Michel Houllebecq's novel The Map and the Territory (La carte et le territoire) is a future art history of the French artist Jed Martin. Martin's output is both limited and clinical: he desires, above all, to "give an objective description of the world" (27), and he creates a body of work consisting of four series produced throughout his life.
Aside from the drawings produced in his youth, Martin’s first work was the series “Three Hundred Photos of Hardware.” “Avoiding emphasis on the shininess of the metals and the menacing nature of the forms, Jed had used a neutral lighting, with few contrasts, and photographed articles of hardware against a background of mid-gray velvet. Nuts, bolts, and adjusting knobs appeared like so many jewels, gleaming discreetly” (26). The series appears to be an extension of a previous project, undertaken in his high school bedroom with mostly natural light, to create “an exhaustive catalogue of the objects of human manufacturing in the Industrial Age” (20). Martin has difficulty articulating his project, and his artist's statement emphasizes the advanced aluminum engineering responsible for creating most industrial objects. It's the work Andreas Gursky would have made taking pictures of single objects.
While claiming to be done with photography, Martin’s next series returns to his technical facility with the medium. Enthralled by the beauty of Michelin Departments road maps, Martin experiences a mild attack of Stendhal syndrome after unfolding a map of the Creuse and Haute-Vienne: “This map was sublime. Overcome, he began to tremble in front of the food display. Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning” (28). The Michelin series consisted of over eight hundred photographs and was responsible for Martin’s first major show, sponsored by Michelin, titled “THE MAP IS MORE INTERESTING THAN THE TERRITORY.”
Martin’s work fits easily into a certain popular narrative of contemporary art: conceptual enough to make critics giddy, effortless enough to affirm a naysayer’s belief in the overwhelming bullshit of the gallery, and relevant without being topical. Most importantly, it's never outside complex contemporary fiscal systems: art remains a good investment. These are precisely the qualities them so believable as artworks, so easy to imagine. It is what separates the novel so completely from other narratives of faux-artworks, with their gaudy, impossibly transcendent works of beauty.
David Hockney, Mr. and Mrs. Clark Percy (1970)
Martin’s next aesthetic endeavor took him into the world of painting: his collection of sixty-five oil paintings, collectively known as the “Professions” series, depicted the various modes of employ which form a functioning society. Martin creates another taxonomy, this time a human taxonomy: with subjects ranging from Maya Dubois, Remote Maintenance Assistant to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology (subtitled The Conversation at Palo Alto). The portrait of Gates and Jobs is considered his most essential work: Martin gives “a magical glow to the forests of California pine descending toward the sea” (72). (Eventually, Steve Jobs up bought the painting for $2 million).
The Chinese essayist Wong Fu Xin maintains that Martin’s paintings from this period, which can be broken into the Series of Simple Professions and the Series of Business Compositions, represent the minimum number of professions required to recreate the productive conditions of society: they “give a relational and dialectical image of the functioning of the economy as a whole” (73). When unable to complete the final painting of the series, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, Martin destroyed it. His final painting is one of Houellebecq, which he presents to the writer as a gift.
Still from Luther Price's Meat (1992)
By the end of his life, Martin had delved into video work. He began by taking high-definition video of plants and trees for hours on end, and keeping only a few pictograms from the footage. These “constitute without any doubt the most successful attempt, in Western art, at representing how plants see the world” (266). From there Martin returned to his original subject, machines, making videos of them against his famous gray background. His next step, though, consisted of his most personal work since his portrait of a former girlfriend in Aimée, Escort Girl: he filmed photographs of everyone he had known in his life (this being a Houellebecq novel, he hasn't known many people). "He fixed them to a neutral gray canvas, and shot them just in front of his home, this time letting natural decay take its course. Subjected to the alterations of rain and sunlight, the photographs crinkled, rotten in places, then decomposed into fragments, and were totally destroyed in the space of a few weeks. More curiously, he acquired toy figurines, schematic representations of human beings, and subjected them to the same process" (267-8). The videos he created from this footage were produced with editing software that allowed him to layer up to ninety-six separate videos into a ghostly double-exposure style video. Cities fade to decaying faces, which return to the greenery of nature. Eventually, "The triumph of vegetation is total" (269). Uninterested in memorializing himself, Martin's work creates a testament of transitory mankind. The process of decaying photographs seems like a less quicker version of methods used by Luther Price to destroy film, while Martin's interest in double exposure and natural subjects are reminiscent of Nathaniel Dorsky's films--though both of those artists work intimately with the film medium as opposed to digital technologies.
Still from Nathaniel Dorsky's The Return (2011)
Martin’s work is part of a mundane fantasy of contemporary art: the creations of detached observer with a superstar aura who would, in earnest, leave teasing out the meaning of his pieces to those who make that their own profession. It’s funny to imagine Marin’s Artist Profile on Rhizome: the longest response would probably be his birthday. He’s a noble artist—perhaps the only artist Houellebecq himself can imagine endorsing, as the fictional Houellebecq does during the course of The Map and the Territory by writing an essay for a show of Martin’s “Professions” paintings. Finally, despite becoming financially successful, Martin has none of the base desires of other Houellebecq protagonists: he wants only to create his plain representations of reality.
Much has been made of the novel’s depiction of Houellebecq’s own gruesome death by decapitation at the wrong end of an extremely advanced and expensive laser. Perhaps only in a reality where this happens could Houellebecq possibly find an artist as pure as Martin. While reading I was left with the feeling that Martin—with his extraordinary wealth and technical appreciation of machinery—was the best suspect. Ultimately, my hopes were dashed when the case is solved as an extravagant art heist. If your work doesn’t kill you, someone else’s will.