As I walked off a hellishly busy Oxford Street into Michael Landy's Break Down (2001), I was greeted by the sounds of David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'; '... and the papers want to know whose shirts you wear'. Paul Smith, dark blue. A few Calvin Kleins, too. At least, that is what Landy used to own, along with around 7,000 other items. Since 24 February this year, aside from the clothes on his back, and whatever bits he's picked up here and there since, Landy has owned nothing, materially speaking. Funded by Artangel and The Times newspaper, within the space of two weeks the artist systematically destroyed every object he had accrued throughout his 35-odd years. Artworks, clothes, keepsakes, perishables, electrical items, furniture, books, records, studio materials, his car, a number of issues of frieze - everything was carefully catalogued and an inventory was compiled. Then, in full view of the buying public in a disused shop, Landy, with a team of helpers, reduced each item bit by tiny bit to its most basic components. Each little piece was then shredded or granulated and weighed.
The idea of shunning property to stem the rapacious greed and confused moral priorities it breeds goes way back. Plato advocated the abolition of private property in his ideal state; during the Roman period the Jewish Essene sects denounced the ownership of worldly goods, and freedom from the burden of possessions is one of the basic requirements for many monastic orders. Crowds flocked and journalists waxed lyrical about Landy's contemporary demonstration of a notion as old as trade itself, but it's hard really to know what to make of this particular route to self-imposed asceticism. When you've witnessed someone destroy all his or her possessions, to be critical seems like an act of rather grudging churlishness. Somewhere between extreme 1970s performance and one of those TV shows that rifle through celebrities' trash, Break Down sat in an obstinately positive register. Sentimentality rather than industrial satire was the mechanism that kept it rolling. As love letters, keepsakes or objects of deep personal value, such as a sheepskin coat that once belonged to his father, trundled round and round the industrial-style conveyor belts, heart strings were tugged, and blows taken to the sentimental solar plexus. A multitude of components, screws, grommets, you name it, did the circuit of the room. You started to wonder about the people that made these tiny things, the lives connected directly or indirectly with Landy, or yourself, or anyone for that matter. The reassuring banality of his belongings provided an empathetic point of entry, making Break Down as much a study of shared experience as it was a supposed rite of commodity catharsis.
Consumerism and trade have been the staple contents of Landy's practice, and his arguments have been articulated with either finely judged subtlety - as in the odd blend of Minimalism and grocery in Market (1990) - or the lumpen heavy-handedness of the Orwellian B-movie idea that was Scrapheap Services (1996). Break Down whirred and clanked noisily somewhere between the two. Conveyor belts clattered, overall-clad helpers busied themselves efficiently around the work benches dismantling, shredding and weighing, while Dave Nutt, the Buddhist car mechanic Landy hired to dismantle his car, wielded his metal cutters with Zen-like precision. Words such as 'audit', 'procedure' and 'inventory' repeatedly flew around with weak satirical urgency. It all made for impressive theatre, but the epic spectacle thinly concealed the simplistic extremity of the core idea. Landy maintained an implacable façade of conceptual integrity, and couldn't be accused of doing things by halves, yet the faint stench of vulgarity hung in the air.
Ultimately, Break Down was the product of economic buoyancy, a Murdoch-sponsored indulgence granted in the name of art that may have given the Saturday shoppers and art tourists momentary pause for thought, but was more Pop protest Adbusters-style than Noam Chomsky. The deep moral and political ambiguities in Landy's gesture just about resist responding with self-righteous indignation to its more decadent elements - at least it had complications and complexities. Parsimonious though this may sound, if you're looking for political engagement in the cultural beau monde, shop around a little first.