Michael Landy’s Art of Destruction

COLCHESTER, England — Michael Landy is a British artist best-known for a project in which he systematically inventoried all 7,227 of his personal possessions. Then systematically destroyed them.

This year is the 20th anniversary of that installation-cum-performance, “Break Down,” which brought Landy international fame as “The Man Who Destroyed Everything.” It isn’t often that conceptual works of art that no longer physically exist are still being talked about two decades later.

But a display to celebrate the 20th anniversary of “Break Down,” as well as a new installation by Landy, on show at Firstsite, a gallery southern England, show the artist is still a prescient critic of consumerism. The exhibition, called “Michael Landy’s Welcome to Essex” after the county surrounding the gallery where the artist grew up, runs through Sept. 5.

“It’s a good time for his work to get new exposure,” said Julian Stallabrass, a professor of modern and contemporary art at the Courtauld Institute in London, and author of “High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art.”

“Michael was, I think, always one of the most interesting artists of the Y.B.A. grouping,” said Stallabrass, referring to the generation of Young British Artists that energized the contemporary art scene in the 1990s and early 2000s. “Not just because of his anti-commercial stance — or rather that his work was often about commerce and its consequences — but because of his long reflection on social class.”

“Break Down” was produced by the London-based nonprofit ArtAngel in a disused department store on Oxford Street, then Europe’s busiest shopping district. There, Landy spent two weeks in charge of an elaborate recycling facility repurposed to break down, pulp and granulate everything he owned, including the complete archive of his artworks, his record collection and his Saab 900 Turbo.

At the end of the process, witnessed by about 50,000 visitors, he was left with six tons of bagged-up waste. It was buried in a landfill site in Essex, where much of London’s garbage is dumped.

“Consumerism has become the No. 1 ideology of our time,” Landy, 58, said on a recent tour of the anniversary exhibition. “We end up with all this stuff,” he added. “I wanted to take that apart.”

Like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry and other Y.B.A.s, Landy came from a working-class background. He studied at the prestigious Goldsmiths art school in London in the late 1980s, at a time before the introduction of tuition fees for higher education began dissuading many students from lower-income families.

Unlike Hirst, Emin and Perry, whose imposingly priced works have regularly featured at international art fairs and auctions, Landy has never courted commercial success. The highest price paid for his works at auction remains $36,000, given in 2002 for his sculpture “Costermonger’s Stall.”

But in 1997, the Tate Gallery acquired his “Scrapheap Services,” a room-size installation in which a fictional “people-cleansing” company sweeps up human-shaped refuse and passes it through a shredding machine. The work’s sale gave Landy a measure of financial security.

“It was the first time that, materially speaking, I was ahead in my life,” said Landy, who celebrated his success by buying a Savile Row suit and the Saab that would become part of “Break Down.”

But doubts set in. “Is that what I strove to do? I’ve got a Saab car and a Richard James suit. What does that all mean?” Landy recalled asking himself. “The idea popped into my head that I should destroy all my worldly belongings.”

ArtAngel had already brought to life acclaimed art projects like Rachel Whiteread’s “House” (1993) and Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster 4” (1994), and Landy said that collaborating with its co-director James Lingwood was crucial to making “Break Down” happen. It took three years of planning. Listing his possessions took an entire year.

“Oxford Street was the missing ingredient,” said Landy, recalling the vacant C&A store that he used to destroy all his belongings. “It’s where people come to consume things, the latest items.”

“People were angry, people were bemused. They were being given lots of consumer choice, but this was mine,” he added. “I felt I was witnessing my own death.”

Landy and ArtAngel agreed that none of it would become merchandise. “It was about a total erasure of possessions from his life,” Lingwood said. The artist was going back to being someone who owned nothing and had some debt.

“He had a roof over his head. We bought him some clothes. Probably a friend of his gave him some cash. He went home to Gillian,” added Lingwood, referring to the artist Gillian Wearing, who is now Landy’s wife.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Landy produced no art for a year after “Break Down.”

Then, in 2002, he returned to drawing, the medium that had engrossed him as a child. He made a series of 12 painstakingly observed etchings of weeds, of “little things that grow in cracks in the street,” for Paragon Press, a specialist publisher of prints.

“It’s an allegory for rebirth,” said Charles Booth-Clibborn, the publisher’s founder, describing Landy’s “Nourishment” etchings. “They were like portraits of Londoners,” he added. “These plants exist in urban environments where it’s hard for plants to survive. But they do thrive, and he celebrated them.”

In recent years, Landy has returned to large-scale installations. In 2010, he created a giant metal and Perspex trash can for failed works of art at the South London Gallery. And in 2018, in the aftermath of what he saw as Britain’s self-destructive vote to leave the European Union, he set up “Open for Business,” a “Brexit kiosk” selling “100 percent British products” such as Union Jack-decorated mugs and condoms at the inaugural Riga Biennial in Latvia.

Landy’s native Essex included two of Britain’s five districts with the highest votes for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Ever since the Thatcherite 1980s, when the county became a bastion of working-class Conservatism, it has fallen victim in British popular culture to derogatory “Essex Man” and “Essex Girl” caricatures, depicting its inhabitants as brash, uneducated and materialistic.

In addition to looking back to “Break Down” in Colchester, Landy is investigating these stereotypes in a three-room installation about Essex, a place that the artist bills as “England’s Most Misunderstood County.”

The show includes aerial footage of local garbage dumps, banners with Essex-themed tabloid headlines, and trash-filled dumpsters piled with TV sets showing interviews and comedies that feature Essex. It has divided local visitors to the gallery in Colchester, the historic university town that was once the capital of Roman Britain.

Stephen Callely, 60, a retired teacher, wasn’t impressed. “It doesn’t challenge us. We can snigger at it,” he said after visiting the exhibition this month.

Yet Stella Clarke, 9, was intrigued the “Break Down” display, particularly a wall that reproduced a section from Landy’s inventory of possessions, such as “C542: Sainsbury’s single blue cotton/polyester sock.”.

“It was a very strange thing he did,” said Clarke. “Maybe he was saying he didn’t need all this stuff.”

Landy, too, was fascinated by art as a child. At 15, he had a scratchboard work included in an episode of “Vision On,” an educational BBC TV show in which children were invited to send in paintings and drawings. Yet when he asked for the piece back, the BBC informed him it could not be returned.

“They always destroyed the work,” Landy said. “That was the beginning.”

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