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 made 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.