Michel Houellebecq – La carte et le territoire, 2010 The Map and the Territory

la-carte-et-le-territoire

A little despite himself, he approached Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, which was standing on his easel in the middle of the studio, and dissatisfaction seized him again, still more bitterly. He realised he was hungry, which wasn’t normal after the complete Christmas dinner he’d had with his father — starter, main course, cheese and dessert, nothing had been left out but he felt hungry and so hot he could no longer breathe. He returned to the kitchen, opened a tin of cannelloni in sauce and ate them one by one, while looking morosely at his failed painting. Koons was undoubtedly not light enough, not ethereal enough — it would perhaps have been necessary to give him wings, like the god Mercury, he thought stupidly; there, with his pinstriped suit and salesman’s smile, he reminded you a bit of Silvio Berlusconi.

On the ArtPrice ranking of the richest artists, Koons was world number 2; for a few years now, Hirst, ten years his junior, had taken his place at number 1. As for Jed, he had reached 593 ten years ago — but 17 in France. He had then, as the Tour de France commentators say, ‘dropped to the bottom of the classement’, before disappearing from it altogether. He finished the tin of cannelloni and opened an almost empty bottle of cognac. Lighting his ramp of halogen lamps to the maximum, he trained them on the centre of the canvas. On closer inspection, the night itself wasn’t right: it didn’t have that sumptuousness, that mystery we associate with nights on the Arabian peninsula; he should have used a deep blue, not ultramarine. He was making a truly shit painting. He seized a palette knife, cut open Damien Hirst’s eye, and forced the gash wider; it was a canvas of tight linen fibres, and therefore very tough. Catching the sticky canvas with one hand, he tore it in one blow, tipping the easel over onto the floor. Slightly calmed, he stopped, looked at his hands, sticky with paint, and finished the cognac before jumping feet first onto his painting, stamping on it and rubbing it against the floor until it became slippery. He ended up losing his balance and fell, the back of his head hitting the frame of the easel violently. He belched and vomited, and suddenly felt better, the fresh night air circulating freely on his face, and he closed his eyes contentedly: he had visibly reached the end of a cycle.

Chapter 9.

Many years later, when he had become famous — extremely famous, if the truth be told — Jed would be asked numerous times what it meant, in his eyes, to be an artist. He would find nothing very interesting or original to say, except one thing, which he would consequently repeat in each interview: to be an artist, in his view, was above all to be someone submissive. Someone who submitted himself to mysterious, unpredictable messages, that you would be led, for want of a better word and in the absence of any religious belief, to describe as intuitions, messages which nonetheless commanded you in an imperious and categorical manner, without leaving the slightest possibility of escape — except by losing any notion of integrity and self-respect. These messages could involve destroying a work, or even an entire body of work, to set off in a radically new direction, or even occasionally no direction at all, without having any project at all, or the slightest hope of continuing. It was thus, and only thus, that the artists condition could, sometimes, be described as difficult. It was also thus, and only thus, that it distinguished itself from other professions or trades, to which he would pay homage in the second part of his career, the one which would earn him worldwide renown.

Chapter 11.

Jed was not to remain faithful to the Sennelier brand, and his mature paintings are almost entirely made with Mussini oils by Schmincke. There are exceptions, and certain greens, particularly the cinnabar greens that give such a magical glow to the forests of California pine descending towards the sea in Bill Gates and Steve jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, are borrowed from the Rembrandt range of oils by the firm Royal Talens. And for the whites he almost always used Old Holland oils, whose opacity he appreciated.

Jed Martin’s first paintings, art historians have later emphasised, could easily lead you down the wrong track. By devoting his first two canvases, Ferdinand Desroches, Horse Butcher then Claude Vorilhon, Bar-Tabac Manager, to professions in decline, Martin could give the impression of nostalgia for a past age, real or fantasised, in France. Nothing, and this is the conclusion that has ended up emerging about all his works, was more foreign to his real preoccupations; and if Martin began by looking at two washed-up professions, it was in no way because he wanted to encourage lamentations on their probable disappearance: it was simply that they were, indeed, going to disappear soon, and it was important to fix their images on canvas while there was still time. For his third painting in the series of professions, Maya Dubois, Remote Maintenance Assistant, he devoted himself to a profession that was in no way stricken or old fashioned, a profession on the contrary emblematic of the policy of just-in-time production which had orientated the entire economic redeployment of Western Europe at the turn of the third millennium.

In the first monograph he devoted to Martin, Wong Fu Xin develops a curious analogy based on colorimetry. The colours of the objects in the world can be represented by a certain number of primary colours; the minimum number, to achieve an almost realistic representation, is three. But you can perfectly build a colorimetric chart on the basis of four, five, six, or even more primary colours; the spectrum of representation would in this way become more extensive and subtle.

In the same way, asserts the Chinese essayist, the productive conditions of a given society may be recreated by means of a number of typical professions, whose number according to him (it is a figure he gives without any empirical evidence) can be fixed at between ten and twenty. In the numerically most important part of the ‘Professions’ series, the one that art historians have taken the habit of entitling the ‘Series of Simple Professions’, Jed Martin portrays no less than forty—two typical professions, thus offering, for the study of the productive conditions of the society of his times, a spectrum of analysis that is particularly extensive and rich. The following twenty—two paintings, centred on confrontations and encounters, classically called the ‘Series of Business Compositions’, themselves aimed to give a relational and dialectical image of the functioning of the economy as a whole.

The ‘Series of Simple Professions’ took Jed Martin a little more than seven years to paint. During these years, he didn’t meet many people, and formed no new relationship — whether sentimental or simply friendly. He had moments of sensory pleasure: an orgy of Italian pasta after a raid on the Casino hypermarket in the boulevard Vincent-Auriol; such-and-such an evening with a Lebanese escort girl whose sexual performances amply justified the ecstatic reviews she received on the site Niamodel.com. ‘Layla, I love you, you are the sunshine of my days in the office, my little oriental star,’ wrote some unfortunate fifty-somethings, while Layla for her part dreamed of muscular men, virile, poor and strong: this was the life, basically, as she saw it. Easily identified as a guy who was ‘a bit bizarre but nice, not at all dangerous’, Jed benefited with Layla from that kind of exception of extra-territoriality that has always been attributed to artists by the girls. It is maybe Layla, but more certainly Genevieve, his Malagasy ex-girlfriend, who is recalled in one of his most touching canvases, Aimée, Escort Girl, treated with an exceptionally warm palette based on umber, Indian orange and Naples yellow. At the opposite extreme from Toulouse-Lautrec’s representation of a made-up, chlorotic and unhealthy prostitute, Jed Martin paints a fulfilled young woman, both sensual and intelligent, in a modern flat bathed in light. With her back to the window, which opens onto a public garden since identified as the square des Batignolles, and simply dressed in a tight white miniskirt, Aimée is finishing putting on a tiny orange-yellow top that only very partially covers her magnificent breasts.

Martin’s only erotic painting, it is also the first where openly autobiographical echoes have been uncovered. The second one, The Architect Jean-Pierre Martin Leaving the Management of his Business, was painted two years later, and marks the beginning of a genuine period of creative frenzy that would last for a year and a half and end with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, subtitled The Conversation at Palo Alto, which many consider his masterpiece. It is astonishing to think that the twenty-two paintings of the ‘Series of Business Compositions’, often complex and in wide format, were made in just eighteen months. It is also surprising that Jed Martin finally hit a snag on a canvas, Damien Hirst and Jefi Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, which could have, in many regards, matched his Jobs-Gates composition. Analysing this failure, Wong Fu Xin sees in it the reason for his return, a year later, to the ‘Series of Simple Professions’ through his sixty-fifth and final painting. Here, the clarity of the Chinese essayist’s thesis carries conviction: in his desire to give an exhaustive view of the productive sector of the society of his time, Jed Martin was inevitably, at one moment or another in his career, going to portray an artist.

Michel Houellebecq, 1956      La carte et le territoire, 2010 The Map and the Territory

La carte et le Terretoire, published by Flammarion, Paris 2010. © Michel Houellebecq ©Translation copyright by by Gavin Bowd, Published by William Heinnemann, London.

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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