Secular stuff, a census for a century, and simple advice

Three things I learned or loved this month

Artful possessions (credit: Luca Laurence)

Twenty years ago a British artist gathered up 7,227 things he owned and spent two weeks methodically breaking them into pieces. In the heart of consumerist London – in a closed-down C&A store on Oxford Street – his paintings, hi-fi, clothes, love letters, cat food, passport, car and more became bits of metal, glass, ceramic, textiles. The pieces were sent to landfill until his only remaining possession was the boilersuit he was wearing.

The artist, Michael Landy, interviewed last year in the Financial Times, described it as “reversing the idea of production into a disassembly line”. In the act of destruction he was also creating something, of course. His two-week performance attracted some 50,000 visitors to the store, and led to works of photography and exhibitions.

Whatever you think about performance art – or about destroying things for art’s sake, in an age of environmental crisis – the work says something about our complicated attachment to material possessions. As Landy told the FT: “At the time I spoke about how I was witnessing my own death and also moments of elation and it being the happiest two weeks of my life.” 

That interview has been in my mind as I gear up to move house and realise, heart sinking, just how much stuff I have accumulated, and yet how hard it seems to be to let go of it. I envy the simplicity of one friend who recently emptied his apartment before moving to the USA, with one small suitcase. 

Why do we – even those of us who don’t consider ourselves materialistic – so easily acquire things? Reassuringly, researchers say it’s a natural part of being human – that we develop materialistic tendencies to deal with difficult situations or even a fear of death; materialists are generally seeking meaning rather than status. The School of Life points out that religions have spent a great deal of time creating material things, because these symbolise and connect us to something intangible. In a similar way, secular possessions can also play “a positive psychological (or spiritual) role in our lives when higher, more positive ideals are ‘materialised’ in them”. So it’s about what you own, and why; no need to destroy all my possessions just yet, though it’s time to be a bit more choosy about what’s actually meaningful.

Time capsules

I wrote about all the ordinary things I did on 12 May for Mass Observation Day, a project that began in 1937, on the day of George VI’s coronation, and which has since asked members of the public to document everyday life on this date. It was strange to wonder what details might confuse readers in future decades (Zoom? Slack? Covid? Laptops? Charity shop?). It gives you an odd – but for some reason comforting – sense of a bigger thing, a sweep of history that you won’t be around to witness but that will nonetheless exist (we hope).  

A similar feeling was prompted by the recent Irish census. In the “time capsule” section of the form, people were invited to write whatever they wanted, with their responses to be made public in 100 years’ time. Many shared snapshots of what they’d written on social media: some joked about hangovers or useless technology; others wrote bitterly about government failures or climate change. And at least a few recorded the name of a very young family member who had died and was therefore never counted in a census. Words scrawled in biro that, to a handful of people, mean everything.

Actually, it’s all quite simple 

The best kind of advice is advice that makes overwhelming, complicated situations seem surprisingly simple. The artist Austin Kleon writes that he used to do “office hours” for fellow creatives, and most questions would boil down to 1) I’m scared; 2) I don’t know what to do. His answers: 1) One day you’ll be dead; 2) Keep working. It sounds deliciously harsh, and encouraging at the same time.