Into the Cave world

A few weeks ago I posted briefly about performance artist Nick Cave and his Soundsuits, now on exhibition at Stanford’s Anderson Collection (9/14/16 – 8/14/17). Yesterday I got to visit the show: a small selection of Cave’s Soundsuits; a sizable viewing room with a large screen on which three of Cave’s videos  are projected; a set of shapes on a wall, with an assortment of materials for kids to create their own suits; and a space showing a documentary about Cave and his work.

On the location, the Anderson Collection. The building (next to the original Stanford museum of art, which is now officially the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts) opened in 2014, to house (on the second floor) a portion of the huge personal modern art collection of Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson, the portion that they have donated to Stanford (one Nick Cave suit is already in this permanent collection), and to provide (on the first floor) space for exhibitions. The building is spacious, airy, and filled with natural light streaming through its glass walls. A pleasure to visit.

More on Cave. From a Time article on Cave, “The Noisemaker”, by Richard Lacayo 3/26/12:

He made his first Soundsuit in response to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. At the time, he had just moved to Chicago and taken a job teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he now heads the graduate fashion program. “That incident was so traumatic for me. It flipped everything upside down,” he says. “But art has been my savior. I was able somehow to translate those emotions.” The endless video loop of the King beating drove Cave to thoughts about humiliation and response, silence and outrage. [As a large, well-muscled black man, he was well acquainted with the heavy hand of the police.] Having long worked with found materials, he started to realize how the most humble stuff — the fallen tree twigs and sticks he saw everywhere on the ground — could be woven into a symbolic body armor. By cutting the sticks into three-inch lengths and wiring them to a handmade undergarment, he produced a kind of Abominable Snowman silhouette on which thousands of the sticks hung loosely like bristling fur. It seemed like a defensive image, “a kind of outerwear to protect my spirit,” he says. But it had an aggressive feel too, projecting “the power within the black male, that intimidation and scariness.”

Better still, when he tried it on and moved around, he discovered it made noise — a whirring clatter. “I started to think about the role of protest,” he recalls. “In order to be heard, you’ve got to speak louder. I thought about the body as an alarm system that could go off any second.”

In addition, the suits concealed age, sex, and race, so that the wearer could freely inhabit all sorts of personas. As Cave has said in interviews, the suits served as drag for him. (Oh yes, Cave is gay.)

Cave is playful, amiable, and charming, but also tremendously energetic and fiercely passionate about his work and the liberating messages it can send.

(Linguistic note: Cave’s variety of spoken English manages to be, all at once, Midlands (he grew up in Jefferson City MO), educated, black, and gay. You can watch him in a 10-minute interview here, in connection with a 2014 solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. An interview that, by the way, mostly sticks close to the practicalities of making art and his motives for doing it and largely avoids abstract cant. With lots of images and short video clips.)

Five Soundsuits from the show, from the booklet of notes provided by the museum (and not very expertly scanned in by me):


Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2011. Mixed media including beaded baskets, pipe cleaners, bugle beads, upholstery, metal, and mannequin, 110 x 36 x 32 in.




The videos. I saw all of Gestalt and most of Blot (though I found it hard to tear myself away from this one). Notes by Jason Linetzky, director of the Anderson Collection:

Cave’s video work demonstrates and animates his Soundsuits’ potential to engage their environment, make noise, and liberate performers and their movements in performance. .

Drive-by (2011) … captures an array of Soundsuits worn by twenty-five performers whose movements are paired with a soundtrack of traditional and contemporary music as well as nature-based sounds [The title comes from the earlier history of the work. This video is now available on YouTube, here.]

Gestalt (2012) presents performers exploring a space, seemingly attempting to understand their form and shape and their wholeness as related to their individual parts. [Some characters with video screen heads, one tall regal character. Every so often they bend over and become transformed into creatures.]

Blot (2012) offers a mirrored vision of the performer’s movement incorporating the sounds of the artist breathing and the raffia rustling.

Cave, trained early in his career as an Alvin Ailey dancer, wears many of the suits in this footage.

I was riveted by Blot, transfixed the way you are by watching waves breaking, except that the waves here are, most of the time, animate creatures, sometimes clearly human beings (occasionally you see feet and hands, but never faces). And of course they’re mirror-image symmetrical, like the inkblots on the Rohrshach Test (a projective personality test):


A captured image from Blot:


The images in Blot are constantly, hypnotically, shifting: subsiding to a mere puddle, then bursting out extravagantly, sometimes looking clearly like two figures (as in the blot in #4), sometimes looking like a single figure with a head in the middle of the image (as in #5).

All in black, like inkblots; shimmery, shaggy, furry; and constantly rustling.

Rustling the raffia. As Linetzky notes, that rustle comes from the faux-fur material of this Soundsuit: raffia, the fiber from the raffia palm, customarily used for plant ties, but here put in service of art. Cave uses a hell of a lot of colored raffia, especially for Soundsuits evoking animate beings.

Two examples: red and yellow fur with a mask face; and an assortment of horse colors from the Cave performance “Heard”, seen here performed at the University of North Texas in 2012, but also exhibited elsewhere, including in Grand Central Station in NYC in 2014:



(One of the horses, not seen here, is pink pink pink.)

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