Five years ago, a British artist named Michael Landy performed the public destruction of all 7,226 of his belongings in a vacant building in central London. He stood on a platform over a production line of ten “blue-collared operatives”, directing the cataloguing and destruction of all his possessions, down to the last sock. It took nearly two weeks, and attracted 45,000 visitors. Landy called it an examination of consumerism.
When he finished, he told an interviewer, he felt a tremendous sense of freedom and possibility. But that freedom was eroded “by the everyday concerns of life.” His performance piece, called Break Down, was the subject of much controversy. He was criticized by art dealers for destroying the work of other artists, and was decisively removed from the running in the competition for the prestigious Tuner Prize.
Landy mentions in interview that he was a little annoyed by the fact that some of his possessions might have eluded destruction: Love letters, for example, that he had returned to an ex-girlfriend at her request. He also admits that it was very hard for him to see the last item go…his father’s sheepskin coat, which he hoped someone would steal in order to save it.
These last two conflicts seem like the ones that would drive me nuts. If you’re set on destroying all your belongings to make a statement, I can see how you might feel a certain psychotic level of scrupulosity: Everything means every goddamned thing! Forgetting a toothbrush would just fuck the whole thing up! All that for nothing! you might feel. Likewise, wanting to spare a certain special item sort of negates your whole aim. If you are too attached to even one thing, you might as well keep it, as well as all the rest of your shit. It’s your shit, after all! It’s all you can acquire in life, besides debt and if you’re lucky, some amount of knowledge.
Poor Landy. He didn’t feel the desire to work for a long time after Break Down. I can see his dilemma: Why bother? Once you have made such a huge gesture implying the nobility of destruction, why create? But later, he went on to become the subject of a BBC Documentary, and published a book of the computerized catalogue of the stuff he destroyed.
I sometimes like to imagine the purity and weightlessness I would feel if I lost everything in a fire or tidal wave. To be free from the ballast of all my shit…free to start all over, not just collecting shit, but to be someone else. Someone defined by the new shit I would acquire! Did George Carlin discuss this angle in his rumination on “Stuff”?
Unlike Michael Landy, I am neither ready to give up my belongings, nor impressed with them enough to think they deserve cataloguing. Except for my lipstick collection, of course, which will be curated at a later date. But I have to admit that his endeavor provokes a complex array of feelings, from “What an Idiot!” all the way to “How Liberating!” I will probably settle down, though, at my standard default position, “How soon can I go shopping?”