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November 02, 2004

Michael Landy's Semi-detached

Posted by Christie Davies

Michael Landy's Semi-detached
Tate Britain, London
18th May - 12th December 2004
Daily 10am - 5.50pm
Admission Free

Michael Landy has had constructed an exact replica of his father's house in Essex, or at least its fašade fixed to a hidden wooden frame. It is divided into two halves like two flat flanked book ends separated and thus framed by the classical pillars of the gallery itself. In doing so he has transformed an example of ugliness into an object of interest. It also displays a commendable filial piety.

This horrid little jerry-built 1930s house, all drainpipes and projecting wires, pebble dash front and clumsily repointed cheap bricks is so real that I found two Chinese students trying to open the back door with a bunch of keys. "Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?" they asked and went away laughing. The doors are indeed the worst part of it, especially that at the front with its lion's head mock brass doorknocker and the snapping letter box six inches up from the ground that every sciatica challenged, tender fingered, postman must have cursed. The house must be one of a hundred thousand others built as the inhabitants of an over-crowded East London were extruded along the arterial roads of Essex during the inter-war building boom, the first stage in the destruction of rural South-East England. Keynes was wrong. Here in later years were born Essex-man and Essex-girl.

It is an unlikely object to be transported to Millbank, yet the artist has a point, though perhaps not the one he wishes to make. He has projected an ever-changing set of images onto the two flat screens created when the 'house' was split in half. Here we see a record of the house-based activities of his father, a tunnel-miner who was forced to give up work in 1977 after an industrial accident and seems to have spent the rest of his life in an endless round of DIY maintenance of and adaptations to his home.

Landy writes of his creation that:

the installation questions the ways in which we value and identify ourselves through labour.
The use of the word 'labour' is unfortunate; it has a nasty Marxist ring about it. Yet he is making a valid point about a particular and valued individual close to him. When his father lost his work, he could have lost his identity. The house had to become his identity as he shaped it with drill and hammer and plant pot. But, in the words of the illiterate postmodernist, "why privilege physical labour?" My own father retired unwillingly at 65 while still active and far better at his job than his successor was ever likely to be. He had never worked with his hands, nor other than painting the inside walls with a roller did he ever do anything to modify his house, a terraced version of Landy's semi. He now spent his time writing amusing and acerbic letters to the local newspapers and enjoying his opponent's inept replies. He particularly enjoyed goading H.W.J.Edwards of Trealaw who in turn always rose to the bait. After retirement my father's talent with words had to find a domestic outlet. Landy's tribute to his own father brought mine back to me. That is a strong justification of Landy's use of the house for I am not the only one who will make such connections.

To take the ordinary and banal from its usual place and then re-assemble it in a self-consciously artistic context is not a con-trick. Rather it is a way of getting us to confront and assess the surroundings and experience we usually take for granted. It makes more sense to regard possessions as repositories of memory, than as mere things to be destroyed at whim. It follows as a corollary of this that domestic burglars should be punished with the utmost severity. An attempt to steal or damage an extension of your very person amounts to an act of violence.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction publishers, 2004.


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