Carey Young at Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne

through 2 June

By J.J. Charlesworth

Palais de Justice (still), 2017, single-channel HD video, colour, quadraphonic sound, 17 min 58 sec. © the artist. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Carey Young has a talent for appropriating the forms and mannerisms of corporate and institutional culture, turning them back on themselves with absurdist acuity – this is an artist who, in 2001, engaged a corporate speaking coach to train her to be more convincing in delivering the phrase ‘I am a revolutionary’. In recent years her work has turned from corporate culture, via investigations into the legal form of the contract, to the nature of the law itself. The London-based Young hasn’t had a solo show in the UK for some years, so the showing of her 2017 video Palais de Justice is well overdue, especially since, in the two years since it was made, the question of whether sexism is culturally and institutionally ingrained (post-Weinstein and #MeToo) has become a flashpoint. 

Palais de Justice starts out in sober documentary mode; projected floor-to-ceiling it opens onto the internal vistas of a vast, neoclassical official building (Brussels’s monumental Law Courts): long static shots, in the echoing ambience of distant footsteps and indistinct voices, of grey marbled halls and grandiose staircases, through which hurry black-gowned figures while security guards stand around.

Soon, though, we find ourselves peering through the portholelike windows of courtroom doors, to witness stern-faced judges listening impassively to the arguments of barristers. These judges all happen to be women. Given the solemn documentary style up to this point, there’s something out of kilter about this peeping view of an all-female judiciary (Young shot all the footage onsite without official permission) – a deft stroke of selective editing which pitches us from the present into some alternative reality, in which women appear to be in charge of the law to the exclusion of men.

Young’s twisting of reality offers an ironic over-identification with the social justice rhetoric of positive discrimination; most judges are still men, after all, so why turn not the tables – the law run by the matriarchy, not the patriarchy – at least as a fictional thought experiment? But it’s an ambiguous experience. There’s a certain demeanour to these judges – middle aged, well-groomed, listening intently or impatiently questioning the barristers, who hang on their word or are seen hovering outside courtrooms, waiting to be admitted. The authority of the law styles people, makes them embodiments of abstracted authority. Later, Young’s lens focuses on these barristers – younger, confident-looking women – and lingers on their hair, fiddled with or rearranged in idle moments of introspection. 

What makes Palais de Justice buzz isn’t so much the dishabituating, therapeutic experience of role-reversal, but the realisation that it may solve nothing. Sure, any complacent male privilege in a viewer gets what it deserves – emasculated and infantilised. But Palais de Justice carries a more ambiguous subtext about the nature of authority and submission to it, more in keeping with Franz Kafka’s strange parable ‘Before the Law’ (1915), which Young references in a photoseries made alongside the video (not exhibited here). These female judges and barristers still carry the aura of the professional, educated elite, regardless of their sex (or race: Young opens her sequence with a shot of a young black female barrister, caught in a moment of impassioned advocacy). But class distinctions and social inequality – which the law makes invisible even as it lays claim to justice – are what lie disavowed behind the distant and silent glamour of these empowered figures. The face of the law may have changed, but it’s still the law.

Carey Young: Palais de Justice at Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, 17 February – 2 June 

From the April 2019 issue of ArtReview