The Democracy Of Trash

Nothing’s too good for Michael Landy’s art bin, a monument to creative failure

For Art Bin, Michael Landy has converted the South London Gallery space into a 600 cubic metre rubbish bin. © SOUTH LONDON GALLERY
01 March, 2010

THE FIRST TIME I ARRIVED on the scene of the Art Bin, a huge, see-through Perspex and steel container at the South London Gallery, I spotted the artwork’s creator, Michael Landy. He was immaculately attired, wearing a black suit and white gloves. With the coolness of an auctioneer, he hastened to the top of the staircase to dispose of one of his own 2008 pencil portraits—it took the five-metre drop and joined the other discarded art in the giant bin. Viewers witnessed the framed work smash to smithereens. Against the gallery wall, waiting to join the common grave, stood a three-metre-long glistening painting of a skull by Damien Hirst. As work after work was dropped inside the art bin, the public registered their barometric approval or disapproval with cheers or whistling.

“The meaning of trash would seem to lie in a surreal absurdity, but by taking it seriously, this very quality may come to illuminate the real absurdity of the situation in which it is produced,” wrote the Marxist art historian Julian Stallabrass in Gargantua: Manufactured Mass Culture, (1996). Today, as the UK attempts to scramble out of one of its worst-ever recessions (Britain has endured eight recessions since WWII), Michael Landy hopes to raise questions around the nature, value and overproduction of art in times of boom as well as bust—by trashing it.

For Art Bin, which opened on 29 January, Landy has converted the South London Gallery space into a 600 cubic metre rubbish bin for the disposal of unwanted works of art. For a period of six weeks, the performance/installation will give artists the opportunity to destroy their own creative failures and throw them into the bin. After the show closes on 14 March, the gallery will have all the objects permanently disposed of in a landfill.

The sorting, destruction and decay of all artwork is always available for public scrutiny. © EMILIA TERRACCIANO

A graduate of Goldsmiths, University of London, in the late 1980s, Landy was considered one of the most prominent young British artists of his generation. It was while studying at Goldsmiths that he showed his work in the Freeze (1988) exhibition organised by Damien Hirst and Carl Freedman. Landy’s first major solo outing was Market (1990), an installation made up of empty market stalls, intended to be a comment on consumerism. As he didn’t produce artworks that could be sold, most commercial galleries soon dropped him.

IT IS NOT THE FIRST TIME the artist has transfigured an interior. In 1992, as Britain suffered through slow economic growth, Landy’s Closing Down Sale installation converted the Karsten Schubert gallery into a supermarket. At the time, few London galleries could afford to showcase the creations of Young British Artists (YBAs). Even fewer were the artists prepared to take on money and market as their subject matter.

Landy, then a young graduate, used the commercial gallery’s space to pursue his fascination with interpreting the idea of sale and consumption. The artist filled the gallery with trolleys and garish neon signs, which incited viewers to purchase items through slogans of financial hardship: ‘Everything Must Go,’ ‘Last Few Days,’ ‘Recession Sale’ and ‘Gone Into Receivership.’ Denied its artistic appeal, the gallery appeared in its true light: at best, a fancy boutique.

With a virtually starved art market, the installation was intended to inflict a powerful blow upon its viewers. Landy’s Closing Down Sale—as Stallabrass observed in 1999, in his book High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, the first critical analysis of the famous work of YBAs—was a product of the recession and the Thatcher-Major era when art funds were brutally axed. (This is not to suggest the fate of public subsidisation improved under the Labour government.) In this context, Landy and his colleagues sought to operate beyond institutional structures and the gallery network, acting as a “force of creative destruction and modernisation.”

In 1995, Landy turned his energies to converting the Chisenhale Gallery into an open-air skip with his installation, Scrapheap Services. He set up a fictional cleaning company, whose services included the disposal of redundant human beings. Dummies, wearing corporate cleaning uniforms, swept up thousands of small human silhouettes cut out from food packaging, wrapping paper, drinking cans, and other recognisable waste. It took Landy two years of rummaging through the refuse sacks of London fast-food outlets for materials such as aluminium cans, food wrappers and cigarette packs to piece together a template of a generic human figure. Landy had each figure stamped with logos, corporate themes and brands to underwrite their status as detritus.

In a corner of the gallery stood a tall mechanical shredder surrounded by large piles of humanoid paper figures. The humans entered the machine, seemingly sucked into its rollers, their bodies flattened out and expelled as anonymous, one-dimensional shapes. Scrapheap Services had its own unique brand of customer service, as well as slogans, promotional videos and billboards depicting a pastoral landscape cleared of all human surplus. Meanwhile Landy’s cheerful slogan rang out in the background:

“Scrapheap Services consider it important that any people who are discarded are swiftly and efficiently cleared away, and this is part of our duty of care. Why put up with unsightly people who are such a burden on our resources when you can turn to the Scrapheap Services people-control range of products?”

Scrapheap Services stood apart from the elitist mockery of much High Art Lite in fashion at the time. By focusing on the underclass—the disposable, sociopolitical by-product of Thatcherism—Landy exposed the flipside of neoliberalism. Moreover, the artist made viewers complicit in the crushing process since in order to see the exhibit they were forced to tread on the tiny paper humanoids.

After the show closes, the gallery will have all the objects disposed of in a landfill. © EMILIA TERRACCIANO

Once more, in 2001, Landy focused on creation and destruction, by setting up a ‘production line of destruction’ with Break Down in a disused London department store on Oxford Street. Over two weeks, all 7,226 of the artist’s possessions, from his birth certificate to his Saab, were taken apart by ten blue-collared operatives and ground into a fine powder. Landy choreographed this exposé of commodity fetishism by having each item disassembled bit by bit.  Break Down highlighted the intensive labour necessary in the production of each commodity by displaying the work required to dismantle them. Staged in one of the capital’s busiest shopping areas, the performance gave shoppers substance for thought. Landy questioned the extent to which consumers construct their identities through commodity ownership. In a 2001 interview with Julian Stallabrass, Landy compared the performance to self-auditing:

Things that have been classified into different categories —for instance, leisure, clothing, reading—are numbered, weighed and detailed on an inventory. As the assembly and destruction process begins, each object will be logged in. Break Down draws on reclamation techniques (identifying, sorting and separating) but I’m not reclaiming or recycling anything. The conveyer belt is like a plinth in a way, it conveys what is going on.

Break Down caused much stir, attracted an enormous media response, and drew in around 45,000 visitors. In the end, all that was left were bags of rubbish, none of which were sold or exhibited in any form. Landy made no money with Break Down and lost all his possessions, including his own creations as well as those donated to him by fellow artists. He regarded artistic creations merely as another category of consumer objects, since artworks are given a value, but not by the artist. This is in line with Theodor Adorno’s remark that artworks are the most useless of consumer objects. At the time there were rumours suggesting that Landy’s destruction of his fellow artists’ work had cost him the Turner Prize—a prestigious art award celebrating new developments in contemporary art. Former art dealer Karsten Schubert had later revealed that some jury members had interpreted Landy’s work as unacceptable vandalism.

TODAY, WITHArt Bin, Landy further develops many of the ideas explored in these earlier projects. This time, however, instead of destroying other people’s creations, he asks professional artists and collectors to do it themselves, by applying to participate via Internet. The selection criterion is not without its logic; the only objects Landy will reject from his bin are those that he does not consider genuine creative failures. To date, the artist has already filed several rejections. He told the Financial Times, “I suddenly thought, ‘I’m curating a bin—that’s probably a world first,’ and I became wildly protective of it. People might make anything and try to put it in the bin—I’m not having that.” One wonders how the rejected objects should be categorised, given their status as either art or non-art remains unconfirmed.

Break Down, 2001: Blue-collared operatives took apart 7,226 of the artist’s possessions, from his birth certificate to his Saab, and ground them to a fine powder. © ARTANGEL TRUST

In this sense, Landy is more stringent than French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, whose invention of the objet trouvé—the readymade—sought to challenge the concept of autonomous art within the museum itself. He claimed anything, even a mass-produced urinal, could become high art in a museum. By contrast, Landy does not think everything qualifies as a non-work of art.

Yet, when it comes to works which could be deemed as ‘art’ Landy is uncompromising. “Nothing’s too good for the art bin,” he recently told TheGuardian. Apart from disposing of his own creative failures, the artist has also included works of art by his peer, Damien Hirst, his partner Gillian Wearing, Julian Opie, Gary Hume and Michael Craig-Martin. Their names, like a list of good British products, vouch for Art Bin’s authentic intent, which is to level art to the democracy of trash. The bin marks the eternal divide from which disposed artworks can never return. Since the artist intends Art Bin to be public, he has ensured that the sorting, destruction and decay of all artwork is always available for public scrutiny.

AS I PEERED THROUGH the Perspex glass, I noticed that even the least commodifiable of art forms, such as performance, dance and music would turn into ‘objects’ once inside the Art Bin, in the form of a CD, a musical score sheet, or a cassette.

Landy’s interest in destruction and rubbish has its origins in his long-standing fascination for Dadaist Jean Tinguely’s (1925-91) work. The Swiss artist famously satirised the mindless overproduction of commodities in advanced Western societies. He also challenged the assumption that the context of display was all-important in determining the function of an artwork.  By putting together self-destructive works made of industrial, anti-aesthetic materials, he hoped to overcome the constraints of artistic form and the trappings of the art market.

Scrapheap Services, 1995: Landy set up a fictional cleaning company whose services included the disposal of redundant human beings. © TATE GALLERY

Tinguely’s work ended up in the garbage cans of the museum. Landy’s latest will end up in a landfill. Art Bin, outgrowing Break Down, raises questions about the value we attach to a work of art as well as to the institutional and commercial structures necessary to support and sustain it. The performance installation draws our attention to the inherent obsolescence of much contemporary art. On a deeper level, Art Bin purports to challenge the notion of individual creative production—central to the concept of autonomous art, as well as the art market, and highlight the fragility of all artistic actions.

As I left the South London Gallery, I took another look at the pile of rubbish. I was reminded of Federico Fellini’s 1963 film, 8 ½, in which a Marxist critic tells film director Guido Anselmi, who is suffering from a creative block, “It’s better to do nothing than create the inessential.”

Art Bin, South London Gallery, London.

29 January – 14 March.