What on earth would possess a person to rid themselves of all their worldly goods? An attempt to start afresh after life has gone horribly wrong? An acrimonious break-up, maybe? Or simply a moment of mad-ness? As we sit surrounded by the detritus of Christmas, still recovering from our annual spending binge and at the end of a decade of rampant consumerism, it does occur that something a little more radical than a mild spring clean might be no bad thing.
How many of us move from one house to another carrying a trail of cardboard boxes without really knowing what's inside? How many of us have drawers and cup- boards full of stuff we never use? And, in the big scheme of things, how important really is all that stuff deemed to be of sentimental value?
The three people featured over the following six pages have, at various points over the past decade, systematically set out to rid themselves of all their worldly possessions. One discovered he was the owner of more than 7,000 items and set out to destroy every single one. Another, a victim of his own shopaholicism, burned £20,000 worth of designer goods; and the third, whose life had hit rock-bottom, attempted to sell everything and start again.
Were there any regrets about smashing up that Saab 900, burning those Vivienne Westwood shirts or flogging that Wolfgang Tillmans artwork? Have these actions taken on a new pertinence in these credit-crunched times? And what happens the next day, when you wake to find yourself the proud owner of absolutely nothing? Is it at moment of liberation or lament? Or is it straight back down the shops?
Here we revisit them to see how it all worked out.
A life taken apart
In 2001 the artist Michael Landy spent a fortnight destroying all his belongings in an art piece entitled 'Breakdown'
"The idea for Breakdown came to me in 1998 when I was sitting at my kitchen table wondering what I was going to do next. I'd just sold a piece of work called Scrapheap Services to the Tate, so for the first time in my life I'd got ahead of myself. I had all this stuff – a lovely Saab 900 car, a nice Richard James suit – and I thought, 'How can I mess it up for myself?' That was the moment I decided to destroy all my worldly goods.
"As a child I'd always been into taking things apart so I could see how they were put together. I call it an examination of ' consumerism. So I took apart every one of my 7,227 belongings over a two-week period in the old C&A building on Oxford Street, which is now a Primark. I had 100 metres of conveyor belt to carry all my stuff and 12 operatives who I had employed for their dismantling skills. Everything I owned was broken down into its material parts and then granulated. It was all very forensic. The whole lot was weighed – it came to 5.75 tonnes – then taken off to a landfill in Essex.
"I was paranoid throughout the thing. I went out for secret fags all the time and had to take [the codeine-based medicine] Solpadeine to calm me down. Most evenings I went out drinking with the operatives, so seemed to have a hangover pretty much every day, which certainly helped neutralise the situation. Witnessing your stuff being destroyed in front of 50,000 complete strangers is bizarre. People turned up who I hadn't seen for years. It felt like I was attending my own funeral and I became obsessed with the thought that I was witnessing my own death, or jinxing myself or my family.
"I was never really worried about losing all my stuff. I had rationalised it as an artwork and had invested three years of my life preparing for it. I never really thought about what would happen afterwards. The day after it was over I didn't do anything. I just sat in my partner Gillian [Wearing]'s kitchen. After you've destroyed everything you own, there comes a big full stop, both as a consumer and a person. I spent a lot of time on buses looking for other things that I could take apart. What I had done was so destructive and nihilistic; for about a year I didn't make any art. I didn't do anything.
"Bit by bit I started to acquire things again. Gillian gave me some cash. The arts organisation Artangel paid me some money they owed me and Carson Schubert, my former art dealer, gave me some clothes. The final thing we'd destroyed was my record collection. After we finished, someone came up to me and handed me a Paul Weller record. I must have been the owner of absolutely nothing for about 10 minutes.
"I got in trouble with the Inland Revenue because I am supposed to keep five years' worth of accounts, but obviously I destroyed them. I had to go there and try to explain what I had done. I had also got rid of my passport, cleared out my bank account and destroyed my birth certificate. All quite mundane things, but they are annoying to have to replace. Some things I had to go straight out and buy again – a toothbrush for example. I hated having to do that; the last thing I wanted to do was go into shops and buy things.
"Now I'm really aware of the things I own and am always periodically getting rid of stuff. I have a much more pared-down life. Most artists have images and things in their studio for reference. Mine is completely bare. I've started to get rid of Gillian's things secretly, too. She's got no idea.
"I thought there might be more antagonism towards the project, as people spend their whole lives working hard to acquire things. But I think what actually happened is that people came, looked at all my stuff going around on the conveyor belt, and made mental inventories of their own stuff.
"I have a new show opening at the end of this month at the South London Gallery, where I have invited the public to discard their artworks in a huge bin. I call it a monument to creative failure. I guess there is a continuing theme.
"Breakdown profoundly changed me as a collector of things and as a consumer. It's hard to stop. I do wonder if I'm just trying to destroy myself. Maybe one day I'll work out how."
Crash and burn
In September 2006 designer-label addict Neil Boorman burnt all his branded possessions. He wrote a book about the experience called 'Bonfire of the Brands'
"I was such a brand whore and such a shopaholic that my identity and sense of self were entirely based around the things I owned. I was a walking billboard and believed that the logos I wore signified status. I would judge other people entirely by the labels they wore, too. My headspace was totally taken up by thoughts of brands. I used to spend my entire time sitting around thinking which new mobile phone or PDA would define me best.
"I realised it was time to do something about it when my partner and I went to a remote beach in India to get away from everything. She woke to find me wading through the sea trying to get a signal on my BlackBerry because I was halfway through a bidding war on eBay for a Gucci sweatshirt.
"So on 17 September 2006 I burnt the entire contents of my branded life. It was a good £20,000 worth of stuff – lots of clothing by Raf Simons, Vivienne Westwood, Gucci and Louis Vuitton; I was into all the big, ostentatious labels. There was also a Technics turntable, a Sharp LCD TV, a Dyson cleaner, Habitat furniture, numerous BlackBerrys and Nokia phones and loads more. I made a pact to try to live completely brand-free for a year.
"For the first six months I was virtually a recluse. I became quite paranoid. I was having psychotherapy at the time and certainly wouldn't have survived without it. I had to wipe the slate clean and deprogramme myself from a whole system of thought. I missed the clothes terribly. All those brands went a long way to defining who I was; stripping them out was tantamount to ripping out my personality and starting from zero. Having a series of logos emblazoned across your chest does a lot of talking for you. Without them, I discovered, I had to do the talking myself.
"I also suffered massive withdrawal symptoms from the loss of technology. I spent a lot of time pacing round my ' flat thinking, 'I want to watch TV or check my emails,' knowing full well there would be nothing to watch and probably no mails to check.
"Weirdly, one of the things I missed most were my toiletries. They were the hardest things to replace with good, non-branded equivalents. Those crystal deodorants you get in new-age stores don't work. Quite frankly, it wasn't long before I really started to ming.
"For months I didn't know how to fill my Saturday afternoons when I'd normally be out shopping. The fact is, shopping is our leisure culture now. I had no idea what to do instead. There were a lot of walks round the park and milling around galleries. I had to impose an exclusion zone round central London – I couldn't allow myself anywhere near the shops, petrified I'd be drawn in by their magnetism.
"But as time went on I slowly began to remember why I had gone through the whole thing in the first place. I realised that all those things I bought were actually just consolation prizes for being a wage slave. I had been trapped in a vicious circle. The harder I worked, the more miserable I was and the more consolation prizes I needed, and so the harder I had to work. At the height of my addiction, I was in thousands and thousands of pounds of debt.
"I scraped through that year by the skin of my teeth. The fact that it is almost impossible to live brand-free is testament to how far gone we are with our rampant consumer culture.
"For me it's been an enormous relief. In terms of anxiety levels, my life has completely transformed. I used to constantly worry about knowing about the latest trainer or designer. To be able to step off the Zeitgeist treadmill and say I choose not to compete – it's like an enormous weight has been lifted off my shoulders.
"People ask me what I spend my money on now; I say I buy time. I only work three or four days a week. I spend the rest of my time kicking around with my young son and doing all the stuff I'd wished I had time to do when I was stuck at my desk grinding out another day's work. I definitely feel time is one of the most finite resources we have and we are too willing to either give it away or sell it for not much in return. If I have replaced one obsession for another, it's that I have now become obsessed with how I spend and sell my time.
"These days all the shopping I do is based on utility. If I don't need it, I don't buy it. I get a lot of stuff online and wear mainly 'virgin' stuff – that is, basic clothing in the pre-branded stage of production. I also go to charity shops and army-surplus stores. If I have to buy from a chain I consult the Ethical Consumer magazine, which rates shops and brands in terms of how ethical their level of production is. For me, the less I own, the better and the more free I am. I don't have contents insurance on my house because there's nothing in there that's worth pinching.
"It's interesting how the response to what I did has changed over the past year. I think it's all tied to what has happened to the economy. When I had the bonfire, there was a lot of negative publicity; now I am getting sheepish emails from people who can't believe that there was a time when they would drop £200 on a pair of sunglasses without even thinking. I think as a nation we got caught up in a crazy consumer daydream where money was so cheap we didn't really care about piling up debt. We all got swept up in it. I'd like to think now we are coming out the other end to a nicer place where we can moderate our consumption."
Everything must go
In July 2009 the artist Jasper Joffe put up everything he owned for sale in a show called 'The Sale of a Lifetime'
"I split up with my long-term girlfriend around this time last year. I remember waking up in my studio the morning after, thinking my life had hit rock-bottom. We have a four-year-old together and all I desperately wanted to do was get back with her. I'd also just split from the gallery that had represented me for years. I was 33 and had reached a point where I was having to start again both emotionally and career-wise.
"Not many people would think the solution to their problems would be to sell everything they owned, but it made sense to me. I felt as if I had a big hole in my life and I needed to do something extreme. It was around the time that Woolworths was going under and the credit crunch was on everyone's mind. I just wanted to put everything in one place, put it up for sale, and say my life was going out of business.
"The opening night was very strange. I just stood by as all these people went through my stuff – leafing through highly personal things such as my diary, my letters and my sketchbooks. I am actually quite a private person but there was something strangely liberating about it. I realised I'd hit a point where I had absolutely nothing left to hide, and that gave me a massive sense of freedom.
"The sale went on for a week and I went there every day. I really liked just lying there on my bed, watching people looking at my stuff. It sounds a bit precocious but it was a little bit like a shrine to myself – it was like being at my funeral or seeing my house after I'd died.
"I wanted to absorb it all as much as possible. I got a lot of really nice comments throughout that week; some from people who had split up with their partners offering me advice, others from people saying they were worried about me and a few people saying, 'Don't do it, you'll regret it.'
"Unfortunately, a lot of my stuff didn't sell. I think my pricing structure might not have been quite right. I didn't want to have a jumble sale with everything been sold off for a few pounds, so I had put things into batches and then offered each one for £3,333.33. My work normally sells for a few thousand each, so the batches of paintings were a very good deal. So too were the Tracey Emin and Wolfgang Tillmans pieces that I owned, but would you want someone else's wardrobe for three grand? I guess if it was Michael Jackson's or Elton John's, you might. Not if it was mine.
"I have always been a great collector of things – everything from stamps to teddies and toys to books. I was quite surprised my teddy collection didn't sell. I have more than 50, including some collectable Steiff bears and some more than 80 years old. Similarly with my books. I have some quite rare stuff – a signed copy of Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger for example, a collectible Ben Okri and first editions of books by Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. A few dealers asked if I would separate the batches, but I refused.
"I desperately wanted to walk away with nothing but the clothes I was wearing, my wallet and my mobile phone, but I'm lumbered still. I made enough money to ensure I could carry on painting for the next year or so. I still haven't unpacked any of the unsold stuff; I don't want to go back to normal or go back to my old life. I feel like I'm in a holding station waiting for the next step. I'm not sure what that is.
"The best thing about it is that afterwards I got back together with my girlfriend, although things are still a little bit dicey. I think the sale showed her that I was willing to go to quite enormous lengths to try to change. I also think she actually found it all a bit embarrassing. It was quite well publicised, so people started phoning up and asking her about our relationship. It was all a bit awkward.
"Now I look back and think in one sense that it was probably the worst year of my life. I never want to feel as abject and as upset as I did. But I also know that the sale was one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me. Ultimately, I think it did have a very cathartic effect on me, and has changed me profoundly. I'd never want to go through it again, but in some ways it was also the best year of my life."