“Palais de Justice” (2017)

I very much enjoyed Carey Young’s video installation at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne. (It closes 2 June 2019 but I imagine it will be screened elsewhere.) I know that I wanted to see the thing as soon as I saw the publicity still of a fair-haired, I would say careworn, woman, a judge I presume, returning the camera’s stare. I am a little foxed and therefore intrigued as to what, in the event, it achieved for me.

The 18 minute video is billed as an installation not a movie, though it would screen perfectly well in a cinema for all that it has no storyline or voice-over. It focuses on female lawyers at work in the Palais de Justice, Brussels. I suppose this must be a feminist piece and therefore I have perhaps to declare that I brought to it vestiges of the sordid male gaze. For years I found female legal workers – especially court clerks – not merely impressive but also erotic. For other men it’s nuns habits or Victoria’s Secrets which provide a frisson: for me it was, even more, the severity of the garb of the handmaidens of the law. I don’t say I was obsessed by this dimension of courtroom life, indeed I mean mostly to point out that there is a sexual dimension – a batsqueak of desire – in nearly every experience. But one ages, and social mores shift, and now I see the world as a father and even a grandfather, and maybe my frontal lobe has got a better block on the snake brain nested in my cortex. So I looked forward to, and liked, this work maybe almost maturely. But still I have difficulty knowing quite how it worked on me.

Before we get to the courtrooms, we are shown the marble grandness of the halls and corridors of the lawyers’ work place. It is almost comical, at once austere and otiose. It reminded me of one of those vanity galleries cities build: too much announcement for too little art.As we focus on the work of the women lawyers, we hear no sound from inside the rooms we voyeuristically observe. We mostly see them through the porthole windows in the courtroom doors. The blurb talks about the various “oculi” these provide. It’s a classical idea, about viewing circles or windows providing special vistas, a little like squints in churches or Picturesque ideas about framed views. We see the women – and mostly just their faces (or the back of their heads) – as they talk.

Here’s a beef. The blurb says that the filming was surreptitious and done without permission. So I am afraid the project is presented as dissident or outsiderish or transgressive, which are the required tropes of art just now. It is also presented as a counterblast to paternalist stereotypes about the law. Actually, I rather doubt that the filming was all that unobtrusive: quite often the subjects stare back at the camera, impassively but definitely and – I think – knowingly. I also find it hard to believe that such a project would not have had at the very least the tacit permission of, “Well, provided you stay in the corridor we can’t stop you.”

I can’t see how the project says anything useful about the gender relations of the law. The video was of course itself sexist in being exclusively about women whilst there were presumably plenty of male lawyers about. Maybe the idea was to suggest that if the legal process was all feminine it would be something or other special – different, better. But precisely because the film says nothing and none of the women in it are heard, the project can convey nothing specific about any of that. It can beg but not answer questions.

So,enough with the circling. Why is the project so attractive, mesmerising even? It was lovely and quite moving to see women presented as above all sentient beings, and very serious ones. The modern age is not remotely surprised at the cleverness and seriousness of women: we all see plenty of all that close up, let alone in drama. But this project was all and only about the women as workers. It invited us to meditate only on the women’s seriousness and concentration. Oddly, that is unusual to the point of freshness.

The self-trivialisation and the self-objectification by gurning Facebook girls and whooping Mama Mia mothers has whetted my appetite for representations of women wrestling with intellectual dilemmas (or helicopter controls or RNLI outboards) with no thought for their lippie. Young’s women, as are few in the real world or on screen, were operating as free as possible of being looked-at as women. So that’s weird and post-modern: a feminist project exclusively about females in which for once they weren’t being considered or considering themselves as women.

I can’t be sure that is what was supposed to be going on, but it is my reading of the interesting oddity of the project.

I cannot properly identify the degree to which I was more touched by these serious women than I would have been by their male equivalents (and I have admired equally slow and silent and much longer movies about monks). Anyway, it is important to see how very ambivalent this piece is. It is after all possible we are watching ghastly injustices or mild judicial failings taking place at the hands of these unheard women. Their seeming seriousness may not bespeak cleverness or worthiness. Indeed I imagine it is patronising of me to admire and like these strangers of whom we learn nothing. I am lazily assuming or guessing what I cannot possible know. Besides, the degree to which women’s legal voices have historically been muted or under-rated and still might be is the degree to which the gravitas we yet ascribe to these unheard lawyers is a male legacy. These women are the inheritors of centuries’-old masculine tropes and uniforms and methods and to that extent have yet to earn, in their own right, the respect we show them. It is perfectly fair to say that this film reminds us that these women are garbed in traditions they did not make.

I hope you get the chance to see this extraordinary work.

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Publication date

19 May 2019