One thing I have discovered over the years is that people have really strong opinions about art. If I write about an artist that people don’t like, they immediately press “unsubscribe” and sometimes follow-up with a reprimanding email saying that what the particular artist in question is doing, is not art. By now I am used to this and I amuse myself by predicting what kind of articles will solicit such a response. This is going to be one of those articles. Brace yourself.
An important goal of art and artists is to make us see the world in a different way. Often this is done through artworks in the form of paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs or videos. However another way contemporary artists challenge our ways of thinking is through actions. This kind of work might be described as performative art or social practice. Michael Landy is an artist who used the action of destroying every object he owned to make us question our accumulation of objects.
We all have moments in our life where we realize we own too much stuff: too many clothes, too many shoes, too many books and on it goes. Some of us attempt to de-clutter by following gurus such as Marie Kondo in the Magic Art of Tidying Up or others follow the Swedish “dostadning”, a hybrid of the words for death and cleaning. In 2001 Landy chose to deal with the burden of possessions by making an an art piece about getting rid of every object he owned.
In Breakdown Landy put all of his belongings on a conveyor belt and over a two-week period, he systematically broke them down into the smallest components possible given the machinery involved (see image below). While this might seem an extreme act, the loss of one’s possessions it is a thought that crosses everybody’s mind at some point. We convince ourselves that we cannot live without our objects, and yet this is not true considering many people have experienced such as loss through fire, flood or war and somehow they find a way to survive. Our possessions give our life meaning, but they also hold us back and can be seen as an unnecessary burden.
In a blog called SPACES, Landy describes the experience of destroying all his possessions:
“I really loved it, especially the actual process of destruction. I didn’t miss things because I rationalised them as part of an artwork – I wasn’t acting as a madman – so I was mentally prepared”. Landy meticulously documented all of his belongings (see image towards end of article) before breaking things down. The written record replaced the loss or absence of the actual objects. He discusses his process in a Canadian Art article: On the Art of Destruction.
Roberta Smith’s includes an exhibition of Landy’s work in her recent New York Times article: 5 Great Art Exhibitions to See Before They Close. Landy’s current project, Breaking News, includes a multitude of drawings described in Hyperallergic as “ranging in size from minuscule to monstrous”. This exhibition also contains a floor-to-ceiling text inventory of the 7,227 objects destroyed in Breakdown (see below). While the works are different in intent, the themes of the everyday and excess create a sense of continuity in Landy’s work spanning the last 17 years.
The thing that appealed to me most about Landy’s process was that of taking an “inventory”. The visual impact of the list of all the objects he owned is very powerful. After first seeing Landy’s work at the Vancouver Art Gallery at For the Record: Drawing Contemporary Art (2003), I attempted to make a list of all the things I owned. I stopped after a couple of pages because I couldn’t get past the immensity of the task at hand. The process did make me consider what I owned and why I owned it. Breakdown is an exemplary example of how art can make us think about how we live our lives.