BY ENTERING THE ZONE CREATED BY THIS DRAWING, AND FOR THE PERIOD YOU REMAIN THERE, YOU DECLARE AND AGREE THAT THE US CONSITUTION WILL NOT APPLY TO YOU.
This statement is applied in bold black letters to the wall of the Farrago wing of the RISD Museum of Art. The text accompanies a 12’ x12’ box outlined in the corner and on the floor, using only black tape to mark the area where this rule applies. This installation by Carey Young’s is part of Uncertain Contracts, an exhibition of her conceptual art work on view at the RISD Museum of Art until April 18th.
Entitled Declared Void, the vinyl drawing speaks directly to the role of the U.S. government in Guantanamo by creating a mirror of the legal gray area created to exist outside of the U.S. Constitution. While it is technically impossible to designate an area in which the constitution does not apply without the agreement of the U.S.Congress, this installation succeeds by pointing at the logic, and its absurdity, underlying the creation of Guantanamo.
Another piece, a 15 minute long video running in a continuous loop called Uncertain Contracts, offers a playful view at language by investigating how corporate structures influence and change the use of language and its meaning. Young, who worked for a multinational corporation for several years, hired a professional actor to interpret and perform words selected by her. The actor is youngish, with short brown hair, skinny and dressed in a well-tailored gray business suit, with a blue dress shirt. You have met him before, the business type, intelligent, nondescript, polite, distant. He is not so bad; just bland and does not emote. Well, except he does here, and does it very well. He pronounces a word and interprets it using facial expression and body language to express its different, at times opposite, meanings. Words like offer, party, tender, notice and void are repeated as he offers mini tableaus while acting out the various meanings of these words, including their specific corporate connotations. It is entertaining to watch him demonstrate several meanings of ‘service’, by enacting, in quick succession, customer service, a tennis service, serving food, kneeling in a church service and performing a military salute. And when the actor tries to block the camera with his hands to express witness or walks of the scene while the word jurisdiction is fading away to a faint echo, the viewer chuckles.
But it gets more serious when words like notice, severance and rejection are used and the general meaning gets juxtaposed with the corporate interpretation. Especially when, as with termination, the actor displays the emotions of both, the person being terminated and the person doing the terminating. The grim expression of "the end", indicating a cut, set against the sharp swallow, the questioning expression of disbelief and the tears welling up, put an unexpected human face on corporate terminology; the cold words used in corporate legal language versus real life emotions underlying the very same word.
Beyond the immediate social commentary and implied criticism Young makes a point about the appropriation of language and with that, behavior in and by the corporate culture: subtle shifts alter the meaning and usurp the original definition of a word to become part of the legal lingo.
These observations, translated into a video and presented as a playful critique get high marks. Young’s use of humor and her ability to present her idea in a thoughtful and accessible manner through the use of charades is engaging and succeeds at presenting a potentially dry subject in an entertaining manner - she teases us with laughter while forcing us to think.
Unfortunately, the two additional pieces on view are not quite as successful at drawing us in: There is Plato Contract, a map displaying a section of the moon including complicated instructions informing the viewer where to place this piece of art – in the Plato Crater on the moon – in order for it to be viewed and valued as art. It raises the question of what is art, when and why but its intention as commentary on the commodification of art and the art world remains gimmicky and one-dimensional.
Similarly, Body Techniques, a photograph taken from a series of eight, in which Young reenacts performances by conceptual artists, becomes an art world inside joke by relying on the knowledge of, in this case Dennis Oppenheim’s 1970 video Parallel Stress. Without that reference you see a photograph of the artist, dressed in a business suit, lying across a dip in a pile of construction rubble in front of an unfinished condo development.
"Uncertain Contracts" is on view through April 18, at Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, located at 224 Benefit Street, Providence, RI
All images are courtesy of the artist, Paula Cooper Gallery, and the RISD Museum of Art.