John Lanchester – Capital, 2012

Chapter 39

Smitty’s assistant was called Parker French, though that wasn’t how Smitty thought of him. As was his practice, Smitty thought of his assistant as his assistant. What they did mattered much more than who they were. In fact who they were was barely relevant; in so far as it was relevant, it was, in direct proportion, annoying. The more he had to notice his assistants as people, the less well they were doing their job. If he could have got away with it, he would have quite liked to do that thing of calling all his assistants by the same name. Nigel, say. His assistant would always be called Nigel. Every year or so there would be a new Nigel. Short Nigels, tall Nigels, hairy Nigels, skinhead Nigels, Rasta Nigels – but always, in the final analysis, Nigels. That would be funny.

Smitty’s assistant, however, didn’t think of himself as Smitty’s assistant. He thought of himself as Parker French. If Parker had known what Smitty thought of him, he would have been shocked and upset, but he would have nonetheless found out that he and his employer were in full agreement about one thing: Parker wouldn’t be Smitty’s assistant for ever.

A job like today’s was one reason for that. Smitty was going to a party, an art-world party. It was in a warehouse in Clapton, and was given by a gallery owner who had been one of the first and most alert about tracking the London art world’s relocation eastward. They had been onto Hoxton, onto Shoreditch, right as they were happening, and now they were onto Clapton. The stuff on display was by one of their new clients, an up-and-coming pair of brothers who specialised in smashing things and then incorrectly gluing them back together. It wasn’t a question of whether they were going to be big. That was a given. It was only a question of just how big. For this first high-profile show, there were about ten small pieces and two big central works. The small pieces included a mound of four bicycles, some sofas, a fridge (that was quite funny because the doors had been glued on backwards), and some sets of golf clubs (also funny). In the middle stood one of their most controversial works, a number of paintings and artworks which they’d been given by other artists and which they’d chopped up and glued back together and given a one-word name three hundred and forty-four characters long which was all the individual titles of the artworks run together. Hareonagreenshutteraftersoutineperformanceonesketchesincharcoal1  baconwaswrongileftmymuminthecarparkpartsevenwinterdrea mpicturemehavingsexdoesmymumlookbiginthis(canisterofherash es)knickerpaintingifyouwantmybodyinspiredbyphilipkdicknumber twoselfportraitselfportraitselfportraitbyphotoshopspunkingupyogh urtpotbymoonlightshortfilmsstilllifewithfish was one big central piece, which had already been bought by a collector. Smitty quite liked it and quite liked the idea too. It was funny to think of how pissed off all the other artists must have been to have their work chopped up, while having to pretend to be cool about it. But that wasn’t his favourite piece in the show. The brothers had smashed a Ford Focus – or rather had found a chop shop to cut it apart – and glued it back together. The result was memorable, truly. It looked like a child’s idea of how you might assemble a car, executed by a giant whose hands were too big to make the necessary fine movements. Because bits of it stuck out and were added on at the last moment – bits that the brothers couldn’t fit in anywhere else – it also had something a little hedgehog-like about it. Everyone agreed that it was a very strong piece. It was called Can There Ever Be a Politics of the Dream? That was where the party had got its theme. The party was called Politics of the Dream, which was why there were sword-swallowers and fire-eaters by the warehouse door as people came in, and also why the waiters were dwarfs.

Smitty had been sent an invitation via his dealer – his dealer in the old sense, as it happened, who was now his dealer in the new sense – and he felt coming, so he did. He wanted to have a look around, not just to see the brothers’ work, which he already knew about, but to get the feeling of the room, of the vibe, of what was happening and what might be about to happen. Art was a business, which might not be your favourite fact about it but was a fact you were unwise to ignore. It was good to sniff around, to look at the players. Because of that, going to art parties was something Smitty loved to do. There wasn’t too much chance he would be recognised, even among an art-world crowd, because among that crowd there was a rumour – a rumour started by Smitty, as it happened, via a hint he’d got his dealer to drop – that Smitty was black. The existence of that rumour was Smitty’s single favourite thing in the whole entire world.

So his identity was protected here. At the same time, he was careful not to do the party thing too often, because if he did do it too often, people might start to wonder who he was; might start to wonder properly, not just to be faintly, briefly, idly curious. Smitty liked to play games with his anonymity, but he preferred to be the person who was playing the game; liked it to be a private game with one player, Smitty himself. So he always dressed up in a suit and tie, a not-too-smart formal suit, not a wide-boy-at-play suit, and if anyone asked him what he did, he said he was an accountant who worked for the artists’ insurers. That shut people up and made them go away pretty fast. If they didn’t, well, Smitty had an economics GCSE and was confident he could bluff his way through. Plus he always took an assistant as hanger-on and as cover. Even a useless Nigel like this one could be good cover, because Smitty looked as if he was standing talking to him while in fact he was checking out the talent in the room – the talent in all senses.

Smitty recognised about a third of the people in the room; that was about average. There were some dealers who were mainly drinking champagne, a few artists who were mainly drinking Special Brew (nice touch) and a few civilians who were either on champagne or London tap water; that was being served out of magnums with ‘London Tap’ printed on the side (another nice touch). The dealers were for the most part wearing expensive versions of smart casual, the artists were carefully superscruffy, and the civilians wore suits. Hence his disguise. There were more foreigners than usual, which was interesting; mainly Germans, Smitty thought. The word about these guys had got out quite far quite fast. Germany was a good market, as Smitty well knew. About a third of his book’s earnings had been in Germany. That was really all there was to see here. Another glass of bubbles and Smitty would be off.

All this made Parker very unhappy. Smitty was right to think that his assistant wasn’t exactly convulsed with respect for him. In Parker’s opinion, Smitty’s entire oeuvre was based on a mistake. Once you ignored the particulars of what Smitty did – which, in Parker’s view, you could easily do, without missing too much – what Smitty’s work was really about was anonymity. He was all about being anonymous, about the idea of, and consequences of, being anonymous. Warhol only had one idea, about the commodification of the art image; and he got that idea in all its implications, from every possible angle. Smitty too only had one idea, about the possibilities and consequences of anonymity. But his idea was, in Parker’s opinion, a load of bollocks. People did not want to be anonymous. More: anonymity was one of the things that they liked least about life in the modern world. They wanted to be known, they wanted to be named, they wanted their fifteen minutes.

‘It’s not about being invisible,’ Parker would say to his girlfriend Daisy when he talked about what was wrong with Smitty; which was fairly often. ‘He’s got it backwards. Art should be about making people visible. Making things visible. It’s about attention,’

She knew well enough not to say anything, just to stroke the nearest available body part.

Parker knew just how being unknown, unacknowledged, unseen, presses on people; he knew because he felt the pressure inside himself. He felt it as an aspect of the city, of the crowds and the blankness and the attention always going elsewhere, up and out towards dreams of celebrity and fame, down and into the reveries of the self; and never where it belonged, some small but loud and passionate part of him secretly felt: towards him, Parker French.

‘Yeah, we’ve done this,’ said Smitty, draining his glass and handing it to one of the dwarfs. Parker knew what that meant: we are leaving immediately. Smitty’s absolute indifference to most other people could seem a form of geniality, the affability of an older man, but Parker knew that Smitty wasn’t at all genial, not even a little bit. Parker put his half-full glass on the same tray and the two men headed unnoticed for the warehouse exit.

John Lanchester – Capital, 2012

Capital presents a chronicle of characters in a south London street where various tales interlink to reflect the capitals changing demographic of ‘ordinary’ and ‘new’ Londoners representing themes of gentrification, disparate income, lifestyles and diverse nationalities. The residents of Pepys Road are participants in an allegorical story linked by their urban habitat.

The story involves the successful and anonymous performance artist, Smitty – a parody of the Young British Artists (YBAs) and the era of Brit Art that emerged in London in the late 1980s and of the artist ‘Banksy’. Smitty attended Goldsmiths’ – the institutional epicentre of Brit Art. The YBAs were noted for their provocative attitude and their appropriation of the money and celebrity connected with the art world which changed the hierarchical position and public perception of the artist. Smitty is described as a ‘natural barrow boy” from a modest social background. His assistant, Parker French, has the privileges of education and social position, but his jealousy at Smitty’s success as an artist causes him to take revenge in the form of a sinister art prank which implicates Smitty and threatens his anonymity. The narrative on art in the novel is fermented through a campaign of graffiti, petty vandalism, CDs with 40 minutes of amateur film of Pepys Road, dead blackbirds in jiffy bags, and postcards with the slogan “We Want What You Have”. The phrase acts as underlying motto summarising the resentment and envy at the materialist disparity of the capitalist economy. 

In Chapter 39, Smitty and Parker French attend a gallery opening in unfashionable Clapton in the East End of London. The exhibition describes the work of a “pair of brothers who specialised in smashing things and then incorrectly glueing them back together” which resembles the style of work produced by real-life artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Michael Landy. John Lanchester writes with an intimate understanding of the creative processes and styles of the contemporary world as well as the physical locales and the seemingly anarchic entreprenurial modus operandi of the contemporary artist. “We Want What You Have” is a motto describing the ability of the artist in turning the world upside down – to be an individual in a hierarchical society.

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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