Thrown on the scrapheap

Social satire or an expression of the artist's terror of being irrelevant and disposable? Andrew Graham-Dixon views Michael Landy's latest work
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The Independent Culture
The picture on the television screen shows a young man donning a red nylon suit, red rubber gloves and a mask, while a mellifluous disembodied voice announces "Scrapheap Services - the cleaning company that cares because you don't". Further explanation unctuously follows: "A prosperous society depends on a minority of people being discarded... Scrapheap Services consider it important that any people who are discarded are swiftly and efficiently cleared away. Why put up with unsightly people who are such a burden on your resources when you can turn to the Scrapheap Services people-control range of products?"

The mock-promotional video forms part of a mise-en-scene brought into being by the artist Michael Landy. Its theme would seem to be redundancy, although redundancy in what sense remains moot.

In a large, bright, white room (the Chisenhale Gallery, in East London, specially anaesthetised for the event) we encounter several identical mannequins wearing the red livery of the imaginary Scrapheap Services Inc. Each one is armed with park-keeper's litterspike, dustman's cart, shovel or broom, and frozen in a gesture of stiff and solemnly inexpressive waste disposal. The floor of the room being thus patrolled is littered with hundreds and hundreds of tiny figures, snipped out from beer can or burger-box. These shoals of diagrammatic men, crunchy underfoot, strewn like confetti or gathered thickly in drifts, are the objects of the mannequins' routine attentions. It is the destiny of these myriad homunculi, Landy's tableau makes clear, to be swept up, bagged and fed into The Vulture, a pillbox-red "purpose-built people shredder" that squats like a big malign insect to one side of the room.

Elements of socio-political satire may readily be (and already have been) inferred. Scrapheap Services is mildly reminiscent of Jonathan Swift's 18th-century indictment of politicians' heartlessness, A Modest Proposal, in which the systematic eating of all children under a certain age was recommended as a means of alleviating famine and overpopulation in Ireland.

Landy's own modest proposal is easily enough read as an allegory of contemporary labour relations, devised perhaps in a similar spirit of sardonic mockery. The horde of cut-out men, stamped with the impress of the products from which they have been cut (McDonald's, Coke, Carlsberg, Kellogg's) may be regarded as a model of the modern workforce as impersonally viewed by the modern management consultant: a means to an end, eminently disposable. Printed matter provided by the Chisenhale Gallery encourages visitors to regard Scrapheap Services as "a masterpiece of subversion... desperately funny and deeply disturbing".

But this all seems somehow unsatisfactory. If Landy's piece is indeed, as some insist, to be read as satire, what a terribly dull and clumsy satire it is; and what extraordinarily, perversely elaborate lengths have been gone to in order to state the obvious about one of the more self- evident malaises of contemporary life in Britain.

Spend some time inside Landy's world and it soon becomes quite evident that satire is not at all the point of Scrapheap Services. It is altogether too odd, too obsessive and overwrought a creation for that to be the case. The satirist's sense of outrage is entirely absent from it. Landy's room is not sinister, not sick, not violent, but disconcerting, alienating and empty. It is no hell on earth, but a melancholic's limbo: a white asylum in which an imagination estranged from itself is attempting, impossibly, to put its house in order.

Landy is not a prolific artist but his work has always been naggingly memorable. His first ambitious exhibition was entitled Market, it was installed in a large warehouse in East London in 1990 and it consisted of 94 abstract constructions fabricated from the wherewithal of the street trader: metal-framed market stalls and carefully stacked plastic Sunblest crates draped in greengrocers' grass. The effect was sacrilegiously reminiscent of Richard Long's minimal Land Art - Landy having replaced Long's austere, geometric arrangements of natural materials with his own solemnly configured arrangements of the stuff of inner-city free marketeers.

Market was impressive but also puzzling, because it was extremely difficult to deduce from it just what Landy's concerns were and just what kind of an artist he might turn out to be. Was he a formalist or (which seemed marginally more likely) a mocker of formalism? Was he, perhaps, pursuing a different tack altogether? Was Market a thinly disguised attack on the art market? The act of putting the apparatus of salesmanship itself on display, as art, suggested that this might be so and that the entire installation might be sheathed in irony.

After Market, in 1992 Landy exhibited a considerably louder work called Closing Down Sale at the gallery of his erstwhile dealer Karsten Schubert. This proved that he was certainly no formalist, no cool pursuer of spare, sculptural structure. The exhibition consisted of several supermarket trolleys loaded to overspill with items of battered uselessness (split Frisbees, dead suitcases, sodden and rotting Smurf puppets) which had been procured by the artist from the type of secondhand shop frequented only by the hopeless and the desperately poor. The show also included a proliferation of signs in Dayglo colours proclaiming messages such as "RECESSION SMASHER" or "EVERYTHING MUST GO!!!!"

The apparently extrovert nature of Landy's work may be as deceptive as its apparent focus on markets and marketing strategies - and now, in the case of Scrapheap Services, corporate employment practices. The mechanisms of buying and selling and hiring and firing increasingly seem, not like the vehicles of social satire, but like metaphors for emotional states. Landy himself seems increasingly like a rather introverted artist, and perhaps his work is best seen as a form of extended autobiography - an account, written in installation form, of one young (now youngish) man's journey along the difficult path of attempting to forge a career as an artist in the late 20th century.

In Market, Landy described his own predicament - the need to set out his stall, to make an impact, to do something new and distinctive, to sell himself. In Closing Down Sale he dramatised a different, more urgent mood - a yearning for connection, for total acceptance; the desperate language of the urban street trader ("BUY NOW!!!! SALE NOW ON!!!") had been appropriated and converted into a poignant metaphor for the desperate need almost every artist has to be wanted. Scrapheap Services is both blander and bleaker in its mood. Its theme may be the artist's own sense of redundancy, his suspicion - one shared at times by almost every artist - that not only is his work useless but pointless too.

Scrapheap Services feels like a work of art forged in the teeth of low self-esteem, a creation devised to stave off mid-career crisis. The work's subject is that common terror of being irrelevant, disposable. In the case of the artist this is the fear that his own creations may be worthy of no more than the scrapheap - and it seems important, in this context, that every single one of those little figures was cut out by Landy himself, by hand. To exorcise this demon form of anxiety Landy has invented the curious scene he calls Scrapheap Services - a scene in which, as in a bad dream, all his creatures are being fed by curious red devils into a curious red devilish shredding machine. There is a kind of bravery about the act of getting all this out into the open.

'Scrapheap Services' is at the Chisenhale Gallery, London E3 (0181- 981 4518) to 28 July