Scrapheap Services is a room-sized installation presenting a fictional people-cleansing company. Landy spent two years raiding tin banks and fast food outlets' refuse sacks for materials such as aluminium cans, food wrappers and cigarette packs from which he cut out the template of a simplified, generic human figure. Thousands of these are scattered over the floor and fill litter bins and a customised street sweeper's cart. Mannequins dressed in a red uniform sweep them up like leaves for disposal in the 'Vulture' machine, an adapted wood shredder, which bears (like the bins, the uniforms and the cart) the company logo and the words 'We leave the scum with no place to hide'. Two signboards depicting stylised idyllic landscapes reinforce the slogans of the company's promotional video:
A prosperous society depends upon a minority of people being discarded … Make a clean sweep with Scrapheap Services. We make people black-spots a thing of the past … Help us to help you dispose of people who no longer play a useful role in life … Our ideal landscapes are free of imperfections. They represent Scrapheap Services' ultimate goals: to rid society of all its ills, so giving you a better quality of life … The Vulture cuts through people instantly, leaving them torn apart … The scrapheap represents our commitment to you. (Quoted in Scrapheap Services [pp.4, 12, 16, 30, 42, 54].)
In 1988 Landy graduated from Goldsmith's College, London and participated in Freeze, the student art exhibition curated by the artist Damien Hirst (born 1965) in London's Docklands. This marked the beginning of what has come to be known as the yBa (young British artist) phenomenon. Landy's early works offered an ironic reflection on the spirit of capitalism and consumerism prevalent at that time. The effects of business on late capitalist society in general and its impact on individuals have remained underlying themes. Scrapheap Services stemmed from anger the artist felt about socio-political structures which classify members of society as disposable or expendable and then ignore or destroy them. At the time it was made public services in Britain were diminishing rapidly as a result of the policies of free-enterprise followed by the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister 1979-90). Institutions for the mentally ill as well as hospitals were being closed down and their inmates inadequately provided for, often ending up on the street.
Scrapheap Services extends the English tradition of satire begun in the eighteenth century, and follows the spirit of Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal (1729, Swift 1667-1745) in which the author proposes, as a solution to the famine being suffered in Ireland at the time, the cooking and eating of infants (at the time the Irish were regarded by the English as inferior and as breeding too fast). In the contemporary, but perhaps not so different, world of the 1990s Landy appropriates a corporate identity to parody the kind of excessively sanitised social ideals offered to the public by advertising, both for political parties as well as consumer goods. He satirically proposes an easy means for a selfish society to remain anaesthetised to the humanity of its undesireable elements. Installed in a white space with bright fluourescent lighting, the services' depersonalising and sterilising effects are emphasised. The vision Landy presents is absurd, but relevant to political situations throughout the world today. With this work Landy suggests our complicity in sustaining society's potentially dehumanising processes through hierarchies of valuation: 'everyone is complicit in the whole thing' (Landy quoted in Brilliant!, p.60).
Brilliant! New Art from Britain, exhibition catalogue, Walker Arts Centre, Minneapolis 1995, pp.58-60
Michael Landy, Scrapheap Services, London 1996
Jeremy Lewison, 'Michael Landy, "Scrapheap Services" (1995)', Tate the Art Magazine, issue 13, Winter 1997, p.vi.
October 2000/September 2001