His artwork — known as Soundsuits — also deserves to be considered “trans” because seeing it can be a transformational experience for the viewer. The large, colorfully fantastical suits are designed from found/scavenged materials. They are meant to be shown as art objects or worn for performances. In the latter, movements prompt unique sounds from materials that Cave uses, such as twigs, sticks and dried mud, ceramic birds, buttons and sequins, old toy spinning tops and even dyed human hair.
The Soundsuits also are frequently created to cover the wearer’s face in a way that hides and reshapes identity. This allows them to take on otherworldly, shamanistic forms. It also allows the viewer, even when looking at a Soundsuit in a museum, to imagine it imbued with an interior life.
Some 34 of the Chicago-based artist’s Soundsuits will go on display at Cincinnati Art Museum on Saturday (through April 29) as it opens the Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth traveling show. There also will be several animal and fabric pieces, plus large-scale photographs and videos of Cave and others in the costumes.
Additionally, the museum will have about a dozen other suits for use in the community. Heather Britt, a Northern Kentucky University dance teacher, is using them to choreograph several performances. The museum also plans to sponsor flashmob-like “invasions” in which people in the suits show up at unexpected places. (One might be at the Reds’ Opening Day parade, hints Cynthia Amneus, CAM curator of Fashion Arts and Textiles.)
“It’s critical to know that you’re not wearing the suit, the suit is wearing you,” Cave says by phone from Chicago, where he’s chair of the fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “So a transition happens when you move into becoming something other than yourself. For the viewer, it’s an unsettling encounter because you’re face-to-face with the unknown. But, you know, we’re drawn to that.
Somehow we’re programmed to that attraction. And that’s interesting to me.”
To emphasize how category-busting Cave’s work is, the museum is taking the unusual step of placing his Soundsuits throughout its galleries.
“I think this is an excellent exhibition to do this to,” Amneus says. “It will appeal to a broad range of people and people will enjoy finding these.”
Cave, an African-American who was born in 1959, is a very in-demand artist right now. He is a principal in SoundSuitShop, a design company with a growing product line. At the same time, his original artwork is represented by New York’s prestigious Jack Shaiman Gallery. He seems to constantly be the subject of museum exhibitions. Meet Me at the Center of the Earth premiered at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center in 2009 and has been touring since. Meanwhile, the busy Cave spoke to CityBeat just before leaving for Senegal to supervise the installation of commissioned Soundsuits for the American Embassy there. And he’s creating a herd of horses made from synthetic raffia that will be worn by North Texas University dance students as part of a roundup, with accompaniment from student musicians, through the streets of Dallas and Denton, Tex.
It’s all quite impressive considering Cave’s economically modest roots. He grew up poor in central Missouri, forced to find new uses for second-hand materials. Each year on his mother’s birthday, he’d give her a handmade card.
“For her to open a card and show so much enthusiasm and excitement, I used to think, ‘Wow, this piece of paper has an enormous effect on my mother,’ ” Cave says. “I wasn’t really sure why it was so effective, but I was filled with confidence it was. So I think it’s always been a critical device for me in my work to provide that ‘aah’ feeling.”
During the ’80s, the artistically talented Cave studied with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York and received a BFA from Kansas City Art Institute where, among other things, he learned to sew. He did visual display work for Macy’s and created his own fashion line and went to Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art for his MFA.
Busy with art, he found himself challenged to the core watching the way Los Angeles police beat Rodney King, which led to rioting in 1992. Caught on video, it was televised around the world. Out of Cave’s feelings came Soundsuits.
“It was scary but very emotional for a black male,” he says of the King beating. “And what I’ve realized is you never know what will shift your thinking or is so profound you may have to respond to it and also shift your way of working.”
The first Soundsuit was made of twigs found in Chicago’s Grant Park. Cave still clearly recalls what he felt looking at those twigs.
“Somehow I’ve got to make something with twigs,” he recalls thinking. “I was thinking more of a sculpture, then I realized I could physically wear it. And from wearing it, it created sounds. And then I started thinking about protests, that in order to be heard you had to speak louder or take an assertive or aggressive position, so it got me interested in the roles of identity and power surrounding dress. This sort of disguised my identity — it removed race, class and gender and forced (me) to look without judgment.”
Cave has created Soundsuits out of found objects — organic and inorganic — ever since.
“I can make a Soundsuit out of anything,” he says. “That’s what keeps me motivated and interested.”
Nick Cave appears in conversation with Cynthia Amneus, fashion and textile arts curator, in CAM’s Fath Auditorium 7:30 p.m. Friday. Free for members, $15 non-members. Reservations required: 513-721 ARTS. Heather Brit/NKU Dance Invasion perform in Soundsuits 7 p.m. Friday in the Great Hall. Britt’s ensemble also gives a free Soundsuit performance at the museum from 1-4 p.m. April 7. The exhibit continues at CAM through April 29 at the Cincinnati Art Museum. More information: www.cincyartmuseum.org.