Carey Young Takes a Portrait of Female Power

At Modern Art Oxford, the artist’s monumental new film examines 15 judges working in England and Wales 

BY Cathy Wade in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 03 MAY 23

Carey Young has a long-standing engagement with the choreographies of the law and our position as its subjects. In ‘Appearance’, she documents a world in which female authority wholly controls and enacts judicial disciplines. 

Palais de Justice (2017) is a film shot in Brussels’s colossal courthouse where Young surreptitiously captured footage over two years, documenting the presence of women at work in the legal system through the female gaze. In the film, windows appear initially as obsidian mirrors, opening out to a sequence of mesmeric images, huge doorways and a rack of judge’s robes hung under a series of historic portraits; there’s magic realism at play here. A barefooted student draws the hallways; a woman is captured in deep thought, glasses sliding down her nose, with a look that could wound; presentations are made to the bench; strands of hair fall against the nape of a neck. As Leslie Kern notes in The Feminist City (2020), it is through unencumbered spatial and social autonomy that women access the ‘full extent of what they can offer the world’. 

Carey Young
Carey Young, Palais de Justice, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Modern Art Oxford 

The exhibition's first part comprises photographic and text works that operate in dialogue with the show’s triptych of films: The Vision Machine (2020) and Appearance (2023), in addition to Palais de Justice. For instance, the vinyl wall drawing Declared Void III (2005/23) acts as a contract conferring a legal status that is lost when you step outside its lines. ‘By entering the zone created by this drawing,’ it states, ‘and for the period that you remain there, you declare and agree that you are a citizen of the European Union.’ Alongside is Obsidian Contract (2010), a legal text written backwards, reflected in a black mirror, whereby you agree to the inverted reality held within the space: an invitation to enter common land in which laws from the past 200 years are repealed. 

Carey Young
Carey Young, The Vision Machine, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Modern Art Oxford 

The Vision Machine (2020), shot at the SIGMA corporation in Japan, documents technicians testing the performance of large-aperture and ultra-wide-angle lenses. Young edited the footage into a workplace solely inhabited by women, the creators of the tools we use to look at the world. Striking in its monumentality, Appearance (2023) is a looped film featuring sequential portraits of 15 female judges currently working in England and Wales. Young filmed each woman individually in a chair from the Royal Courts of Justice, a prop in the performance of legal justice symbolic of absolute power, while looking directly to camera, as though we are subject to their judgement. Their gowns demarcate their current places of work. You become acutely aware of how they have chosen to sit, how their faces betray their reactions to the situation. The camera pans out to reveal the artist’s studio, before zooming back in to linger, with a painterly eye, on details in forensic close-up: a swag of lace, a bat-shaped cufflink, a soft-coral manicure, a gold earring, fingers gripping a pair of glasses. It is these details that reveal the women’s intersectionalities.

Carey Young
Carey Young, Appearance, 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Modern Art Oxford 

When Baroness Hale of Richmond, then president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, ruled that the government’s request to prorogue parliament in 2019 during the height of the Brexit crisis had been unlawful, she did so with a spider brooch pinned to her shoulder. In that moment, whispering its symbolism of tangled webs and deception, the accessory seemed to speak truth to power.

Carey Young’s ‘Appearance’ is at Modern Art Oxford until 2 July 2023.

Main image: Carey Young, Appearance, 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Modern Art Oxford 


Cathy Wade is an artist and writer based in Birmingham, UK.