Interview with Michael Landy post-'Breakdown': New directions and championing of the urban weed

Last year Michael Landy meticulously catalogued and then destroyed all his material possessions. For his latest show he has photographed and etched the plants that grow spontaneously throughout the city


Ever since he graduated from Goldsmith’s in 1988 Michael Landy has been making art from the stuff that most people take for granted. His often vast installations combine humour, social critique and a keen formal eye to draw attention to the implications of consumer society. In 1991 “Market” filled an empty warehouse with a vast arrangement of multiple tiered display stands, astroturf and plastic bread crates, also all empty; while “Closing down sale”, with its accumulated junk and fluorescent “everything must go” signs, struck an apt note in a country gripped by the 1992 recession.

Disposal and human wastage also lay at the heart of Landy’s next two ambitious and time-consuming projects: first, the epic 1996 “Scrapheap services”, in which he created an entire service industry to rid society of untidy realities, complete with giant shredder, rubbish bins and life-sized mannequins poised to sweep up a multitude of paper cutout people; then, in 2000, “Breakdown”, in which he headed a workforce that first meticulously catalogued and then pulverised all, really all, his material possessions.

Now, in “Nourishment”, his first exhibition since jettisoning all his worldly goods, at Interim Art, the new streamlined Michael Landy has also honed his art production with a series of life-sized etchings of common, urban weeds.

The Art Newspaper: When did you start making these etchings?

Michael Landy: In March. But I promised Charles Booth-Clibborn a portfolio of prints probably about two years before that; then I got involved in “Breakdown” and so the whole thing got put off.

TAN: I rather sentimentally saw them as the aftermath of “Breakdown”—as the weeds springing up in the bomb site, if you like... but they’re not a response to that, at all.

ML: No. But they are very low-tech things to do. I don’t have to have any dialogue with anyone; I just have a dialogue with a plant, so it’s completely different There are no phone calls, no making of lists; I have a plate and a metal needle that I scratch the surface with, then I’m away. I wanted to get back to actually making things. Having destroyed all my transparencies in “Breakdown” I now have the freedom to do anything I want, within reason.

TAN: So is this solitary existence in your little atelier a nice antidote to “Breakdown” which was such a massive public, collaborative enterprise?

ML: Yes. Also people’s perceptions of what I do is “chunk, bang, wallop” and so it’s quite nice to do something that doesn’t involve lots of other people. I’m not saying that I’ve gone soft, but sometimes I think this is like convalescing. After “Breakdown” I took some time out, I didn’t want to make any more work and I didn’t really get back into it until my financial situation became so bad that I just drew my way out of it. I spent quite a lot of time working on the book [Breakdown Inventory] and just trying to make that as a kind of document. I just wanted to get it right.

TAN: Your current activity is certainly on a very different scale to the work that predated “Breakdown” whether “Market” or “Closing down sale” or “Scrapheap services”, in their different ways they all provided an all-encompassing experience.

ML: My kind of things have a physical presence: when you walk into the room it’s completely jam-packed with market stalls or shopping trolleys, or whatever. I haven’t had a show in a commercial space since, I think, 1996 so I quite fancy the idea of putting some rectangles on the wall. It’s just a very different thing and I don’t know whether to feel embarrassed about it: sometimes I have a kind of out-of-body experience, thinking these aren’t really mine, these are somebody else’s. Sometimes I pretend somebody else makes them for me- I don’t know what I’m turning into.

TAN: What made you choose weeds as your subject?

ML: I guess in some respects they relate to other aspects of my work which is about invisible things. In some ways I just see this [etching of a weed ] as a bin, a shopping trolley or a customised milk crate. They’re all just invisible things that you see on your daily journey to work, or whatever. The weeds just appear in cracks in the street and they are marvellous, optimistic things that you find in inner London. They’ll find somewhere to spread their seeds very fast, then they grow, flower, and move on quickly.

TAN: They are completely impermanent.

ML: In a way I wanted to honour them, because of that. They occupy an urban landscape which is very hostile and they have to be adaptable and find little bits of soil to prosper. I like that kind of situation: once the seeds are ripe, the seed pods will break open and the wind will disperse them. I used to try and grow them in pots and try and nurture them but they just didn’t like being spoilt, and I found, after a while, that they were actually growing in the tarmac cracks on the flat roof where I used to live. They preferred that to being tended in pots.

TAN: Do you find the weeds randomly?

ML: Yes. I wander round the estate or I may go further afield, and I use whatever I happen to stumble across: I found this annual wall rocket in a car park by Tower Bridge. I basically just go on journeys and collect as many as I can in my buckets and come back home and then make some kind of decision on whether I’ve done this particular plant before, or which plant I think looks the best.

TAN: You’re scrutinising them with such intensity that they look like the meticulously accurate illustrations from botanical text books.

ML: I didn’t look at any botanical books. I didn’t use them as a reference point.

TAN: And why do you etch them?

ML: It’s historical. I like it because it reminds me of when I was a child using scraper boards when you just scratched the surface. You can get incredibly delicate lines with etching; you just have to touch the surface. You get much better lines than with a pen because even with pens you still need a certain amount of ink to come out of the nib and it always seems to be too much for .

TAN: You set yourself the task of reproducing these as accurately as you possibly can. They are beautiful.

ML: Beauty is quite a scary word, because it’s not actually what I do. The rest of my work is very functional: the visual things I deal with are part of the consumer world, for example, market stalls, shopping trolleys, conveyor belts.

TAN: But your work is very aestheticised, for example, “Scrapheap services” with the logos and the uniforms. The components of your work are very formally and visually fine tuned.

ML: Yes. With “Scrapheap services” I spent so long trying to find the right uniforms. It was very meticulous. I spent two years making those cutout people out of rubbish which I collected every day. I used to raid the back of McDonalds in Peckham and get all the cartons out on a Sunday evening and take them back and cut them all out and create thousands of little figures over a two or three year period. I’m sure there was a quicker way of doing it, but at the time it gave me pleasure to hand- make every one. For “Breakdown”, I chose the boiler suits, everything. I hand-selected all the tool, I created the whole conveyor belt and the kind of Scaletrix set. I wanted yellow trays, and they were really difficult to find. You become really particular because you can’t help being an artist: little things do make a difference.

TAN: I remember walking into your “Closing down sale” and it was like walking into the centre of an action painting.

ML: I liked the idea of it being the end of the world, in a way—where the end of the world was all completely fluorescent with meaningless slogans: such as “Recession sale” and “Everything must go”. I like just bombarding people with all this stuff: you could hardly even see any of the things I’d collected in the shopping trolleys.

TAN: All the work of yours that I’ve seen has been about living in the 20/21st century city, and these etchings are another aspect of that.

ML: Yes, and I’ve also got a thickened flexor tendon: I can’t bend my index finger now. I take some pain killers for it at the moment and I go and see a rheumatologist, but basically my tendons are thickening—I think its called painter’s claw.

TAN: On one level your work is about capitalism and its consequences and the market economy depleting or overheating. Some people consider you to be a political artist. Do you?

ML: I don’t see myself as one. I remember when Michael Craig-Martin used to talk about the history of oneself as an artist, after a while you have some kind of legacy. I think I’ve got about 12 years of legacy and it’s about whether you want to change the way that people perceive you or how you perceive yourself.

TAN: So the political aspect is more what other people have projected onto you, and in a way it’s your response to situations that you find yourself in either personally or contextually.

ML: It is more about the situations I find myself in or the situations I get myself into. Obviously, when I talked about “Breakdown” I talked about it as an examination of consumerism and trying to explore why people find it so attractive at this present point in time; “Scrapheap services” was more about my feelings towards myself, actually, about my own feelings of worthlessness. So it may not have looked like that in the final installation, but that was how it started. In a respect it was like having my own cottage industry because I worked on it for about two or three years: it gave me a role. Sometimes I sit here and I’m etching and I’m wondering: am I doing this because I don’t really want to be out there with everybody else?

TAN: It's a very different kind of pleasure, making the most accurate representation you possibly can. It’s something artists did before Modernism and everything else got in the way.

ML: I work laboriously from early on in the morning. Intellectually its not very stimulating to draw a leaf or a branch or a flower head but I do gain pleasure from it. In fact, it’s the first piece of my own work that I’d want in my house. People will probably think that I really have had a breakdown after this show.

TAN: Are you just making these etchings for this show, or will you continue afterwards?

ML: No, that’s it, I’ve got an appointment with my rheumatologist in January so I have to have stopped etching for about two months before I go to find out whether they can actually do anything for me. But I have to stop anyway. I’ve set myself a task to try and etch these plants as well as I can and, in six months time, I’ll be onto something different.

TAN: Your language is dominated by your subject matter and I imagine that will endure.

LB: Yes, but I wouldn’t mind just getting into the studio with bits of paper and a pair of scissors and a bit of sellotape, just trying to build a language and create something from nothing.

TAN: So are you now re-stocking your life after “Breakdown”?

ML: I try and throw away things as much as possible—I’ve still got one pair of shoes.


Born 1963 in London

Currently showing Interim Art 2-20 December; 9-26 January.

Solo shows include 2001 “Michael Landy, Break Down” Artangel Trust at C&A Store Marble Arch, London 2000 “Handjobs” (with Gillian Wearing), Approach Gallery, London 1999 “Scrapheap Services”, Tate Gallery, London; “Michael Landy at Home”, 7 Fashion Street, London 1996 “Scrapheap Services”, Electric Press Building, Leeds (organised by the Henry Moore Institute); “Scrapheap Services”, Chisenhale Gallery, London; “The making of scrapheap services”, Waddington Galleries, London 1993 “Michael Landy: warning signs”, Karsten Schubert, London 1992 “Closing down sale”, Karsten Schubert, London 1991 “Michael Landy: Appropriations 1-4”, Karsten Schubert, London 1990 Studio Marconi, Milan; Galerie Tanja Grunert, Cologne; “Market”, Building One, London 1989 Gray Art Gallery, New York; Karsten Schubert, London.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Champion of the urban weed'