NICK CAVE

Here’s my fourth Staff Pick essay written for the Torrance Art Museum.

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I have a confession to make: when I went to see the exhibition Meet Me At the Center of the Earth, by the artist Nick Cave, I totally thought that the rock and roll frontman of the Bad Seeds had somehow ventured into the visual art world. I’m at least relieved to know from talking to others that I wasn’t alone in my confusion of the two, nor am I the only one to be immediately captivated by the artist’s imaginative and playful fusion of assemblage, fashion, sculpture and performance art. It’s one of the few occasions where even though while on vacation, I nabbed up one of the heavy photographic tomes for sale in spite knowing I would have to travel around with that extra weight. I simply had to keep examining his body of work for hours after the visit.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Nick Cave’s creations. Cave’s experiences as a dancer with Alvin Ailey come into play watching how they move both in a studio or out in the world in various locations. The Soundsuits in particular are full of life whether viewed in action while worn by a performer or when simply standing still displayed on a mannequin. The eye of the beholder is constantly engaged in its own dance as it takes in each piece, full of intricacies, layers and new surprises. 

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The Soundsuits are composed from a wide variety of materials, such as buttons, beads, yarn, feathers, hair, fabric, fur, fake flowers, old toys, household items, discarded objects, etc. Cave combines and transforms everyday objects into breathtaking creations. They take inspiration from African art traditions and various ceremonial dresses and armor, with visual similarities to some Mardi Gras Indian suits and nods to the outlandish fashion and living sculptures of artist Leigh Bowery (another favorite of mine). The Soundsuits astutely bend the principles of haute-couture fashion, allowing Cave to utilize his childhood background repairing hand-me-down clothing alongside his fine arts degree and studio practice. The Soundsuits completely morph the wearer obscuring their identity – age, gender, color, body shape – are all hidden from the beholder as part of the artist’s intention to do so. He wants the viewer to look without judgment or prejudice. 

The origins of Cave’s Soundsuits come from a social tragedy that is still hauntingly relevant: the brutality witnessed during the Rodney King beatings by the LAPD in 1992. 

“I started thinking about myself more and more as a black man – as someone who was discarded, devalued, viewed as less than. I started thinking about the role of identity, being racially profiled, feeling devalued, less than, dismissed. And then I happened to be in the park this one particular day and looked down at the ground, and there was a twig. And I just thought, well, that’s discarded, and it’s sort of insignificant. And so I just started then gathering the twigs, and before I knew it, I was, had built a sculpture.” – Nick Cave, 

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From that initial twig and wire Soundsuit, Cave has gone on to create over 500 Soundsuit creations across the world. He often works with various non-profits, social groups and community organizations, guiding others in a process of making their own creations based on found objects within the region. These workshops become powerful community resources, and are in line with the inherent ceremonial and shamanic potentials within the shapeshifting Soundsuits. He’s a great example of using art and creativity to heal and transform pain within a community and to bring people together for a social cause. We can take inspiration from his body of work to help creatively navigate and address the ongoing wave of contemporary social issues.

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