Nick Cave, Soundsuit; Antonio Martin Memorial in Berkeley, MO (photo credit: Richard Reilly)
NICKCAVE Currents 109:
St. Louis Art Museum
When visitors entered the exhibit Currents 109: Nick Cave at the Saint Louis Art Museum the first thing they encountered was a figure in a head-to-toe body suit made from old potholders (the kind crocheted by your grandmother). The suit was enclosed by an armor fashioned from safety-pin baskets (a gone but not forgotten craft trend) fitted together and topped with… wait for it… an easter bunny the size of a small dog holding a shimmering pink egg. This enigmatic suit is inanimate, occupied by a mannequin, but when worn by a dancer it magically transforms. It is one of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, wearable sculptures made from an assortment of materials including raffia, human hair, sequins, buttons, vintage toys, and old sweaters. The Soundsuits cover the wearer’s face and body, disguising race, age, gender, and identity, and offering the wearer the seductive possibility of transformation. They can be worn in dance or displayed on mannequins, as they were at the Saint Louis Art Museum. In this sense they bridge the gap between time-based media, like video and performance, and static works like sculptures and textiles.
important to Cave, who also works as a professor of fashion design at the Art Institute of Chicago. Cave’s multifaceted artworks, which combine performance, dance, fashion, and craft are evidence of his diverse interests: Cave has worked as a fashion designer and studied dance with the Alvin Ailey dance theater. In addition to the Soundsuits, Currents 109 included a video and Cave’s Tondos, circular wall hangings made from odd-sized scraps of recycled, sequined fabrics. Cave sewed the pieces together in an improvised or irregular pattern, referencing the folk art tradition of crazy quilts: eccentric quilts made from salvaged bits of velvet, silk, and other fancy fabrics.
Cave has created hundreds of Soundsuits. Some look like sequined surfboards or Liberace-fied bishops’ miters. Others are covered in beads and buttons, or made out of recycled items, like an antique sifter, vintage noisemakers, or toy globes that Cave sources from thrift stores around the country. A playful example of Nick Cave’s fertile imagination is the sock monkey Soundsuit, a sort of “wild thing” of grinning sock monkeys and colorful stuffed and stitched thrift store socks.
Drive-By, the mesmerizing video that was on view in a separate gallery, was filmed in 2011 to celebrate the publication of an eight-page spread in Vogue featuring Cave’s Soundsuits. In Drive-By, a troupe of performers, some in masks and Soundsuits made of rainbow colored hair or raffia, others in tall beaded or sequined Soundsuits, jump, dance, and roll across a white studio space to techno music punctuated with drum beats and animal noises. Enhancements and alterations to the images and sounds distinguish the video from Cave’s live performances. In a memorable shot, a performer in a Soundsuit made from pink raffia that resembles the hair of a shaggy dog hops on a pogo stick in slow motion. The video is titled Drive-By because it was shown nightly for a week in the storefront window below Cave’s Chicago studio in a location visible to people driving by. However, the title, referencing urban violence, hints at darker content underlying Cave’s work.
The Soundsuits are sewn together by Cave and his studio assistants rather than glued. In fact, craft is particularly
Cave describes the outlandishness of the fantastical Soundsuits and their shimmering tactile surfaces as
“seductive,” enticing the viewer to engage with their conceptual foundation. The Soundsuits, Cave says, “allow identities to be lost or hidden and new ones to be claimed.” The first Soundsuit was created in the aftermath of the brutal beating of black construction worker Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991. Cave, who was a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago at the time of the King beating, was astounded by the description the police gave of King as “larger than life” and “scary.” Cave, who is black, thought, “the moment I leave my studio my identity is in jeopardy.” Walking in the park, Cave picked up a handful of sticks and fashioned a life-size sculpture by attaching the twigs to a fabric undergarment. He realized that he could wear the finished suit and that, when he moved in it, the sticks poked out threateningly and creaked conspicuously. Cave says he thought of the suit as protective armor, shielding his identity. He called it a Soundsuit for the creaking noises it emitted. In Speak Louder, one of the most stunning and somber works in Current 109, seven figures covered entirely in pearly buttons were arranged in a circle, joined by swaths of heavy button-covered drapery. Their large heads, each looking off in a different direction, are shaped like tubas with the holes plugged and covered over. The Soundsuits, so animated in Drive-by, are still and silent here, their voices stifled. Speak Louder is a statement of the premise underlying all of Cave’s work. Ever since he created his first Soundsuit, Cave has understood that “in order to be heard you have to speak louder.”
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