Issue Number: 102
Michael Landy RA, the YBA artist who famously destroyed all his possessions in the name of art, dines with Nigel Billen at Wild Honey.
Michael Landy RA at Wild Honey Photograph by Julian Anderson
What are Michael Landy’s plans now that he’s a Royal Academician? Will he be joining the hanging committee? Perhaps he’ll get involved with the RA Schools or advise on forthcoming blockbuster exhibitions? At the very least, does he have plans to re-catalogue the Academy’s archive and have each item granulated at the end of a conveyor belt in homage to his bestknown work, Break Down?
In truth, I don’t put this last suggestion to Landy, but he looks alarmed nevertheless. ‘Tracey [Emin] rang me and asked me if I was interested in joining them. I couldn’t say no to Tracey. But I don’t know too much about it yet.’ Actually, he’s better acquainted with the Academy than he’s letting on. His partner, Gillian Wearing, is an RA (as is one of his best friends, the artist Gary Hume) and Landy has shown at the Summer Exhibition as well as sketched the portrait of Sir Norman Rosenthal, the Academy’s former Exhibitions Secretary.
But Landy is drawn to ‘blank canvases’. He has just finished a new set of drawings - inspired by Jean Tinguely’s 1960 work Homage to New York, a piece of kinetic sculpture designed to destroy itself - which will be seen with H2NY, a self-directed documentary about his work in a forthcoming show in Paris. Yet he has no idea what he will be showing at his next exhibition at the South London Gallery in the autumn. ‘My studio is a blank space, just a table and chair. Every day I go in there and look at a blank page.’
Our lunch is another unknown quantity. Traditionally, our guest chooses the venue, but Landy asks us to decide. We take him to Wild Honey a small, Michelin-starred restaurant in St George Street, whose owner Anthony Demetre has been talking in the Press about how restaurants can survive the credit crunch. Inevitably, the state of the economy becomes a theme of our conversation.
Early in his career, in 1992, Landy surprised passers-by in London’s Lower John Street with Closing Down Sale, a show that appeared to mark the demise of the Karsten Schubert gallery: ‘As you see I have some previous when it comes to recessions.’ He’s sure that his future art will ‘respond’ in some way to today’s economic mess. Break Down in 2001 was partly inspired by a recession that never quite happened.
In collaboration with Artangel, Landy took over the empty C&A store in Oxford Street and systematically catalogued, then destroyed, everything he owned. On one level Break Down satirised the consumer society, but if it were such a blunt piece of work it would not have moved its viewers the way it did. ‘People were forced to make a mental inventory about how much they owned. Suddenly they are not just my things on the conveyor belt but your things as well.’ The whole experience provoked emotions in the artist ranging from euphoria to something close to paranoia: ‘thoughts that I was witnessing my own death; but on the whole I kept that in check’.
Landy not only destroyed his own archive of work, but pieces by other artists too. Some strongly objected. ‘I wasn’t necessarily very good at dealing with all that.’ But he is still moved by the way Gary Hume came round to the idea, eventually donating two works to be destroyed. ‘It was the only time that I actually thought about the value of something I was destroying.’
Landy met Hume and Damien Hirst at Goldsmiths College in the mid-1980s, meeting Emin and other YBAs around the same time. ‘We were all in the same boat. It was: "Let’s try to do something together".’ Hirst’s work now makes an interesting comparison. He challenges ideas of how much art can really be worth; Landy has looked for the real value of everyday possessions. With Semi-detached, where he minutely recorded and then recreated in Tate Britain his parents’ house, Landy turned his father’s life into that of a contemporary everyman. ‘Suddenly I became aware of everything, like the DIY jobs my father did around the house. I felt more responsibility about that than I did about Break Down. It has as much to do with me as it has to do with my dad.’
As an unflinching observer of life, Landy is almost scary. Among his recent work is a matter-of-fact drawing of himself following successful cancer treatment to remove a testicle, recently shown at the Wellcome Collection. ‘I had already drawn my father’s scars,’ he shrugs. Landy’s vision of the world is not all bleak. It is a humorous, thoughtful man who comes across over lunch, even if his funniest story - accidently pulling down Gary Hume’s ceiling with a fork-lift truck - has a destructive punch line.
Our meal, by the way, was delicious. Michael had the haunch of venison, and we both finished with a comforting rice pudding - its simplicity also a blank, though by no means bland, canvas.