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At the beginning of 1915, the same year as The Metamorphosis appeared, the 31-year-old Franz Kafka published a short parable titled "Before the Law." Just a few hundred words long, the tale recounts the story of country man who comes to the city seeking "admittance to the Law." Arriving at his destination, he is confronted by a gatekeeper who refuses the man's request, telling him, "It is possible, but not at the moment." Yet the gate to the Law is open, and the guard sees the man peering past him. "Just try to go in despite my veto," he says to him. "But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers," he warns, before describing even more fearsome impediments that await beyond the first gate.
The man had not expected such complications, believing the Law "should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone," but the doorkeeper's intimidation cows him and he decides to wait, taking a seat beside the door. And there he sits, for days, weeks, months, years; he grows old and his eyesight begins to fail, though he is now newly aware of a "radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law." Near death, he summons the courage to ask one final question: Why, in all his time at the entrance, had he seen no one else? Because, the doorkeeper tells him, the gate was for him alone. And with that, he shuts it.
Palais de Justice, Carey Young's current exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, takes its inspiration in part from Kafka's tale. Focusing on "gateways" to the law, both architectural and human, Young's work here—a quietly stunning 18-minute video shot in the Brussels court building from which the show takes its title, along with eight coolly beautiful large-scale photographs, named after Kafka's story, that depict interior details from that and other buildings in which legal proceedings are conducted—considers the affectual conditions of the judicial system, the ways in which Western juridical settings structure the power dynamics between those who come before the law and those who stand behind it.
This interest is by no means new for Young, a London-based British-American artist whose work—in photography, video, performance, text, and installation—has engaged with various aspects of the law for more than a decade-and-a-half. As she told Elephant in an interview earlier this year, the law "beckoned as an institution that had been little explored by artists, and one which had such a relevant philosophical literature in terms of art—Derrida, Agamben, Deleuze, Foucault, Butler etc. … In so many ways, mainly to do with its lack of visuality and lack of understanding of creativity, law is an "other" to art, and yet when one takes an artistic subject—ideas of site, space or landscape, for example—law offers me a way to reframe it in a playful and unfamiliar way, in which I can also conflate it with ideas of control, rhetoric, power and neoliberalism."
It's a theme she expanded on at a panel discussion held at Paula Cooper a few days after the show opened, saying that she thought that while "the aesthetics of law is being discussed at a theoretical level in critical legal studies," the subject has so far not found as much traction in the art world. "Artists could bring something really unique to this debate," she added, "so I hope that's going to change."
The photos from Before the Law that open the show are static and unpopulated. Channeling the central spatial symbolism of Kafka, they focus exclusively on thresholds in court buildings—doors and windows; a part in a curtain, an obscuring porthole oculus—in order to dramatize how the particular ways they enact their modes of partition also structure the expectations of what lies beyond them. Like the church or the palace, the place of the law has a set of spatial and material tropes designed to give imposing physical body to the abstract institutional powers they seek to invoke: rich wood, thick drapery, polished stone, leather upholstery.
Photos like Before the Law and The Summons (all works 2017), depict heavy wooden doors left ajar, open just enough to reveal half legible glimpses of what lies behind them: in the former, a strip of a grand portrait of a robed, ermined jurist; in the latter, just that sort of immanent "radiance" that tantalized Kafka's protagonist. Meanwhile, in the paired images Judge's Bench I and II, the space of jurisprudence is rendered indistinct, pictured through sheets of vertically grooved privacy glass: like the law itself, these spaces in Young's images are only understood in their general shapes, their details and particularities concealed, strategically, by purposeful forms of institutional obscurantism.
Like the photographs, Young's video Palais de Justice examines the way architecture is used to summon a certain kind of affectual ambience for both those who implement the law and those who are subject to its implementation, but it also puts the human figure in the picture—in ways that are both predictable and highly surprising. The work is glacial, elegant, clinical; projected to cover an entire wall of Cooper's grand central gallery, the video uses its own maximal scale to conjure the purposefully overwhelming spaces of the main Belgian court building, by most accounts the largest building constructed in Europe in the 19th century. A vast, eclectic neo-Baroque pile close to the Royal Palace in central Brussels, the Palais—embellished with Near Eastern flourishes and ornamented with grandiose statuary depicting great orators and legal figures from antiquity—was erected between 1866 and 1883 on the site of what was once the Galgenberg, or "gallows hill," where executions took place in the Middle Ages.
The years of this building's construction coincided with the rise of the Belgian king Leopold II's brutal colonial enterprise in the vast central African region of the Congo, and its every detail seems designed to invoke unimpeachable power and eminence. It was likened by Sigmund Freud to an Assyrian palace or something out of Gustave Doré, and called "a colossus, within a monster" by Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine. Young, for her part, suggested at the panel that it might also be understood as a kind of instantiated descendent of the sorts of structures that populate the work of the Romantic painter John Martin. Martin's scenes—improbably vast classical architectural environments that dwarf the human actors within them; vistas lapped by calamity and ruination—made him arguably the most popular English painter of the 1820s and '30s, and it's easy to detect a whiff of that same bombast in the pompous hypertrophy of the Palais: a building, in Young's words, designed as a "symbol of the sublime scale of the law and to express the unending power of the state," but also one that turned out to be "so big it cannot possibly work."
The video opens by giving a viewer a taste of its scale and sumptuousness—long views show its grand polished allées, yawning interior courtyards, and sweeping staircases, spaces that dwarf the jurists, lawyers, and litigants that skitter across its marble surfaces. In reality, the building's vastness has consistently defeated any attempts at upkeep, leaving it, Young notes, in "a state of perpetual crumbling," a very attractive idea for an artist whose work has consistently probed the seams of the law looking for the kinds of snags and frays that might allow a productive unraveling of its supposedly inviolable fabric. But here, rather than dwell further on spatial dynamics, the artist pulls on a loose thread of a different sort. Noting during her visits to the building the significant number of female lawyers and judges, the artist decided to turn her gaze almost exclusively to them.
Young was refused official permission to film in the building, so her project took on a guerilla air that she put to excellent conceptual use—the women of the courthouse, whether advocating for their clients or sitting in judgment, are sighted as though under surveillance, spied voyeuristically through peephole-like windows and glimpsed in the temporary gaps of doors swinging open and shut.
Young pushes on this ambiguity: the women are not immune from the masculinized gaze of the camera lens, and indeed in some cases seem to recognize its intrusion, the camera lingering in increasingly intimate ways on their hands, their necks, their hair. It would seem that the power the law bestows upon and channels through them, for all its apparent ubiquity in the alterative reality Young conjures, is nevertheless uneasy, fugitive, still subject to the probative gaze of the camera/viewer. And yet this assembly of wise and powerful women nevertheless vividly proposes a juridical world as it might otherwise be, a form of the Law that may someday be possible—if not at the moment.
Jeffrey Kastner is a Brooklyn-based writer and the senior editor of Cabinet.
Carey Young: Palais de Justice is on view at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, until October 14.