Acts of Kindness

Michael Landy

A project celebrating everyday compassion on the Tube
1 November 2011 – 1 January 2012

Part of the following series:

Central Line Series

Have you seen someone being kind-hearted on the Tube?
Did someone do something kind for you?
Did you help someone out?

Acts of Kindness was a project by artist Michael Landy celebrating everyday generosity and compassion on the Tube.

Landy invited passengers and staff to help by sending stories of kindness that they had seen or been part of on London Underground. He then chose a selection of the stories which were displayed in Central line stations and trains.

To read the full collection of stories, a downloadable pdf is available at the bottom of the page.

About the project

Michael Landy’s project Acts of Kindness was a celebration of compassion and generosity, inviting us to notice acts of kindness however simple and small. The artist explained, ‘Sometimes we tend to assume that you have to be superhuman to be kind, rather than just an ordinary person.’ So, to unsettle that idea, Acts of Kindness catches those little exchanges that are almost too fleeting and mundane to be noticed or remembered.

Landy first began thinking about the idea behind Acts of Kindness immediately after making his work Break Down (Artangel, 2001). For Break Down, he destroyed all his belongings, from his birth certificate to his car. The experience of being left with nothing helped him reflect on what we are aside from what we own, and on the value of feeling part of a common humanity. ‘One of the questions that motivated Break Down’, he said, ‘was what makes us human, more than just being consumers. I guess I wanted to take that a step further. I was looking for the right situation to explore what value kindness has, what it means, and what kind of exchange is involved in giving someone a helping hand.’

The situation he was looking for turned out to be on London Underground. Landy is fascinated by the way we tend to disappear into our own bubble on the Tube, disconnected from the people around us. One day, he recalls, while sitting in a Tube train absorbed in his own world, he suddenly became aware of two strangers, one trying to help the other. For Landy it was a life-enhancing event. He considered how easy it would have been for the person helping to look away. And he wondered what inspires a stranger to be kind to another: what motivates someone to step out of their bubble and go out of their way to help a person they don’t know? He created this project as a way of capturing and exploring what happens in that moment.

Landy defines kindness as going beyond yourself to acknowledge someone else’s needs and feelings. Being kind to a stranger involves sharing that sense of connection with someone you don’t know. ‘It’s a gesture of trust between two people’, he said. ‘There’s a risk in that. They may just ignore you or take it the wrong way.’ It requires courage and acceptance on both sides.

Perhaps that’s partly because acts of kindness between strangers undermine the idea that we should compete and always strive to be independent. Instead, they’re an acknowledgement of our shared humanity. ‘This project is about feeling a sense of being connected to each other’, Landy explained. ‘That’s what “kindness” means – we’re kin, we’re of one kind.’

Acts of Kindness was the first in Art on the Underground’s Central line series of artists’ projects taking place from 2011 to 2012. Landy’s Acts of Kindness stories were installed in many Central Line stations, including Newbury Park, Redbridge, Gants Hill, Wanstead, Barkingside, Leyton, Liverpool Street, Chancery Lane, St Paul’s, Holborn, Lancaster Gate, Holland Park, Greenford, Ealing Broadway, West Acton, North Acton and Hanger Lane.

Featured stories

  • An old man boarded a busy Tube and I stood up to give him my seat. “How nice it is that the young look out for the elderly” he said. “It’s got nothing to do with your age,” I replied, “it’s because you look like you’ve lunched rather well!” He’d been drinking. I was a student; he was editor of Reuters. We exchanged cards. He wrote about the experience in The London Review of Books whilst discussing The American Guide to Modern Manners and posted it to me to say thanks. 10 years later he spoke at my wedding. 15 years later my son’s middle name is that of his. He was called David Chipp. My son’s name is Rupert Chipp Trewby. He passed away a year before my son was born.
  • Heavily pregnant, with a large protruding bump, I dreaded my daily Northern Line commute. One particularly awful day I found I was unable to get onto three successive trains due to the crush at the door. I was becoming increasingly distressed but working hard not to show it. I tried to catch the eye of a rather stern-looking professional woman, hoping for a sympathetic smile, but she didn’t acknowledge my look. Then as the next train’s doors opened and the fourth mad crush of my morning began, she suddenly sprang to life and shouted, “there is a pregnant lady here, let her on please”. She escorted me onto the train and demanded that I be given a seat. I flopped into the chair, overwhelmed to the point of tears, but she still didn’t look at me and I was never able to thank her for her selfless kindness.
  • It was a hot July evening. Walking through the tunnels beneath Oxford Circus my nose began to bleed uncontrollably. Seeing my distress two young women stopped, gave me tissues and contacted station emergency. Upstairs in the staff toilets I was handed reams of toilet paper whilst a young woman Transport Police Officer rang my husband and gave him directions. I am so thankful l that when I needed help, I was able to rely on the kindness of these strangers.
  • Running down the stairs to catch the train that had just pulled in, I hadn’t noticed my iPod falling out of my pocket until I was inside the carriage, watching a stranger pick it up off the wet platform floor. He looked up at me through the closing doors (while I had already assumed that I probably wouldn’t be seeing it again) and mouthed the words ‘I’ll wait here!’ through the glass. And he did.
  • I was transporting several very heavy light-stands from Wimbledon to Archway and I was really struggling to carry them. Two very kind strangers (one at Vauxhall & one at Archway) offered to help me carry them up the stairs. Then when I got to Archway at about midnight the TFL staff very kindly drove me home (10mins up Highgate Hill) in a TFL van!! :) Thank you!
  • In December 1993 my 5 year old daughter rushed onto a Tube train ahead of me and before I could follow her with my other child the doors closed and the train pulled out of the station as I ran alongside banging on the doors in a panic. I caught the next train and got off at the next stop to find my little girl being consoled by a group of young teenagers en-route to a concert who had got off the train to stay with her until I found her. They had to dash off to get to the show and I think I was crying too much to thank them properly, so I welcome this opportunity to say THANK YOU, THANK YOU so much!
  • Less than 24 hours earlier, I’d learnt that my 20-year-old cousin had died whilst backpacking around Asia. Travelling to work next morning, slow, heavy tears were tracing down my face, and a stranger seated opposite wordlessly passed me a tissue.
  • I woke up to a phone call from my dad telling me my much-loved grandpa had died. On the Tube over to my parents I couldn’t stop crying. The woman sitting next to me asked if I was ok, and I told her my grandpa had died that morning. She took my hand and held it for the rest of the journey. I have never forgotten how comforted I felt by this small, intimate act.
  • Once, I was very ill while working in London. The Central line was the only way I could get home, but the journey would last two hours. I had no choice. After half an hour, I fainted and fell on the carriage floor. When I came around, a man had picked me up and was carrying me in his arms. I was covered in my own vomit, but he didn’t care. He carried me to his seat and put me down there. I could barely speak and couldn’t stand. He wouldn’t let me thank him and walked away embarrassed. I never even learnt his name and wish I could thank him.
  • While on my second maternity leave, I was travelling from Dollis Hill to Crouch End to visit a friend for lunch. After 2 changes and 3 tubes I got to Finsbury Park only to find me, the toddler and the baby in the pram at the bottom of 3 flights of stairs. My heart sank. As it was lunchtime, the station was quiet, and I wasn’t too happy to see 2 hooded young men loping down the stairs but as they got to bottom, they asked if they could help by taking the pram leaving me to carry the toddler. They carried it up the 3 flights safely and even missed their train to do so! I always think of them when people use the term ‘hoodie’ as a generic term for violent youth because their kindness made my day and challenged my lazy assumptions.
  • I was sitting opposite a little girl wearing glitter face paint after a party. She wanted to take the itchy sparkles off, but her mum didn’t have a tissue. A very dusty builder standing nearby pulled a packet of facewipes out of his bag and offered them. They laughed and thanked him.
  • The Northern line seems to be a constant source of kindness for me. A while ago I was feeling extremely ill on the tube, and a woman clearly seeing my distress offered me some of her paracetamol. Another time, quite recently I was having a bad day and was rather upset. A young lady opposite me looked at me sympathetically and handed me a packet of tissues. It really is the little things in life. Thank you, Northern line passengers!
  • A hot Tube carriage full of noisy Arsenal supporters, mostly men, mostly twice my size and half my age. Suddenly, I start to feel faint, but am too embarrassed to say. One supporter notices, asks me if I’m OK and suddenly the men make more space, fan my face, and someone produces water for me to drink. I hope Arsenal won that night because those fans on the Tube were fantastic.

About the artist

Artist Michael Landy (b. 1963) grew up in East London where he still lives. Throughout his life most of his journeys have started out on the Central line.

Landy was inspired to be an artist when as a child a picture he had made was shown on the BBC TV programme Take Hart. After school he studied art at Loughton, Loughborough and Goldsmiths colleges. Shortly afterwards he achieved acclaim as one of the Young British Artists who transformed the international art scene in the early 1990s.

Landy’s major projects include Break Down (Artangel, 2001), where he destroyed all his material possessions. He made a painstakingly detailed list of everything he owned, totalling 7,227 items. Then, a team of boiler-suited helpers passed them all one by one along a conveyor belt to be shredded and granulated in a former C&A store on Oxford Street. He walked away with nothing but a pair of overalls. The experience led him to reflect deeply on the value of the small acts of compassion that connect us with others, triggering his idea for Acts of Kindness.

His major projects include Semi-Detached (2004), for which he reproduced his parents’ house to scale inside the galleries of Tate Britain, and Art Bin (2010) at the South London Gallery where he invited artists to come and throw away their work.

Landy is currently Associate Artist at the National Gallery. In recognition of his major contribution to contemporary art, he was made a lifetime member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2008.

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