cars
Manic Street Preachers: The Everlasting
Fleetwood Mac: Go Your Own Way
The Outcasts: Angel Face
Air: All I Need
Michael Nyman: Drowning by Numbers
The Wolfe Tones: Let the People Sing
Bronski Beat: Smalltown Boy
The Hues Corporation: Rock the Boat
Image: An operative uses a hammer to destroy a videotape included in Michael Landy's inventory during Break Down (2001). Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh
"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'.
Image: Operatives on the factory line, dismantle various electrical goods, including a stereo system, during Break Down (2001). Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh
Before Michael Landy destroyed his possessions, he spent a year making a list of them. The full inventory contained 7,227 entries, split into the following ten categories:
A - Artworks
C - Clothing
E - Electrical
F - Furniture
K - Kitchen
L - Leisure
P - Perishables
R - Reading
S - Studio
V - Vehicle
I had my own place to live, I had my own furniture, I had some money in my bank account. And then I sort of thought: How am I going to screw this all up? [...] Then it just came to me, I wanted to destroy all my personal belongings. – Michael Landy
Michael Landy reflects on Break Down, discussing his meticulous delicate drawings as well as the ideas and personal concerns that underpinned the formation of this work.
Image: Inventory items including L790, a stuffed toy bear, placed into one of the yellow boxes in preparation to be destroyed on the factory line during Break Down (2001).
Michael Landy created several large scale illustrations during the documentation process leading up to Break Down, 2001. The illustrations include renderings of his Saab and it's destruction, to to a personal letter from his mother, his passport and press cuttings.
Image: Black and white Illustration documenting items destroyed during Break Down by Michael Landy (2001).
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...
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?
Image: In the background, Michael Landy oversees an operative, his cherry red Saab — missing it's bonnet — sits in the centre of the factory line during Break Down (2001). Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh
This interview originally appeared in Michael Landy / Break Down, a publication – part manual, part inventory and part research file – created to accompany the project in 2001.
JS: Will it be only consumer objects that you destroy, or will there be more personal items, like letters, photographs...
ML: I started out thinking about consumer objects but in the end found it very hard to draw the line between those items and my other possessions, so I decided to destroy everything, including art works, photographs, all kinds of things that I didn't exactly buy.
JS: I remember a technophile theorist – Ray Kurzweil – debating with a technophobe, and saying 'will you allow me to remove every vestige of technology from your body?' The technophobe agreed, so they start with his wristwatch – fine, you'd expect that. But then moved on to his clothes, threatened his fillings and so on. It wasn't long before the technophobe decided to draw a halt to the proceedings. Will you end this performance naked?
ML: No. There's a clause in my contract which says I don't do naked! I'll be left with the bare essentials.
Image: An operative on the factory line, saws a wooden box into pieces which he neatly arranges into stacks, one of which serendipitously spells 'put', during Break Down (2001). Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh
On 10 February 2021, Michael Landy was joined live on YouTube by Artangel Co-Director James Lingwood to discuss Break Down. Two decades on, the talk marked the twentieth anniversary of the project whilst reconvening the artist with its commissioner for an opportunity to reflect on the project’s many themes.
The artist answered questions throughout from the live audience on YouTube and those posted across social media on the hashtag #20YearsSinceBreakDown.
Image: Items on the factory line during Michael Landy's Break Down (2001). Photograph: Hugo Glendinning
This artist's book – part manual, part inventory, part research file – includes the complete list of his possessions, drawings, photographs, a collage of research materials and an interview with Julian Stallabrass, as well as a section of photographs from the actual installation in Oxford Street in London, February 2001.
This book represents the complete record of all Michael Landy’s possessions – all 7088 items. Classified into ten different categories – Artworks, Clothing, Equipment, Furniture, Kitchen, Leisure, Motor Vehicle, Perishables, Reading Material and Studio Material – this volume presents an extraordinary and, at times, intensely biographical inventory list of all items destroyed.
The ultimate irony of Break Down is that, as soon as it ends, Landy will have turned himself into the ideal consumer – a man who needs to be sold new underwear, pyjamas, shoes, toothbrush, hairbrush. – Richard Dorment, The Daily Telegraph
Artists have been known to destroy their own work and even to kill themselves, but usually it is in a fit of despair or rage. Landy's art is quintessentially modern because it is so ruthlessly efficient, so mechanised. This work took him two years to organise. At first glance the scene inside C&A looks like a factory hard at work making things. Only up close do you see that a process of destruction is taking place which is as complex as the process of creation. – Richard Dorment, The Daily Telegraph, 14 February 2001.
Break Down, Landy's strongest work to date, embodied more than a social commentary on shopping. His gesture of publicly stripping himself of his worldly goods had a spiritual dimension. He behaved as a shaman might, enacting a purge for communal ends. – Judith E. Stein, Art in America, June 2001.
Break Down was a real event, the first Brit Art gesture I have seen that transcended the new-establishment, new-elite, bad-boy banalities of Landy's contemporaries. He's a thinker, and a tough-minded one at that. Is it art? I don't know, but for once, thanks to the carefully reasoned rigour and impersonality of the project, I think so. – Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times, 11 March 2001.
Michael Landy's first experience working with Artangel was on the construction of Rachel Whiteread's House in 1993. He was then selected as part of the 1999 Open call for proposals and created Break Down in 2001.
Known as one of the most thought provoking artists of the ‘Sensation Generation’, Landy’s work was first shown in the legendary Freeze exhibition of 1988. Through the 1990s, Landy’s work explored contemporary consumerism in a sequence of major projects stretching from Market and Closing Down Sale early in that decade, to the sprawling shredded landscape of Scrapheap Services.
In the year following Break Down, Landy worked on a series of painstakingly detailed etchings of weeds, rendered in the traditional style of botanical draughtsmanship. In 2004, he created Semi-detached, a full scale model of the front and back facades of his parents’ house, shown at Tate Britain. In more recent times he has created drawings in charcoal, oilstick, glue and ink that reference Homage to New York, Jean Tinguely’s self-destructing machine which, for 27 minutes in 1960, spasmed, shook, and burst into flames but failed to fully self-destruct.
Images: Photographs of Michael Landy that were destroyed as part of Break Down, inventory items (left) L865 and (above) L577 (2001). Photographs: Parisa Taghizadeh
Who made this possible?
Break Down was commissioned from The Times / Artangel Open, with the support of the National Lottery through the A4E scheme administered by the Arts Council of England, Thomas Dane, Karsten Schubert, Anita and Poju Zabludowicz.