Artist Demolishes Belongings
February 10, 2001 2:23 PM   Subscribe

Artist Demolishes Belongings Inside a defunct department store in the heart of London's shopping district, dozens of yellow bins move slowly along conveyor belts toward the mouth a gigantic blue machine. Workers in jumpsuits systematically catalogue and weigh the contents of each one. This is British artist Michael Landy's newest work: The items in the bins - coats, photographs, paintings, furniture - are all of his belongings. Over the next two weeks, everything he owns - including a red Saab - will be destroyed.
posted by Mars Saxman (37 comments total)
I suppose some might consider it art, but I know what I like and I've never had any interest whatever in performance art.

Of course, there's no consensus as to what art is. Scott McCloud says that art is anything not directly associated with survival or reproduction, but I think that's much too broad. I would say (knowing full well that others won't agree with me) that art is a means of communicating concepts or of stimulating feelings in the audience which are not easy to communicate or stimulate respectively. The purpose of art is to give the audience knowledge or experience not easily gotten otherwise.

If I were to select a single adjective which I thought must apply to all art, it would be "profound".

On that basis, I think this is a crock, as indeed is most "modern art". I don't require that I like something for it to be art; I know of much I consider art that I personally don't care for. But performance art is rarely profound.

But what would you expect from a barbarian engineer?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:41 PM on February 10, 2001

Ugh. It seems like every performance artist is going to sell or destroy all of their stuff this year.
posted by gluechunk at 4:26 PM on February 10, 2001

I agree with you , Steven. Let's hope that this empty-headed gesture, on Mr. Landy's part, is his farewell to the public.
posted by xtrmntr at 4:38 PM on February 10, 2001

Art, schmart. This is beautiful.
posted by sudama at 4:43 PM on February 10, 2001

The thing's a stunt, everyone's into consumerism, or even the whole term as it is. It's become so that the very movement of anti-consumerism is so hip that you struggle to buy stuff to keep up. Ok, Tyler Durden, I don't need my tv, my house, my anything, but, I do want that nice 2-disk fold-up dvd over at walmart. Ok, nothing against Fincher, but, come one, anti-consumerism?
posted by tiaka at 5:56 PM on February 10, 2001

So call me mercenary, I find that just plain stupid.
posted by bjgeiger at 6:03 PM on February 10, 2001

Taika, you are not your fucking khakis *sly nod of recognition*.
posted by xtrmntr at 9:51 PM on February 10, 2001

Couldn't he just give me the Saab? I'm sure there must be some way to interpret shipping a luxury car halfway around the planet to my house as "art."
posted by lia at 11:06 PM on February 10, 2001

My thoughts exactly, lia.
posted by hobbes at 11:40 PM on February 10, 2001

I would argue that we do 2 things and call them art.
1: communication (using a recognised system of limitations to share things).
2: Self expression (trying to place something that only exists inside one individual's head into the world outside).
Those definitions can get a bit confusing when you try to think about it but when it comes down to it, if you're doing the first then you're probably doing it for other people as much as for yourself. the second is something you would probably do only for yourself.

posted by davidgentle at 11:40 PM on February 10, 2001

When he's done, he's announced that he's going to lock inself in his apartment for a year and order everything he needs off the Internet.
posted by aaron at 12:30 AM on February 11, 2001

If he really wanted to make a statement, it would have been nice for him to sell all his belongings and give the money to charity.

(I think he's an idiot. But what would I know about art?)
posted by underpantsgnomette at 2:45 AM on February 11, 2001

tiaka, I think you're misinterpreting "Fight Club". To me, the movie does not promote anti-consumerism. To me, it says "if you get too carried away in your revolutionary, anti-consumerist zeal, you will go crazy, do stupid, destructive things, and possibly end up hurting people you love". If anything, it's anti-anti-consumerist. (Spoiler ahead for those who have not seen the movie...) The fact that Tyler Durden "dies" at the end is symbolic of that.

Slightly more on-topic, I think Michael Landy's "performance" has very little to do with being anti-consumerist, either. If he were only destroying mass-produced items (things that actually fit the definition of consumerism), then it would have some meaning. The Saab is a good start. But what about items that might have sentimental value (such as his father's sheepskin jacket), or things of asthetic value that cannot be replaced (such as the paintings owns). A more accurate description of this event would be that it is "anti-materialist", which is something very much apart from anti-consumerism (although I still have a hard time with the destruction of original art, even as part of an anti-materialist display).
posted by Potsy at 3:23 AM on February 11, 2001

In Walden, Thoreau claims that he believes in what he calls an Indian tradition of destroying most of what one owns every year so as not to be burdened with goodies.
In Thoreau's case, of course, he owned very little and thus his art of building (his cabin) became literary art rather than his destruction of things.
posted by Postroad at 4:12 AM on February 11, 2001

I am Jack's complete lack of interest.
posted by Optamystic at 4:20 AM on February 11, 2001

Let's make artists only do art like they did it fifty years ago.

Also, let's make programmers only work on computers like they did fifty years ago.
posted by dhartung at 1:54 PM on February 11, 2001

If this story was simply about a man that had decided to destroy all his belongings, it would be more interesting.

When it happens under the rubric of 'art', it becomes a lot less fascinating. The unconventional nature of the act is diluted by the theory surrounding it.

If someone was brought to this decision by some kind of desperation, a contemporary act of renunciation, it would be more striking to me.

I'm sure that the artist will experience some kind of palliative effect, but it would have been a more personal experience for him if had been a private event, rather than a public performance.

A personal recognition of the extent to which our actions and relationships are constructed by ideas and images of oneself, others, and how the world should be or is supposed to be, and the ways in which this leads to separation and conflict, is a much more compelling kind of 'art'.

posted by bathtime at 2:11 PM on February 11, 2001

Let's make artists only do art like they did it fifty years ago.

Also, let's make programmers only work on computers like they did fifty years ago.

Here is the fundamental distinction between art and science. Science improves pretty constantly, with few exceptions.

Art, on the other hand, doesn't improve, except in the cases where it is aided by science.
posted by dagnyscott at 4:26 PM on February 11, 2001

artmaking, unlike science, isn't generally practiced as a cumulative process building upon previous work, you smug little thing.
posted by patricking at 8:36 PM on February 11, 2001

Not to mention dagnyscott wants to put some sort of qualitative measure on art, which is antithetical to the very idea of creating it.

Mr. Landy’s piece is the natural progression of oblivion and subjective/objective identity. To wit: “After spending a week crouched on the floor of the American Visionary Art Museum coaxing grains of sand into an elaborate design, 10 Tibetan Buddhist monks held a brief ceremony, swept up the sand and tossed it into the Inner Harbor.”
“‘You are filled with a sense of amazement that someone can painstakingly create something with that much meaning and detail and then destroy it,’ said Virginia Eanes...” Destroyed, not unlike Landy’s outward identity as represented by the items he’s collected during his life.

Landy will have no identity in the materialist world, just as Tibetan Buddhists’ is gone to the phenomenal. These are both powerful acts. Where would anyone of our lives be without the trinkets that clutter it? There are valuable lessons to be learned here if you take the time to look into it.

Or, you could easily wave your wrist and snort, “It’s not my thing,” “I’m not interested,” “Art has nothing to say anymore.” Those are bullshit, the refuge of a mind living in fear of what it might see.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 10:40 PM on February 11, 2001

Good words, crackpipe.
posted by Optamystic at 11:35 PM on February 11, 2001

exactly. thank you.
posted by patricking at 12:06 AM on February 12, 2001

artmaking, unlike science, isn't generally practiced as a cumulative process building upon previous work

Maybe if they did practice it that way, less of it would suck.
posted by kindall at 12:44 AM on February 12, 2001

Captain, I'm not afraid of what I might see. However, I have limited ability to pay attention to things. No person is capable of paying attention to everything, so I must prioritize my time.

I consume enormous amounts of art. In my case, the largest source of it is music. Nor do I cling to the traditional and ignore the modern, in as much as my favorite composer is Shostakovich. His music doesn't go down easily; it takes a great deal of work from the audience to understand. In some cases, though, I find things which are new after 50 listenings. I still don't fully understand his 11th symphony, even though I love it deeply.

In another example, I've been listening to "The Planets" (Holst) since I was a kid, but I only began to really understand it when I was about 40, because before that I didn't have enough life experience to get the messages in it. I also don't yet understand Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra", which I discovered as an adult. But all are worthy of further examination and I expect to be listening to them and discovering depth to them to the day I die. (If I reach 70, I may then say that I didn't really fully understand "The Planets" until I was 60, despite what I thought when I was 47.)

I'm not afraid of art. I am, however, contemptuous of posturing which masquerades as art.

When I try to judge importance of something in my life, I use what I call the "five year" rule: Five years from now, will I still think this is important?

Regarding art and other aspects of culture, I use a hundred year rule: "A hundred years from now, will people remember this and still think it's important? Will people still be seeking it out to be experienced a hundred years from now?" Popular entertainment can pass this test (though most doesn't), and I think it's a good way to separate the profound from the banal. A hundred years from now people will still be listening to the compositions of John Lennon and Paul McCartney -- but no-one will remember "Herman and the Hermits". (Few do now.)

It's not quite a hundred years yet, but people still watch the early silent movies made by Chaplin. I think it's safe to assume that those films will still be watched a hundred years from now.

So they qualify as great art. This "performance" doesn't. A hundred years from now this will be a tiny footnote, not a great event. On the other hand, a hundred years from now people will still listen to and do the work to appreciate the music of Shostakovich. People will still be watching the cartoons of Friz Freleng and Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, and they'll be laughing so hard that they won't realize how profound they really are. (Comedy can unquestionably be great art, and great comedy is eternal because it deals with the failings of humanity. There's a little bit of Daffy Duck in all of us.)

After 300 years, we still listen to and enjoy the music of Bach. After 400 years, we still watch plays written by Shakespeare.

Truly great art is eternal. "Oedipus" and "Antigone" are still performed more than two thousand years after they were written. People still read and enjoy "The Odyssey" nearly three thousand years after it was composed. Those things were created by people living in a world so different from our own as to be unrecognizable, and yet what they wrote still speaks to us because what they were dealing with are eternal truths about us as humans.

Truly great art also can be experience multiple times by a given member of the audience without becoming tiresome because it is deep and subtle and can deliver a different message on each experience. I may have listened to Shostakovich's 11th symphony 50 times, yet each time I listen to it I find something new.

I cannot say whether this "performance" is art because there is no concrete consensus as to what "art" is. But I can judge whether this is important, and it isn't. It may be art, but if it is it's trivial, forgettable art, "prosaic" in a true sense of the word. A hundred years from now no-one will give a damn about it except for a handful of art historians.

Great art has much to say. But most art is not great. (Sturgeon's law definitely applies.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:46 AM on February 12, 2001

After I got done composing the above, I continued to read MeFi and found exactly the example I need to demonstrate the banality of Landry's gesture. This MeFi thread is generating a lot of excitement about how 850 scrolls recovered from Herculaneum might be readable with modern technology, and people in that thread are having wet dreams about how this might permit recovery of the lost masterpieces of the Romans and Greeks. We're talking about major league excitement about the ability to read scrolls written more than 1900 years ago.

Suppose that someone were to recover a transcript of Landry's gesture in the year 3900. Do you think it would excite the mind the way that we now are excited about the possibility of recovering lost works of Aristotle and Sophocles?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:02 AM on February 12, 2001

Not to mention dagnyscott wants to put some sort of qualitative measure on art, which is antithetical to the very idea of creating it.

Umm... I was saying it's not better than it was fifty, or a hundred, or a couple thousand years ago, that it doesn't consistently improve -- unlike science. Precisely because this sort of thing is subjective. Where do you get this "measure" idea? Why do you feel like taking my post and making it mean exactly the opposite of what I said?
posted by dagnyscott at 6:16 AM on February 12, 2001

Unfortunately, Steven, despite your oracular proclomations about what is prosaic and banal right now, nobody gets to decide the future for us. You're probably at least part right--history does get to be the final arbiter on what's "great art," although I wonder what we missed out on. But you'll forgive me if I don't quite buy into your pat dismissal of what this particular act is:

"But I can judge whether this is important, and it isn't. It may be art, but if it is it's trivial, forgettable art, "prosaic" in a true sense of the word. A hundred years from now no-one will give a damn about it except for a handful of art historians."

Well, maybe (and hey, I even probably think so too), but then again, when Jarry had Pere Ubu kick off a play by saying "Merdre!" a whole bunch of people likely thought that saying "shit" didn't amount to a whole lotta art and that history would leave it by the wayside too. Your explanation sounds way too close to Justice Potter Stewart's claim that he couldn't define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. It's a dodge, and trotting out hoary arguments like "Well, it ain't no Aristotle" is tired and unfair.

posted by Skot at 8:41 AM on February 12, 2001

How unoriginal.
posted by dithered at 8:53 AM on February 12, 2001

Art is a very tricky subject, because I feel that no one can define it for anyone else. We all have our opinions of what is good and bad in the art world, and it looks like a fair number of people see this as bad to the point whether they question if it's art or not.

My own feelings are that it is art, but that doesn't necessarily mean I love it or think it's sucky. I do like the fact that the sand from the objects is to be buried under a shopping mall - that speaks a bit more to me than the actual process of mushing up everything into sand. Though I wouldn't mind seeing a webcam of the Saab going under.

anyway. There is potential art in everything, I feel, but I can't tell you what art is and you can't tell me. I can tell you why it's art to me, however, and that is the important thing.

I do concur with Skot on this one.
posted by hijinx at 9:02 AM on February 12, 2001

Skot, the reason I use the hundred year rule for this kind of thing is because it causes me to alter my evaluation, to think with a broader scope. While no kind of extrapolation is perfect, I think it's possible to adopt a historical point of view about this kind of thing, and were it possible to collect I'd offer 1000:1 on a wager that a hundred years from now Mr. Landy's "performance" will be forgotten. (The hundred year rule helps me to understand how unimportant professional sports is, for instance. Despite the amount of excitement given each year to the World Series or the Super Bowl, a hundred years from now few people will care. Without looking it up, can you tell me what team won the World Series in 1901? Does anyone besides a small core of sports enthusiasts really give a damn?)

I fully agree with Hijinx that art is a tricky subject, which is why I'm not trying to argue whether what Landy is doing is art or not.

But I don't agree that we can't ever make a judgement about whether a piece of art is valuable in the long run. While we might be wrong, in some cases we can be pretty sure that we're right. I think this is one of those cases.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:33 AM on February 12, 2001

potsy - yes, I really do know, which is why I said 'Tyler' and not 'the narrarator' (eddie norton). In a way, this loon is a lot like Tyler. And, I don't very much like Fight Club anyway.
posted by tiaka at 10:02 AM on February 12, 2001

'Performance art wank,' nothing - this is a powerful artistic act. And the fact that it can move us even one step removed, through the simple retelling as a news story, speaks of its power.

As for it being a 'stunt' - what the...? This guy is destroying everything he owns, highly personal items included. He can't get those back; this isn't some 'gimmick' that will be forgotten the day after. He will come out the other side profoundly changed, like anyone who has lost everything they own through fire or some other disaster - and the fact that he has chosen this fate makes those changes even more affecting.

Yes, he has made this a public act rather than a private one, because that's his job. He's an artist. Art is his life; his life is now art. And artists need an audience.

You are now part of that audience. He has made you all think about things you had not thought about the same way before. That makes him a good artist in my book.

Seems like everyone here goes on about memes and tries to create them by posting links to MeFi, yet when someone comes up with an awesome meme half of us sniff about it being 'a crock', 'empty-headed', 'a stunt', and 'stupid'.
posted by rory at 3:21 PM on February 13, 2001

He will come out the other side profoundly changed

That would really depend on how much he cares about his belongings, wouldn't it? We're supposed to be affected because we are intended to assume he cares about his stuff as much as we care about ours, but the fact that he's willing to destroy it all implies exactly the opposite: he cares very little for his stuff. Now he's a guy with some stuff; later he'll probably be the same guy with no stuff. The things that really matter, he's going to keep: his life, his friends, his family, his freedom, his livelihood.

As for this being an "awesome" meme, I doubt we'll see a rash of people destroying all their belongings anytime soon, so I'll have to say it's a pretty weak meme.
posted by kindall at 4:16 PM on February 13, 2001

A meme isn't an instruction. A meme is an idea. Just because you personally don't want to carry it out doesn't make it less effective or infectious.

Karl Marx was a great meme factory too, and most of us know something of his ideas, but does that make us all communists?

There are plenty of ideas that get held up as ideals, as talking points, as examples of what not to do or think - they don't all have to be put into practice wholesale.

A weak meme is one that nobody talks about. We're talking about this, and so are others (a lot, judging by the volume of posts). Therefore it's hardly a 'weak meme'.

As for the question of how profoundly he'll be changed: fair points, kindall, but I thought there were hints in the story that he's almost as confused as everybody else by what he's doing, and that he's being 'carried away' with the idea. I suspect that when the dust settles, he will feel profoundly different. Even if it's a feeling of 'Oh my God, why did I do that?' ;)
posted by rory at 8:17 PM on February 13, 2001

Steven: if you can't judge whether something is worthwhile art for 100 years how about suspending personal comment on anything that didn't come out in the last 100 years? No, I'm not trying to be funny.
posted by davidgentle at 8:50 PM on February 13, 2001

One measure of a meme is how rapidly it spreads from mind to mind. Successful memes jump from one mind to another because they are so interesting or compelling that people who have encountered them can't help talking about them to others. I have not said once to anyone, "Hey, did you hear about the guy who's destroying everything he owns and calling it art?" The meme hit me and kind of died; I've not passed it on to anyone who hasn't already heard about it. If you think about the "infectiousness" of ideas posted on MetaFilter, there are a lot that are catchier than this one.

The really powerful memes influence action (and, for maximum transmission, the action passes the meme on to the witnesses to the action). The "destroy everything you own" meme is likely to do very very poorly in that respect.
posted by kindall at 11:31 PM on February 13, 2001

Again, fair points, but:

The meme hit me and kind of died; I've not passed it on to anyone who hasn't already heard about it.

I have.

Some people catch the flu, others don't.
posted by rory at 3:23 PM on February 14, 2001

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