Carey Young by Natalie Bell

First published in Art Papers, March/April 2008

If an art piece is performed and no one buys it, does it still count as art? The proverbial philosophical riddle of the fallen tree resembles Carey Young’s proposition in her recent exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery. Its main piece, Body Techniques (2007), is a photographic series in which Young recreates the classic performance works of Conceptual artists including Valie Export, Dennis Oppenheim and Bruce Nauman. Set in Dubai’s hyperreal micro-utopia in the making, her corporeal schema depict her diminutive and languorous figure surrounded by uninhabited luxury communities in which skyscrapers meet neo-liberal rococo in an otherwise mystifyingly barren landscape. 

The title refers to the idea of habitus, which she links to both Marcel Mauss and Pierre Bourdieu. While Mauss defined habitus as the subliminal aspects of culture that are articulated through the body in daily practices, Bourdieu described “dispositions” as the transposable schemes an individual acquires in response to external conditions. His definition understood literally describes the physical composition of Body Techniques, yet Young’s reiteration of Conceptual performance works suggests a more circuitous commentary on the state of contemporary art and the vicissitudes of global business and commerce. 

Conceptual art and performance of 1960s and 70s often focused on negating art’s commodity status, yet the boon of the contemporary art market manifestly occludes its influence. More a caricature of avant-garde culture than institutional critique, Body Techniques seems to be teasing – even testing – its audience and potential consumer. As photos in a gallery setting, Young’s bodily (dis)positions are abstracted stills that – unlike performance’s oblique aesthetics – offer a formalist as much as a conceptual allure. Still her re-appropriated gestures juxtapose the setting’s expression of limitless luxury and wealth as half-ironic lamentations on artistic commodification – which caused me to wonder, who will actually purchase these pieces? If it were the executive-class collectors whose sprees clean out shows like Art Basel Miami, would they realize their implication in the conceptual nuances? And if the works didn’t sell, would that be part of Young’s intention?

One accustomed to Young’s treatment of corporate business and legal culture through her practice of immersion and participatory processes might be struck by the anomalous abstraction of Body Techniques (although Young still dons her signature business attire), while one familiar with the canon of Conceptual art’s performance works and Joseph Beuys’ idea of social sculpture will immediately understand the legacy into which she seeks incorporation. Much of Young’s past works have been subtly strategic performances focused on “collapsing categories between business, politics, and culture.” The influence of anthropological and social thought – recalling Mauss’ influential study of the gift economy and Bourdieu’s notion of ‘cultural capital’ – prove fundamental to her use of fieldwork as research. Unlike the multitude of contemporary armchair artists, Young challenges our contemporary and global structures of wealth and power from the inside out. By working for a multinational corporation, for example, she studied their language, behavior and innovation strategies in order to coopt their rhetoric for her own strategic ends – often a critique of the corporate influence on the individual and everyday experience. 

In the short video piece, Product Recall, Young is in a typical psychology office; her analyst reads a series of corporate slogans relating to inspiration, passion, and creativity, to which she responds by crediting the respective brand or company. The routine is pure Rorschach, but the deadpan delivery of phrases like “Change the way you see the world” and “Imagination at work” underscores her overall articulation of the slippage between art and the free market and highlights corporate advertising’s cozen appropriation of creative thought.

Neither skeptical nor apathetic, Young exploits the “controlled ambiguity” that Hans Haacke declared characteristic of Western art in order to promote critical awareness and discussion. In a world where art and business feel more propinquitous than ever, Young is actively reinventing the categories of conceptual and avant-garde art to further critique the commodification of art and ideas and remind us what it really means to “Think different”.

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