BUILT WITH YOU IN MIND
By Andrew Maerkle
Art Bin (2010/14), installation view at the Yokohama Museum of Art. Photo Yuichiro Tanaka, courtesy the Organizing Committee for Yokohama Triennale.
Born in 1963 and based in London, Michael Landy is best known for his performance installation Break Down (2001), for which he catalogued all his possessions – ranging from everyday items to family keepsakes, artworks and a Saab 9000 car – and then systematically destroyed each and every one of them in an industrial-style “destruction line” he set up in empty retail space in London’s Oxford Street shopping area. The consumer society has been an enduring theme in Landy’s practice, as seen in early works such as Market (1990), a minimalist sculptural environment created out of market-stall stands, artificial grass and egg crates, as well as in the recent Credit Card Destroying Machine (2010), a contraption made out of scrap pieces which produced automatic drawings for participants while performing its titular function on their credit cards. However, Landy’s projects extend beyond any single category, and can also take the form of simple portraits of family and friends, or a collection of stories about random acts of kindness experienced by travelers on the London Underground.
Landy was recently in Japan for the opening of the Yokohama Triennale 2014, where he is presenting the Art Bin (2010/14), a giant receptacle for failed artworks, first realized at the South London Gallery in 2010. Placed in the center of the atrium of the Yokohama Museum of Art, and standing some two-stories high, the Yokohama Art Bin is one of the Triennale’s most prominent works. On the opening day, Triennale artistic director Yasumasa Morimura inaugurated the bin by throwing in a massive, brightly colored digital print. Artists will continue throwing in works throughout the duration of the exhibition. ART iT met with Landy after the opening of the Triennale to discuss his practice in greater detail.
The Yokohama Triennale 2014 continues through November 3.
Semi-detached (2004), Tate Britain, London. All images: Unless otherwise noted, courtesy
Michael Landy and Thomas Dane Gallery, London.
ART iT: Your practice dovetails nicely with the title of this year’s Yokohama Triennale, “ART Fahrenheit 451: Sailing into the sea of oblivion,” and Art Bin (2010/14) is arguably the exhibition centerpiece. What are your thoughts about the Triennale theme, and how do you see your work relating to it?
ML: Quite a lot of my career has ended up buried underground, or no longer exists, so obviously I am interested in questions of existence and how long things last and what kind of mythology things have. I like the idea that the Art Bin changes everyday, and I like that everything that goes into the bin becomes equal, and has the same value regardless of whether you are a famous or unknown artist. I’m interested in the value and worth we give to things as a society, whether it’s a person or our possessions or art or a weed. A weed is usually considered a nuisance. We dig them up and throw them away. It’s a plant out of place.
Similarly, in 2004 I made a project called Semi-Detached, for which I recreated my family house. The project is about my father, who was a miner. In the 1970s, when I was about 10 or 11, he had an industrial accident, which would later inform my development as an artist. The tunnel collapsed while he was working, burying him alive. He remembers looking up and seeing the roots of the trees above his head, and it was only because one of his workmates came and pulled him out that he survived. But he had spinal injuries, and was never able to work again.
It’s the one thing I was never able to articulate as an artist. I used to visit my parents and always leave thinking I’ve got to do something about the family history. It took a number of years before Tate Britain asked me to do an exhibition in the Duveen Galleries, which is a humongous space. They gave me the plan of the galleries, and I was thinking about what I could do there when I realized the one thing I hadn’t tackled was the situation with my father. So that’s the idea I came up with. The copy of the house would become his body. I split the house in two, placing one half in the south gallery and the other in the north. There was just enough space for people to walk around. I liked the idea that my parents bought the house so that one day it would fit into the Tate.
ART iT: Portraiture seems to be a recurring theme throughout your work. In addition to Semi-Detached, Break Down could similarly be considered a self-portrait, and you have made a series of actual portraits of family and friends.
ML: Yes. Break Down is an inventory of a man’s life at the age of 37 – everything I possessed at the time. It included mobile phones, my Saab car, clothes, books, old love letters, family memorabilia, my own works and those by my friends. It was done in a forensic way, with everything assigned a number, which relates to the performance that happened. It’s not a normal thing to sit down and go through all your possessions and itemize them. Even bits that had fallen off from something else had to have a number as well. You’re telling a story through the inventory.
ART iT: You also made a second project about your father, “Welcome to my world” (2004).
ML: “Welcome to my world / built with you in mind.” That’s from a Jim Reeves song. Reeves was an American singer from the 1950s and ’60s. Dad was always playing him on the record player. “Welcome to my world” was an offshoot of Semi-Detached. It included a number of drawings of my father and some of the objects he had on this shelf at home. So it was a portrait of him.
Work is what gives us our identity, and when that gets taken away it’s very difficult to create a new life for oneself. Dad was basically written off. In Britain the National Health Service is “cradle to grave.” But when I read through my father’s medical history, they literally referred to him as a “total wreck case,” and he basically got written off for the rest of his life, just as you would write off a car. So it was a highly emotive thing. How much of that do you put on public display? As an artist you constantly censor yourself, whether it’s for formal reasons or whatever, but this was the first time I ever felt at odds about how much to reveal. When I did Break Down, one of the objects I included was this big sheepskin coat Dad bought just before his accident. When we destroyed the coat it felt like bad things would happen to Dad, because it had been on the conveyor belt for the whole two weeks. But that led in a way to Semi-Detached.
Top: Break Down (2001), installation view, C&A building, Oxford Street, London. Left: Gillian (2007). Right: Self-Portrait #3 (2008).
ART iT: Break Down is often described as a critique of consumer culture, and on some level Semi-Detached and other works you’ve made about your father could be read as a protest against the social system. Portraiture is often considered to be a conventional or “neutral” genre of art making, but for you does it opens up a different kind of social perspective?
ML: Portraiture is literally about looking into somebody else’s face. I was drawing from an early age – it’s why I became an artist, really. As a family, we didn’t sit around and discuss things. We didn’t have many books. But I was able to draw, and if you put something in front of me, I would draw it. The teachers said I was good at that, and I believed it, and that became my way into art. So drawing is something that has always remained with me.
The thing about drawing is that all you need is an implement and a piece of paper. When I destroyed all my worldly belongings for Break Down, I had 100 meters of conveyor belt, I had all these tools, and there were 12 operatives assisting me. It was a big production. But when you draw a weed, all you need is the actual plant, an etching tool and a plate. You can simplify your practice back to how it was when you were a child.
I left school in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher took power and the country changed. Everything that had been in public ownership was sold off – the railways, gas companies – and we became more of a market economy. I’ve done projects about kindness [Acts of Kindness (2011)] where I asked members of the general public to send in their everyday acts of kindness, but people say that the kindly society ended in England when Thatcher took power.
Of course, it works both ways. When I was a YBA for a while, the loss of manufacturing industry meant there were lots of empty buildings where we could show our artworks. To that point there had been about four galleries that worked with younger artists, but you had to serve your time and then after 10 years someone might give you an exhibition. We circumnavigated that entirely. We made the artwork, we made the environment to put the artwork in, and we sold it. In that sense Thatcher partly created me as well.
But the London art world has completely changed now. I find that younger people are savvier than we were. We were quite naïve really, which was both good and bad.
ART iT: Would it be a bit clichéd to suggest that Art Bin is also a protest against the financial infrastructure and the commodification of artworks that has grown up around art since that time?
ML: Well, Damien Hirst gave me work for the version of Art Bin at South London Gallery. Many people only talk about Damien’s work in terms of value. Whether he wanted that to happen or not, that’s what happened, and you hear people openly talk about it as though it were any commodity. So it was great that he threw millions of pounds worth of work into a bin, where it just became part of a mass of stuff.
I’ve always been interested in rubbish in one form or another, whether it’s people being treated as rubbish or contemporary art being talked about as rubbish. The British press address art in a very tabloid way. I remember in the 1970s, when the Tate acquired Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966), the headline was, “What a load of rubbish!” The press were questioning why a public institution would use public money to buy a pile of bricks. You’re talking about minimalism, which in some way is the purest form of art. So art is talked about as rubbish, and Art Bin is a creative failure in a sense.
All artists know what it’s like to fail, because it’s part of the creative process. But in the bin it becomes one big mass of stuff. I like it when paintings fall on top of other works and pierce through them or splinter off. You can build some kind of aesthetic narrative out of that. When the bin’s empty it hasn’t got a function, but once you start throwing things in, it changes. Some of the artists today were jumping up and down with joy. They found it cathartic to throw things in the bin.
ART iT: What struck me at the opening yesterday was that the work had taken on a distinctly Japanese flavor, with everybody wearing white gloves to handle the works, and minders in suits accompanying the artists up the stairs.
ML: Yes, it was very ritualistic. People spent more time at the top doing things in a more ritualistic way. The British people literally just throw the work in. There’s no ceremony as such. The mood in London was more like the public hangings of the 17th century – primeval. People were shouting, “What a load of rubbish, throw it in the bin!” It took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure what I had created.
I remember when I did Break Down, even though you could say it was a complete waste, in that I could have given everything to charity or done other things with it, the people were very responsive. I came away thinking the British public are ok. People work their whole lives to acquire things, as my parents did, trying to make the lives of the next generation that much easier. There I was destroying all of that!
We even had people from different religious groups giving sermons about this man who was destroying all his worldly belongings. I made a sculpture recently of St. Francis, who came from a wealthy family, but gave up all his worldly possessions and literally presented himself naked to the church. People made analogies about me with St. Francis, which was certainly not my intent.
Top: H.2.N.Y. Tinguely Machine Erases its own Construction in 27 Minutes (2007). Bottom: “Saints Alive” (2013), installation view, National Gallery, London.
ART iT: The St. Francis sculpture was made for your project at the National Gallery in 2013, “Saints Alive,” where you animated images of Christian saints and martyrs into these Tinguely-like auto-destructive machines, and you’ve also paid homage to Jean Tinguely through the “H2NY” (2006-07) drawings and the exhibition “Joyous Machines” at Tate Liverpool in 2009-10. It seems possible to draw a connection between all these interests.
ML: Tinguely’s responsible for me. When I went to college I was initially interested in textiles and repeated patterns. I come from a working class family, so I thought I would get a job as a designer, but it didn’t work out, and I blame Tinguely for that. In 1982 I went to see his retrospective exhibition at the Tate. It was filled with kinetic sculptures that either worked or didn’t work – anarchic sculptures made out of junk. You would put your foot on a pedal and a motor would start and the sculpture would work in bizarre ways. I loved that people were laughing and smiling in an art gallery, and that had a profound effect on me.
That experience is what I wanted to recreate at the National Gallery. The National Gallery doesn’t really show contemporary art. They stopped collecting after the 19th century. The collection is principally painting, and I’ve never made a painting in my whole life. So I was intrigued when they asked me to be the artist in residence – I was doing Art Bin at the time, destroying things – and I saw it as an opportunity to look at the collection. I started to pick up on the Christian saints, and their attributes, which were so important at a time when most people could not read or write. For example, St. Jerome has a rock he uses to beat his chest. You see him depicted in the Syrian dessert as a hermit, or as a scholar in red robes transcribing the Bible, or he’s pulling a thorn from a lion’s paw. Or you have St. Catherine, who was a virgin martyr. There’s always some Roman emperor who falls in love with a Christian virgin, tries to convince her to accept his pagan gods, and then puts her to death when she refuses. In Catherine’s case, they put her on a torture apparatus, the Catherine wheel, but at the last moment a seraph descends from heaven and splits the wheel into several thousand pieces, killing 4000 pagans at the same time. Finally the emperor chops her head off, milk flows from her body and she’s taken off to Mt. Sinai by angels for burial. You couldn’t make this up. The saints have all these wonderful attributes and fantastical stories behind them.
My work was a bizarre combination of this Christian iconography and kinetic sculpture. St. Jerome is there making noise in the middle of the National Gallery, and people were shocked by it. The saints would literally come alive when you pushed the foot pedal, exactly like the Tinguely pieces I witnessed when I was 18.
ART iT: It also suggests a way to deconstruct the value of art that gets built up through institutions and institutionalized regimes of spectatorship. Not only are these religious paintings, but we also consider them to be artistic masterpieces, and approach them with that much added reverence. Seeing them reinvented as kinetic sculptures probably gave viewers a different way to access the original works.
ML: Well, the reverence of today is not the same as that of the 15th century. The original paintings were literally works of devotion. They are fragments taken from churches and put into art galleries. Although we’ve become a more secular society, I wasn’t sure what the public reaction would be, because some people might find it blasphemous, but it wasn’t an issue. I had Doubting Thomas, who doesn’t believe Christ has been resurrected until he puts his fingers into Christ’s side. My sculpture is based on a Cima painting. Christ’s torso becomes like a boxing bag and Thomas’s finger is almost accusatory, beating him. Things are falling apart, the paint is coming off the sculptures, half of which aren’t working when you enter the gallery – very much like Tinguely. It’s like Scrapheap Services (1995): when you stepped on the figures made out of rubbish, you somehow became complicit in it all. It’s part fairground and it’s entertaining, people laugh and enjoy it – maybe some are disturbed – but I’ve learnt as an artist that you don’t want to dictate what people get out of it.
ART iT: But the audience in the 15th century would have had a much closer relationship to violent death than we do now.
ML: Death was completely different. Everything was much more visceral than it is now. That idea of auto-destructiveness, like Tinguely’s work being created to destroy itself, applies as well. A virgin martyr is someone who is so single-minded that it ultimately leads to her death. There are some very nice saints, like Dorothea, who drops roses and apples from heaven, and Nicholas – Father Christmas – who carries three golden balls, which he gives to three young ladies to save them from a life of prostitution. You have nice saints and auto-destructive saints. You have St. Lucy: a man compliments her on her eyes, so she pulls them out, sticks them on a plate and hands them to him. She’s the patron saint of opticians. And then there is my namesake, the archangel St. Michael, who is the patron saint of bankers, and also slays the devil. He carries weights for weighing people’s souls to determine whether they go to hell or heaven.
Top: Art Bin (2010/14). Photo Yuichiro Tanaka, courtesy the Organizing Committee for Yokohama Triennale.Bottom: Break Down (2001), installation view, C&A building, Oxford Street, London.
ART iT: That brings me back to Break Down. Could you clarify to what extent a critique of consumerism was a motivation for the work, and then to what extent thinking about how we consume is still a concern of yours today?
ML: All my possessions had different values, from a Saab car, to an artwork, to consumer items designed to be thrown away. I’ve talked about consumerism as the number-one ideology of our time. It’s pervasive. It’s not just about going into a shop and buying a particular thing. Music and art have also become commodified. So in some respects it was a critique, and it also had a knock-on effect to me, because I had been a happy consumer until the age of 37. It was liberating to destroy all my possessions, but it was also like witnessing my own funeral. It was the ultimate luxury, in a sense, to be able to destroy all 7227 possessions, because in the West the more stuff we have, the more we are perceived to be successful. As a child, I always wanted to take things apart to know how they work, and in that sense it was an examination of consumerism. People would walk in and see these yellow trays with objects going around the conveyor belt, and make a mental inventory of what they possessed, and their own feelings about possessions and what they could or couldn’t get rid of, or what they would do if it were all taken away. I don’t know if that answers your questions.
I was very shy as a child. Even at college, I didn’t really speak. In art school people talk about everything, the most miniscule things. I thought, Why are we talking about this cup? Why are we spending so much time talking? Of course, I eventually understood what it was about. So when it came to Break Down, I read a lot about consumerism, because I knew people would be asking me questions about what motivated me to do the project. Then, years later, somebody said to me, “Ah, but you didn’t get rid of your name,” which I thought was a really smart comment.
Actually, though, I didn’t end up with nothing. I ended up with less than nothing, because I had debts to pay off at a later date. I thought that was very contemporary. Ending up with nothing would be so Zen. Instead, you end up with debts. That’s contemporary Britain.
Michael Landy: Built With You in Mind