Nick Cave: Surrender to Otherness
Sitting on a park bench in Chicago, gazing at loose sticks on the grass, sculptural artist and performer Nick Cave found himself struggling to express his identity in a time of social upheaval. It was 1992. News reports announced the acquittal of L.A.P.D. officers that had been caught beating Rodney King on videotape, and riots flared through the streets of Los Angeles. Cave began collecting the disregarded twigs to use as material. “A recycling of surplus,” he called it. Back in the studio he built the sculptural shell of a body with the sticks forming a rigid fringe reminiscent of a creature halfway between swamp and human. Suddenly the heap became something more: a method of disguise, a form of protection, a celebratory armor amid cultural cataclysm.
Portraits by Ryan Lowry
“I really wasn’t thinking it was something wearable,” says Cave, a quarter century (and hundreds of wearable artworks) later. “I was looking at it as a sculpture, and then it dawned on me. I can put it on!”
The covering allowed Cave to reveal an inner self. “I realized my identity was hidden. I started thinking about the role of race, gender, and class,” he explains. “Now the viewer is forced to look at something unfamiliar, a hybrid of sorts.” Behind the mask, he was attuned to the transformative qualities of costume thanks to years spent as a dancer and performer. At that moment Cave found himself not only moving, but listening. “Once I put it on, I realized it made sound. I started thinking about the role of protest. What are the conditions and behaviors that one has to take in order to be heard?” He called it the “Soundsuit,” and over the last two decades he’s created an army of these sculpted costumes, which exist both as vibrant art objects and performative expressions of culture and community.
Soundsuits each take on their own characteristics, unique entities in a surrealist parade: bright synthetic furs, crocheted appendages, absurdist explosions of toys and stuffed animals. The pieces use recycled materials to call attention to the rituals of our ancestors, while pushing us into a realm of fantasy. “The impulse could come from an object. It could come from a material,” Cave says of his process. “[But] I don’t really sketch anything. I just build something and bring it to the body. The body becomes the apparatus. It becomes the character.” After construction, the artist puts on each suit, finding new elements of its personality through movement. Jumping, dancing, stalking, Cave’s physical language inside the costumes is animalistic and often inspires new species to evolve out of the original. The sculptures look alive, and it is important to Cave that they act alive, too.
The intimate and intricate construction of each Soundsuit is only one element of Cave’s designs. Serving as a well-respected professor of fashion design at The Art Institute of Chicago, Cave’s work has been shown in museums and galleries across the country, as well as featured in fashion spreads. Despite this, he has strived to find creative purpose beyond visual art. Cave is, above all, a performer and instigator of public engagement.
Cave brings his Soundsuits around the world, collaborating with local artists to create public performances, utilizing the artists of each community he visits. “For me it’s important to take [my work] outside the institution, to take it outside the gallery.” Whether it’s building sculptures with a group of students, putting on a parade in a small town, or conducting an immersive installation in the middle of New York City’s Grand Central Station, Cave’s work is meant for more than looking—it’s to be experienced. “I really like interfacing all of the creative backgrounds and finding a way to create this new language, finding a way to leave the mark behind.”
In the case of his exhibition, HEARD NY, a multi-day performance at Grand Central hosted by Creative Time and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, local dancers dressed as swishing horse figures made from fabrics around the world. The “global herd” was created as a collaborative effort under the guidance of Cave, pushing the group to work together in an unconventional space for an audience in perpetual transit. “It’s amazing, in preparing and rehearsing for a project like that, what it does in terms of building confidence or morale. You realize how many different types of people are in a city that are interested in the same types of things. It really opens up the communication and forces you to find ways to work together.”
Bringing creative people together seems to be the foundation upon which Cave has built his career. “I’ve always known that I can’t do it all myself. It’s about the team, pulling together your friends, and creating a spectacle and a happening.”
Given this, it’s not surprising that the artist’s WILD Wish would be to collaborate with the dynamic comedian and musician Reggie Watts. As Cave puts it, “He’s wild, I’m wild; we could make something transcending in a whole different way.”
For Cave, even the act of wearing a mask has the ability to be transcendental. From the first actors on the Dionysian stage to trick- or-treaters on Halloween night, costumes can bring us to an entirely new state of being. Cave’s background in performance (he’s been with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company since he was a teen) is apparent in his gift to put on a spectacle no matter the medium. At HEARD NY, tourists and commuters alike unexpectedly found themselves as part of a performance. “This work immerses us as viewers into this otherly kind of space and time,” he explains. Initially, Cave was nervous about a project this vast occupying such a small space. He feared having two performances a day for a solid week would be exhausting, but each show was its own experience, dictated by the change of crowd, providing the rare opportunity to bring a group of strangers together in one place at one time. “Time stands still,” he says. And in a city constantly on the move, “it is a lovely thing to be in a transition of moment.”
Whether it’s embodying spirits in religious ceremony or donning the colors of our favorite sports team to conjure victory, Cave’s aesthetic is an ode to the ritual of self-divergence. His work, even in its still form, feels celebratory, primal. “The animalistic sensibility comes through organic form,” he says of his collection of sculptures. “These images are in between human and something foreign. You’re not quite sure what they are, but you know they are of another place. At the end of the day, we are animals. And I want to camouflage or layer on top of that.”
From the epiphany of the first Soundsuit to his community-driven public art, Cave often wonders: “How can I use my work as a vehicle for change?” Whether it’s bringing people together in collaboration, or exploring the ways humans can be influenced by a change in appearance, each performance and each piece is a study in how to “surrender to this otherness.”
“There’s so much violence in the world right now,” he laments. “What people need to feel is that they are a contribution. I’m looking at creating encounters that are all about empowerment, being part of a ceremony that brings a sense of balance and conditioning that’s transformative.”
Behind the mask or in the audience, a sense of community radiates from every facet of Cave’s work. Humanoid beasts that he intricately crafts become more than the bright materials or assemblage of their skins. When the moving bodies of the performers combine with the imaginations of the viewers, the Soundsuits take on their own identity. What was a pile of sticks becomes a representation of cultural change. What was a herd of raffia horses becomes a group of New Yorkers sharing a rare collective experience. What by itself is just a visual art piece becomes a vehicle for creative expression. “It’s about bringing insight to what is possible,” he says. “It’s about bringing us back to a dream state.”
Photos of artwork by James Prinz, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Be sure to check out Nick Caves new solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery, on view until October 11, 2014.