Critics’ Picks

View of “Break Down: 20 Years,” 2021. Photo: Ben Westoby.

View of “Break Down: 20 Years,” 2021. Photo: Ben Westoby.


Michael Landy

Thomas Dane Gallery
3 & 11 Duke Street, St James's
April 13–June 5, 2021

During the pandemic, I began watching hypnotic YouTube compilations in which ordinary things—a cheese grater or a toy—are crushed in a hydraulic press. The objects buckle or splatter and turn into mousse.

Over two weeks in February 2001, Michael Landy, then aged thirty-eight, publicly destroyed everything he owned. Here, a surreal documentary video finds a team of twelve assistants in blue boiler suits moving around a 100-meter conveyor belt that threads through a former department store on Oxford Street. The assistants weigh, log, and sort every item owned by the Young British Artist—7,227 possessions—before reducing them to rubble: hammering crockery into shards, shredding books and floppy disks, feeding artworks into a crushing machine.

After months of staying at home, Break Down evokes both the intense tenderness and revulsion we might feel for the objects that keep us company. Landy’s inventory is repurposed as wallpaper, while three vitrines contain ephemera from the Oxford Street show, including little bags of rubble and some very beautiful photographs of Break Down taken by Wolfgang Tillmans.

Meanwhile, six framed black-and-white drawings appear to show mad Rube Goldberg–style designs for demolition machines. Closer inspection reveals that they are sketches of reclamation factories visited by Landy in the 1990s. A critique of consumerism, Break Down was also meant to shed light on the promises, and failures, of the recycling industry. One senses that the artist escaped his material belongings only in principle. Perhaps the true horror is that, twenty years after Break Down, so much waste remains indestructible. It can be crushed, yes, but not recycled: merely broken down, like Landy’s floppy disks, into smaller and smaller bits, destined for the landfills with which we still must live.