In this colour photograph the artist Carey Young is depicted mopping the concrete steps leading to a half-built apartment complex. The curved grey blocks that tower over her and dominate the composition are laced with scaffolding, which, along with the piles of building materials and equipment seen towards the bottom of the picture, indicate that the location is a building site. Despite the suggestion of human activity, no other figures populate the scene, which appears to be abandoned. The fact that Young wears a plain, dark grey business suit only serves to emphasise the incongruity of her presence in this setting.
This is one of eight photographs from Young’s Body Techniques series, made in 2007. In each photograph the artist wears a smart two-piece suit and is pictured alone in the centre of the image within a landscape featuring recently completed or half-finished construction projects in the cities of Dubai and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. The actions that Young is seen performing make reference to artworks from the 1960s and 1970s that explored the relationship between the artist’s body and its surroundings. These art historical citations are acknowledged by the titles of each photograph, which identify the original work that Young’s action re-stages, along with the name of the artist and the date it was first made. Four of the photographs – this work, plus those referencing Richard Long, Ulrich Ruckriem, Bruce Nauman – depict Young in an active pose (such as walking or washing steps), while the other four – the two photographs referencing VALIE EXPORT, and those citing Dennis Oppenheim and Kirsten Justesen – portray her in a more inactive state (lying or curled up on the ground). The photographs can be shown individually, and when all eight are exhibited together there is no prescribed order of display. The Body Techniques series acquired by Tate is number four in an edition of five.
As the title confirms, this work makes reference to Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside 1973 by the American artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles (born 1939). For this work Ukeles cleaned the exterior stairs and plaza of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. This was one of four works in the series Maintenance Art Performances staged by Ukeles at the Wadsworth in 1973 and 1974 that sought to draw attention to the comparative status and value of artistic and manual labour. The other works in the series involved her mopping inside the galleries, cleaning a glass display case, and locking and unlocking rooms in the museum. While Ukeles’s original performances took place in public view at the oldest public art museum in the United States, Young’s re-enactment occurred without an audience at the unused entrance to a private executive complex that was abandoned before it was completed. The futility of Young’s attempt to maintain a depreciated development extends the critique posed by Ukeles’s work in that it draws attention to the fluctuating value of properties, labour and art in rapidly developing economies. Furthermore, in contrast to the jeans and t-shirt that Ukeles wore in her performances, Young’s business attire highlights the connections between contemporary corporate culture and the manual labour that sustains it.
The Body Techniques series was produced during Young’s residency at the Sharjah Biennial Artist in Residence Programme. In that it draws attention to the rapid growth of cities in the UAE, stimulated by private and corporate wealth, and pictures an environment in which human life other than the artist’s is conspicuously absent, the series presents a dystopian vision of global capitalism. As the art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson has commented, these photographs ‘depict the architecture of multinational commerce as depersonalized and dehumanizing, futuristic yet dusty projects of progress perverted’ (Bryan-Wilson 2010, p.246). Within this context, Young’s re-enactments of works of art that sought to illustrate the ways in which bodies and environments exerted pressure on each other appear to speak of the agency of art in the early twenty-first century, although the exact meaning of each gesture is left in doubt. As Young herself has explained: ‘it is ambiguous whether the artist is molding herself to the landscape or exploring ways of resisting it.’ (Carey Young, ‘Body Techniques’, http://www.careyyoung.com/past/bodytechniques.html, accessed 14 April 2014.)
Since graduating with a Masters degree in photography from the Royal College of Art in London in 1997 Young, who often appears in her work dressed in a suit, has sought to investigate the role of the artist within a corporate world (see, for example, Everything You’ve Heard is Wrong 1999, Tate T12148). As Young explained in 2011,
The ‘I’ in my work is first and foremost the figure of an artist. The works appear to be self portraits, but they are not autobiographical. I want this figure to represent any artist ... except this is an artist who has half lost their identity, or gained another – perhaps the ‘other’ – to also become what looks like a professional or businessperson of some kind. What I am interested in is the artist as chameleon, and also a kind of non-identity.
(Young and Magid 2011, accessed 14 April 2014.)
The title of the Body Techniques series refers to French sociologist Marcel Mauss’s influential theories of ‘the techniques of the body’, which he developed in the 1930s. Mauss examined how activities such as walking, sitting, standing and sleeping vary not just between individuals, but also between different communities, societies, classes and across historical eras.
Julia Bryan-Wilson, ‘Inside Job: The Art of Carey Young’, Artforum, October 2010, pp.240–7.
Carey Young and Jill Magid, ‘The Color of Law’, Mousse, no.29, June 2011, www.careyyoung.com/essays/mousse.html, accessed 14 April 2014.
Raphael Gygax and Heike Munder (eds.), Carey Young: Subject to Contract, exhibition catalogue, Migros Museum of Contemporary Art, Zurich 2013, pp.66–81, reproduced p.69.
Revised by Christopher Griffin
Supported by Christie’s.