Michael Landy is the English artist who, in 2001, created an assembly line whose sole function and purpose was to help Landy destroy every single possession he had at that moment in his life. His clothes, his papers, his passbook, his books, even his car. Everything Landy owned, everything that bound him to the consumer society he lived in, was destroyed and granulated, bagged up and sent to landfill.

Landy was left with just one thing — an enormous debt. Destroying his possessions, with the help of 10 people on the assembly line, had cost him 100,000 pounds.

The act of destruction was an artwork that Landy called Break Down. It took place in a premises in Oxford Street, London, and attracted an enormous amount of publicity. And why not? Who was this guy, this odd-ball? Who would want to trash every little thing, leaving themselves only with the clothes they stood up in?

As we now know, it was Michael Landy, born in 1963, and a Young British Artist along with Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread (Landy’s partner), Tracey Emin and others.

Landy isn’t as famous as Damien Hirst. But his ideas have more meat. In Break Down he rejected consumerism and conformity, and inquired into how the ownership of objects was one thing that characterised human beings. In his 2011 artwork for Sydney, organised as part of the Art and About program, Landy went a step further. He postulated the idea of the big city as the cradle for small acts of kindness, little things done by passers-by for other passers-by. People who would probably never meet again, people who were unlikely even to stop for thanks. People who keep a metropolis grounded.

So it was that I connected with Michael Landy one sunny morning in September 2011, shortly after he flew in to help instal his work, Acts of Kindness, Kaldor Public Art Project #24.

I alighted from the train at Wynyard Station and walked to Martin Place to rendezvous with Michael Landy. On the way, the bright colours of a fresh flower stand caught me eye, and I bought a bunch for Landy. We met near the Anzac Memorial in Martin Place, where part of Acts of Kindness was to be installed. I proffered my little bunch of freesias, and said “you know what these are, don’t you?”. Landy looked a little puzzled. “They’re an act of kindness,” I said. Landy beamed.

Here’s an edited transcription of what he said that morning. Other comments were from an earlier telephone interview I had done with Landy, and also from a presentation he gave at the Sydney College of the Arts as part of his visit for Acts of Kindness.

First, a short explanation of Acts of Kindness. Landy had gleaned from the Sydney public about 200 stories of acts of kindness done within the Sydney CBD. Landy created a huge, hand-drawn map of Sydney with the locations of the acts of kindness marked. It was then up to the public to go to those locations and find the giant jigsaw pieces on which the stories were written. Alternatively, people could just come across the jigsaw pieces as they walked through the city.

Can you tell me one or two of the acts of kindness stories you collected?

There was one where there’s this young girl sobbing and a couple come across her and take her out for something to eat and put her in a cab and send her home, so that’s very nice. There’s a similar story to that where a child is running along and falls over and maybe hurts her knee and a shopkeeper comes along and gives her some strawberries.

When did you meet John Kaldor?

[In 2001 when Kaldor came to see Break Down in London.] That’s the first time I met John. He just knocked on the door at 8 o’clock in the morning and the security guard didn’t want to let him in, but I was slightly intrigued, so I let him in and we had a quick chat and he said he’d come back later on, which he did. He came back and gave me some catalogues, so of course I had to destroy them because they became my possessions.

After you destroyed all your possessions, did you amass them all again?

I’ve got a lot less. It was at the age of 37. I was like a happy consumer, consuming things without any real issues about it. But once you destroy everything, you have a slightly different idea. Because you had a biography and a past, so your relationship with objects is different than it was before. Possessing things is a very human characteristic.

An edited transcript of the Sydney College of the Arts presentation:

Landy went to Goldsmiths College between 1985 and 1988 where he and Damien Hirst and other artists had a “harmonious but quite competitive relationship”. The course was unstructured, and you could do anything. “I could wander round in a circle with pig’s trotters hanging off me if I wanted to. Craig Martin our teacher said he had waited for people like us to come for years.”

Hirst organised 16 people, including Landy, to do a show. “In 1988 it was still the case that you did your time and some day someone would give you a show. We decided to do it ourselves. We didn’t need the commercial art scene because there wasn’t much of one. If there was one they were all interested in older artists, they weren’t interested in us.”

During the prime ministership of Margaret Thatcher, Landy set up a fictitous company called Scrapheap Services, for getting rid of people with no role in life. “I felt like that myself. I had left my gallery, so I didn’t have a gallery. The world makes sense of you because of your gallery and once you haven’t got one …”

Doing Break Down was the happiest two weeks of Landy’s life. “We had 50,000 people come to see it in two weeks.”

In 2004, Landy made Semi-Detached, a reproduction inside Tate Britain of his father’s home. “My dad was an Irish tunnel miner. Had an industrial accident back in about 1975. He remembers being basically buried alive. The tunnel fell on top of him. He remembers seeing the root system of trees. He had serious spinal injuries. That was in Northumberland. Basically that’s a portrait of him. The only jobs he can do now are jobs around the house. So this looks like a model but it’s a full scale version of our house in Essex.

“I haven’t talked about drawing, but that’s most of my practice really. My father remembers me drawing as a child.”

Landy said he is interested in rubbish, and in 2010 he created a work called Art Bin, a transparent skip into which people were invited to throw artworks they were dissatisfied with.

“In Britain you can destroy an artwork but you can’t deface it. I created a huge bin. People put in their own failed artworks. I am interested in rubbish as well. You could walk up the steps and throw your work in.” Hirst threw in an artwork, which people attempted to retrieve.

“After Break Down, I thought about what makes us human. I wanted to investigate that. I am interested in everyday acts of kindness. My favourite stories are where you have had a really bad day and someone smiles or makes a little paper sculpture and drops it in your lap. I wanted to celebrate those acts.”

Elizabeth Fortescue, January 13, 2012