Nick Cave’s (b. 1959) work blurs boundaries, challenging convention and inviting fresh contemplation of visual culture and performance. His celebrated Soundsuits, featured at the Anderson Collection, unlock new possibilities for self-exploration and the examination of collective cultural identity. Complex and multivalent, these body-sized sculptures are built from an eclectic array of found materials, textiles, and influences. Like patchwork quilts, whose humble, well-worn fabric scraps are resonant with the layered histories of those who once wore them, the Soundsuits call forth a network of associations: from the world of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic to the Native American, West African, Caribbean, and Mardi Gras traditions that so inspire Cave. His Soundsuits hum, vibrate, and emote – despite their inanimate state. They inhabit our space as much as we do theirs. They beckon us. Cave’s Soundsuits and video works invite us to travel across the usual borders between sculpture, costume, and dance; the traditional and the fashionable; and the tangible and the ephemeral.
It may not come as a surprise that Cave has long seen himself as a collector. During his youth in Missouri and throughout his student years at the Kansas City Art Institute and Cranbrook Academy of Art he was drawn to objects. This interest, which today extends to his current role as a professor and Chair of the Fashion Design Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is not wholly unique; consciously or not, we all collect. Generally, each object possesses a singular meaning, but when viewed collectively or after the passage of time, the meanings associated with objects tend to change and oftentimes grow. This transformation is something Cave is deeply mindful of, and it helps explain why he is attracted to the discarded, “dismissed,” and forgotten objects he gathers at flea markets, antique shops, and yard sales. He sees power in castoffs – in the potential of what they were, are, and can become – and he harnesses it by thoughtfully recombining his found objects and granting them new life. In an almost magical way, these Soundsuits can offer the remarkable opportunity to envision ourselves, and one another, anew.
Cave’s first Soundsuit (1992) was built in reaction to the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and the riots that followed the officers’ acquittal in 1992. The materials he used, fallen and “discarded” twigs, were collected while Cave was walking through Grant Park in Chicago, thinking about that horrific incident and its aftermath. As an African American man, Cave was concerned about his well-being and later reflected, “I started thinking about the role of identity, being racially profiled, feeling devalued, less than, dismissed.” Back in his studio, troubled by questions around the safety and security of his own body, Cave began cutting the collected twigs into short lengths, drilling holes in each and sewing them into a life- size figure. The sculpture that emerged was a “second skin,” a form of armor, or perhaps a talisman that could ward off harm. Though it was not built as a wearable object, Cave donned his creation. Within it he found sanctuary, a new identity, and was surprised and inspired by the sound the twigs made when he moved. And so he named this sculpture, and those like it that followed, Soundsuits.
Today, Cave’s video work and community-based performances demonstrate and animate his Soundsuits’ potential to engage their environment, make noise, and liberate those who encounter them. “My work relates to empowering people,” states Cave, and his performances have been said to serve as catalysts for transformation, of the individuals who wear the suits and of the audience, who experiences their movements and sounds. It’s this type of community-based cultural production and social engagement for which Cave is reaching. If the Soundsuits conceal their wearers’ race, gender, and age, and affect their wearers and viewers in distinct ways, are free to respond individually, to act without judgment. Cave’s practice celebrates community and encourages us to look past perceived differences, within ourselves and others. It is profoundly true that the Soundsuits could be you, or me, or us.