'The Hop' by Jyll Bradley at the Hayward Gallery is about time, memory and light
by Dilpreet BhullarSep 05, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Apr 03, 2023
Following the first career-spanning retrospective, Nick Cave: Forothermore at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, last year, the original show's more intimate, yet no less comprehensive survey, is now on view until April 10 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Throughout the three levels at the museum’s tower galleries, visitors will encounter both familiar and never-seen-before vibrant oeuvre of the Chicago-based artist: constructed paintings, assemblages comprising items from cast bronzes to multicolour beads, installations made up of found objects, videos, and the artist’s most emblematic masquerade costume-like sculptures that Cave refers to as soundsuits—all produced powerfully, personally, and beautifully as deeply emotional reactions to racism, inequality, and injustice in our world.
Nick Cave (b. 1959, Fulton, Missouri) is the second oldest son in a family of seven brothers, all born just one year apart. The family lived in public housing in a close-knit community. His father worked at a concrete plant; he passed away from cancer when Cave was 18. His mother—the oldest of 16 siblings—was a social worker; she worked through all of her pregnancies. Church was an important part of his upbringing, and so was school homework. Cave grew up around makers—both of his grandfathers were woodworkers and six of his aunts were seamstresses; family members around him sewed, baked, and painted. Most importantly, he told me, “There was a sense of community and this unconditional love.”
It was Cave's soundsuits series that distinguished him from other artists and brought recognition. The very first of these soundsuits was created in 1992 out of discarded twigs found at a park. That's how he felt at the time—dismissed and discarded as a black male, following that year’s acquittal of the Los Angeles Police officers after the Rodney King beating that sparked the LA riots. The piece Cave created out of a myriad of wire-strung three-inch-long twigs became a wearable sculpture, a full-body suit that made haunted sounds when activated. It masked the identity of the person in it and led to uniquely liberating performances in which art, fashion, dance, and music, all overlap freely and imaginatively. In the following conversation with Nick Cave, we discussed his first job at Macy’s, the decision to apply to graduate school, moving to Chicago, how he sees his soundsuits, currently transitioning to new forms of expression, and employing beauty as a mechanism for healing.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: What kind of things did you do creatively as a child?
Nick Cave: I was making stuff out of nothing, really. As a child, I had no idea about art supplies. So, I started making things out of whatever I could find. Then I learned about such crafts as weaving and macrame. I was interested in cloth and what you could do with it. And also, drafting, building, and constructing. And with my older brother Jack, we drew from still lives. We would have one hour to compete who is the quickest and most detailed. We constantly challenged ourselves. And in high school, I was taking art classes and had access to art materials. In my junior year, I had my first museum experience. We went to the Saint Louis Art Museum where I saw my first (Anselm) Kiefer. I cried. Something happened then. It was emotional and profound. I was lost for words. We also did performance work. And already early on I was bringing people together to create events and street happenings. I was thinking about collaboration and that public space could become my canvas.
I was always passionate about art. And growing up with so many brothers meant that hand-me-downs were individually customised by each new wearer instead of simply buying a new pair of jeans at a store. So, I had to find my identity by deconstructing things, taking things apart, and rebuilding them. I learned by experimenting. But most of all, there was a sense of community and this unconditional love, really.
VB: Your older brother Jack is a designer who is also based in Chicago. Did his work influence you, or was it the other way around?
NC: It was the other way around! [Laughs.] You know, I followed him to study art at the Kansas City Art Institute where I went a year later. We were close but also wanted to be independent. It was good to know he was right there but I also wanted to make my own friends. While he went in the direction of the commercial field of design, I took the fine arts path. I was more like—I don’t know what’s going to happen but we are going to gamble. I love risk-taking and figuring things out.
VB: Did you have a plan for your life after college?
NC: When I was a student, we all wanted to have exhibitions and commissions, of course. But there was no manual that would bring you to that. In my first year after college, I didn’t really do anything. I was simply trying to figure it out. Still, I maintained a studio in Kansas City. The goal was that we would graduate and a group of us would move together to New York and everybody went but I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. But somehow, I held together a group of young artists who remained in Kansas City and we continued to run rotation studio quizzes and exhibits. That helped us to learn from each other, and, of course, to be fed. [Laughs.] Then I had to get a job just to pay the bills. So, I put my portfolio together, went to Macy’s, and got a visual coordinator job right in my first interview. There I designed window displays.
Anyways, by then I knew that the corporate world wasn’t for me. There is no way I could wear a suit and function in that kind of world. So, I stayed there for two years and then decided that I needed to go to grad school. I had job security and insurance but I wasn’t happy. I told my mom and she agreed with me that being happy is more important. [Laughs.] I then went to Cranbrook Academy of Art on a full scholarship to do my graduate studies there. And even before I graduated, I was asked to teach at the Art Institute in Chicago. That’s how I ended up here.
VB: How did your first major breakthrough happen? Was it your first soundsuite?
NC: When I created the first soundsuit and realised that I could put it on and move and that it makes sounds, from that moment on, I knew that my life would be different. I don’t know why but I saw something unfamiliar. It was something I had not seen anywhere. I did not understand it at that moment and I did not share that work for about a decade. I needed to understand what I just have given birth to. So, I continued to make both sculptural paintings and soundsuits. I felt I needed more time to develop the language around the work I was doing. But let me tell you, the moment that I revealed it to the world was life-changing. I did it by submitting the work to a number of magazines and group shows. I immediately understood that art could be so much broader—art as performance, art as happenings, and all sorts of public engagement with the work. By that time, I made a dozen soundsuits. Suddenly I was represented by a gallery, my work was showing and selling.
VB: Your soundsuits have become your signature artworks. They tend to be very outgoing and flamboyant, and yet, they are about protecting and sheltering. How do you see them?
NC: I see soundsuits as something other. Their origins come from really looking at the ceremonial and ritual dresses. It is not from one particular place but from many different places. So, the object becomes somewhat universal. And it hides gender/race/class, forcing the viewer to look at something other. How do we step up to that and be open to that?
VB: Here are some of the phrases that you use to describe your soundsuits: need to get the word out, creating a safe space, a protective armour, building something out of nothing, building a form with a disguised identity, building a second skin, wearable sculptures, dream state, silent protest, amplifying a voice, speak louder, being trapped, being netted. You also compared their abstract form to a missile. How else would you describe them?
NC: I think about the idea of protection, shielding one from violent attacks on black bodies, shrining the black bodies, and mostly creating these protective armours that would allow me to navigate through the world safely. In a way, it is almost like mummifying the body. It is a sort of pushback. It is about being rebellious. It is about celebrating the body. It is about masquerading the body. Then the performance comes into play and I get transformed and surrender in this act of becoming something other.
VB: You completed about 500 soundsuits. Is the progression of these pieces important to you? How do you see them evolve over the years and from now on?
NC: Well, they have evolved through circumstances—from the beating of Rodney King to the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The last and final soundsuit was about the death of George Floyd. It happened at the time when I was rethinking my soundsuites by questioning—how would I make these pieces as a 20-year-old? So, all of the pieces I was imagining, were covered in a black shroud. It has shifted my body of work; I felt invaded by trauma yet again. And now I no longer do soundsuits. I have been moving away from that work for quite some time. Now, finally, I put it to rest.
VB: No more soundsuits? Do you treat them as a closed chapter in your career? How are you transitioning to something else?
NC: When I was working on mounting my first survey show at the MCA here in Chicago, I was able to go there many times and be with all this work and be able to see these three and a half decades of practice and realise that I have been trying to put a light to the subject of racism, inequality, injustice. That was an incredible moment for me. All those years, the purpose has led the practice. And I felt resolved in this work and was able to close that chapter. It was the most amazing feeling. And now I am starting a new body of work. I am not quite sure what it is. But I have ideas. I am preparing, getting materials, and pulling things together. And, you know, I never sketched anything. I am relying on my responses to circumstances. And I am relying on the essence. Any shift in my work has to do with the essence. How do I transfer the essence of my work into another medium? I am very excited about this new work coming.
VB: Let me ask you about the process of making your pieces. Your work is research-based. And you just mentioned that you never sketch anything. Could you touch on that?
NC: Even when I was working on my paintings, I always questioned this idea of literally painting with a brush and paint. I tend to contemplate my ideas for months. For example, when I think about a painting I think formally. Decisions come slowly. At the same time, I am doing research. I am reading about queerness, revealing other parts of my identity. I am finding out about these crazy new legislations restricting drag performances. I am looking at a dress as a part of a code and a way of reading identities. So, it is not a soundsuit but it is a soundsuit in other forms. I am interested in other ways of working. My work has never been driven by my position as an artist.
VB: When describing your work, you sometimes compare it to architecture, landscapes, and gardens. Where do you typically turn for inspiration?
NC: I am looking at everything. I am on TikTok, I am reading. I am wide open. I am interested in communities, both urban and rural. I am an amalgam of things. I am like a chameleon, very adaptive and very fluid. It is about how I put myself in the world. I recently did a fashion performance and most people who answered the call were trans kids. And when I asked them to identify themselves most said they were activists. To see yourself as an activist, period—that's liberating! Everything else follows its course. I never put that in front of everything but now that's how I see who I am.
VB: Your pieces are full of meanings but they are also strikingly beautiful to look at. What constitutes beauty to you?
NC: For me, it is about the pushback. That’s my sort of rebellious side coming through. I always used beauty to contrast the ongoing trauma in our lives. The point is to bring balance, substance, to bring empathy, to bring compassion to the work. And it is about reconciliation. It is about letting things go. It is about paying homage. Beauty has always been used as a sort of mechanism for healing. My work was always in confrontation with reality. Art is always emotional; it is open to interpretation. I am interested in work that creates conversations.
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