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The ‘business’ of art

Carey Young’s ‘Uncertain Contracts’ at the RISD Museum
By GREG COOK  |  December 30, 2009

SWEET BUT SLIGHT Khebrehzadeh’s A Swim.

You could be forgiven if you sometimes thought that corporations are the root of what's wrong with the United States. Enron, AIG, Blackwater, Monsanto. Need I go on? But one of the curious facts about our country is how corporations were central to our founding. We praise the Pilgrims' 1620 pledge to "combine ourselves together into a civil body politic" in their "Mayflower Compact" as a model for our Constitution. But it is also a corporate contract by people pledged to founding a money-making colony for their financial backers in Europe.

I found myself mulling these notions during a visit to Carey Young's "Uncertain Contracts" at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit Street, Providence, through April 18). The Zambia-born, London-based artist's pieces here adopt the trappings of contracts as a variation on the basic format of conceptual art, from Fluxus performance scripts to Sol Lewitt's instructions for making drawings. Young recognizes that these scripts and instructions are a sort of contract, and then bends the format toward critiques of our nation of laws and business agreements.

Her most striking and biting piece is Declared Void (2005). A wide black line runs along the floor and up the wall, outlining the edges of an 11-foot-tall imaginary cube. Printed in large letters on the wall is this text: "By entering the zone created by this drawing, and for the period you remain there, you declare and agree that the US Constitution will not apply to you."

It can read as a criticism of government-imposed restrictions, about getting out from under laws. And it can speak of the rights and protections you give up if you agreed to this deal. Which apparently is Young's point — a critique of the legal loophole no-man's land the Bush administration purposely created around our Guantanamo prison. Either way, and both ways at once, it's a curiously powerful bit of mental projection that vibrates like some electric force field curse.

Young stumbles when she focuses more on the idea of contracts than specifics, as in Uncertain Contract (2008), in which an actor in a suit paces about a white space repeating typical contractual boilerplate as if trying the words on: "Parties," "Conditions," "Damages," "Terminate," "Severance." The words, with their intimations of firing workers, feel impersonal and absurd disconnected from their original context — which is surely the point — but as Young heads toward arty semantics it feels like there's less at stake.

More successful is Plato Contract (2008), a print depicting the Moon's cratered surface and a bunch of contract language. "By purchasing, the collector agrees to the following conditions of ownership," it reads. "This framed print shall only become an artistic work if exhibited within the Plato Crater on the Moon." It goes on, "The collector shall make every effort to transport this framed print to the Moon."

Photo: Erik Gould
STRIKING AND BITING Young’s Declared Void. (Installation view of Cary Young's "Uncertain Contracts")

The buyer is ordered to hang the print at eye level from the Moon's "attractively spangled" basalt rock. And since the Moon has no moisture and is free of pollution, "hanging conditions may be preferable to those on Earth." It's a deliciously loopy request that sends up art world aspirations. And lurking underneath is a lament about how we've damaged the earth.

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