For over a decade now, the British artist Carey Young has been an exponent of a version of institutional critique that has focused on the contemporary art world’s increasing resemblance to the corporate sphere. Her works have called attention to, for example, the privatization of British museums and the artist-as-entrepreneur. Young typically proceeds by combining current artistic practices with the trappings of modern commerce. Her text pieces, for example, adopt the legalistic prose of business contracts. Likewise, in performances and videos, she restages iconic moments of the artistic avant- garde, such as Mierle Laderman
Ukeles’s Hartford Wash (1973), in office settings while wearing a gray pantsuit. In her recent exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, “Contracting Universe,” Young shifted her focus to current efforts by governments and transnational bodies to develop a new legal protocol for the admin- istration and monetization of outer space. Since 1967, international agreements have designated that territory as humanity’s common heritage, but the rise of commercial space travel and privately owned satellites have prompted attempts to rene- gotiate those Cold War-era arrangements.
The show was dominated by the “Redshift” series, six 331⁄8-by-42-inch photographs (all works 2010). Young made each of these abstract compositions by shining light through translucent fragments of meteorites. This process yielded intricate, crystalline patterns of vibrant purples, reds and yellows.
Spotlighted in a darkened gallery, the images’ otherworldly, almost nebular glow recalled their celestial origins and highlighted the long-standing association between abstraction and the spiritual. At the same time, for all their radiance, these photographs merely register the physical properties of the rocks, leaving the images poised between the tran- scendent and the material.
Many of the works in the exhibition explore this tension. A small inkjet print, Origin of the Seven Stars, for example, alternates, line by line, texts from a Wyandot Nation myth about the origins of the star cluster Pleiades and from a 2004 U.S. policy statement about the exploration and governance of space. Through this opposition, Young dramatizes the transformation of the heavens into zones ripe for colonization.
Other works approach the cosmos through the disinterested language of physics. Missing Mass, a transparent Plexiglas box, 18 inches to a side, recalls Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963-65) and Larry Bell’s minimalist sculptures. A text stenciled on its pedestal explains that the box holds 5,461 particles of the theoretical substance known as dark matter, immediately adding, “Dark matter is transparent and undetectable to the human eye.” The particles may circulate freely, the text goes on to say, their num- ber may change, and all this information is provisional, “based on current sci- entific understanding.” This wry turn to what is beyond human perception looks back to Robert Barry’s late-1960s exhi- bitions of radio waves and photographs
of inert gases, and suggests that there are limits to our ability to enclose and exploit outer space. At the same time, by treating this hypothetical substance as a readymade, Young provocatively links privatization to appropriation.
Photo: Carey Young: C-type print from the Redshift series . . . , 2010, C-print mounted on aluminum, 331⁄8 by 42 inches; at Paula Cooper.