10 minutes with… Michael Landy RA

Published 17 April 2015

Each month we catch up with a different Royal Academician. This month, here’s Michael Landy RA on destroying his work, being afraid of Tracey Emin and why young artists need a thick skin.

  • In a bright studio in Bethnal Green, Michael Landy RA is preparing for a retrospective. Red and white slogans and signs adorn the walls, painted onto torn pieces of paper. At the far end of the studio, nestled on a tartan rug on a sofa, is Landy’s sleepy Staffordshire bull terrier, May.

    Born in Hackney, Michael Landy trained at Loughborough College of Art (1981-3) and Goldsmiths College, London (1985-8). In his final year he contributed to Freeze, the exhibition arranged by Damien Hirst in a London Docklands warehouse which brought together 16 young artists and established the Young British Artists of the 1990s. In 1999, Landy’s work was included in Sensation at the RA: an exhibition of the YBAs from the Saatchi Collection.

    Landy has used monumental installations/performances to explore political and social issues, such as the nature of consumerism, the commodification of art and the value placed on human beings in the corporate world. In recent years, his work has been featured in solo exhibitions at the National Gallery, London (2013), and as part of Art on the Underground (2012).

    We chatted to the artist about what he has been up to lately, what he thinks of being an Academician, and what advice he’d give an aspiring artist.

    What are you working on at the moment?

    In January this year, I started tearing pieces from big bits of paper and drawing on them in red and white. It’s a collection of signs, slogans and warning signs, with references to austerity Britain and also to my earlier work, such as Warning Signs (1993), Scrapheap Services (1995) and Closing Down Sale (1992). Red and white is my favourite colour scheme; for each slogan I use a base of oils and scratch into it to create the image. There are lots of symbols and signs reappearing here that I’ve used in previous drawings. When I was younger I couldn’t really reference my own works, but I’ve got to the point where I can do that now, and have a bit of fun with it, too.

    This is all for an exhibition of drawings I have coming up at Sabine Knust in Munich, in May. It’s called Breaking News, referencing past works but dealing with current issues as well. I have a tendency to destroy things so I don’t tend to keep many earlier works, which becomes a bit of a problem when you want to have an exhibition.

    There are signs in German, too, referencing German politics. I’m not making a particular comment, but I want it to feel current. There isn’t really a plan; I don’t really want to know what I’m doing. I’m just immersed in imagery at the moment, in the throes of creating, and working out what suits the project.

  • Michael Landy RA

    Michael Landy RA

    Photo: Harriet Baker © Royal Academy of Arts

  • What’s your earliest memory of art?

    I remember I was on a school trip to the Tower of London and I was drawing a suit of armour. An old American couple who were tourists came up to me and really liked what I was doing and were very complimentary. If only they knew what they were responsible for!

    That’s my first memory, but my mum tells me I was always drawing as a kid and people were always saying I was good at drawing.

    What work of art do you wish you’d created?

    Mike Kelley’s Arena #7 (Bears), which is a square blanket on the floor with teddy bears sitting round it. It was so audacious and brilliant, and I couldn’t believe that it actually existed. I thought, “Of course you can do that. Teddy bears can sit round in a circle, and that can be an artwork.”

    May would have loved it, too. But if she had got hold of the teddy bears, it would have been a different story. She would have torn out all the stuffing.

    How do you know when a piece of work is finished?

    I make different types of work so it’s quite difficult to analyse that exactly. When I was younger I would literally mine the work for everything it had, but it is possible to kill work and to overdo it. Sometime you just have to allow work to exist, and as I’ve got older I’ve got better at finishing things, whilst keeping them open. I don’t revisit work because it’s better to leave it alone – fiddling with work just makes it worse.

    Where were you when you found out that you had been elected as an Academician?

    I was working in my studio and I got a phone call from Tracey Emin RA. I couldn’t let her down because she was very persuasive. It was more about feeling scared about saying no to Tracey Emin than about whether I wanted to be an RA or not.

  • Michael Landy RA's Staffordshire bull terrier, May

    Michael Landy RA's Staffordshire bull terrier, May

    Photo: Harriet Baker © Royal Academy of Arts

  • What does the RA mean to you?

    The RA didn’t really symbolise anything to me. I thought it was a bunch of old grey haired duffers. But it is evolving and it’s morphing into something else as it starts to appreciate that there are women artists and different types of artists out there.

    I’m Professor of Drawing at the Schools and I really enjoy teaching regularly. And I also have an insight into how bureaucratic the RA is for artists – which is what I wanted to avoid at all costs! I remember my first General Assembly that I attended with all the other Academicians, and they were discussing whether or not they should reintroduce an old tradition, in which Academicians would throw marbles into a hollowed out piece of wood when electing new members. They talked about it for about an hour, and I thought, “Oh my God! I’m not dead yet. I’ve still got something to offer the world. What am I doing here?” Sometimes the meetings do drag on and you lose the will to live. Like when they talk about marbles for an hour.

    It’s a learning process for me and has been a fabulous experience in so many ways. And it’s interesting – you’d think that the young RAs would all be the anarchic troublemakers, but it’s the old ones! They’re the awkward squad.

    As you can tell I haven’t quite made up my mind about the RA – am I part of the establishment or am I here to destroy it? I can’t decide.

  • Michael Landy RA

    Michael Landy RA

    Photo: Harriet Baker © Royal Academy of Arts

  • If you were president of the RA for the day, what would you change?

    I would knock the whole thing down and build a lovely park for me and May. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have your own private park in central London? I’d invite some friends to join us.

    What piece of #CreativeWisdom would you give to aspiring artists?

    The art world is a very different world to the one I entered. It’s a global business now, much more commercial and much more corporate. When we left school, no one cared. You could get cheap studios, you could squat. You could get by on very little money. But the next generation just doesn’t have that. There’s a much bigger art market, which is a good thing, because there are more opportunities of showing your work.

    Show work early on, because you learn a lot through exhibiting. But you’ve got to have a thick skin. As an artist you have a number of careers. Trends change. Your face fits one moment and it doesn’t fit the next. You have to roll with the blows and not to take it personally. People will take another look at you and by that time you will be better.