The artist Nick Cave has a little something for everybody. Do you like pastel colors and shiny objects? He’s got something for you. How about costume, performance and show? There’s some of that too. Ritual? Craftsmanship? Consumerism? Check. There are so many cultural references sewn, glued and drilled onto Cave’s sculptures that they explode with social baggage. At the same time they somehow are able to separate from their materials, to discard their connotations and history for a sparkling, ostentatious reinvention.
Cave’s Meet Me at the Center of the Earth exhibit, now showing at the Seattle Art Museum, focuses on his “soundsuits,” costume-like sculptures that can either be worn by performers or posed on mannequins. These soundsuits are made from any number of found materials: second hand clothing, discarded handbags, branches, doilies, stuffed animals or human hair. It would appear that just about any item can find its way onto one of his suits; the only prerequisite seems to be that it is either saturated with color or ridiculously shiny. These materials are then collaged together into a wearable item. Trying to distinguish between the original stitchwork of a found dress and the artist’s own tailoring requires an investment of time for those of us without the trained eye. The mannequins are displayed on slightly raised platforms with enough space between them so that the visual energy created feels like something between a runway show and a display window. In a back room of the museum a performance of dancers in soundsuits is projected onto the wall as they bounce, spin, and twirl; the focus is on the sound of the costume and how the fabrics move rather than the performers.
Cave’s work has multiple contexts where it feels comfortable. In part due to his position as director of the graduate fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (and the ever present mannequin), it develops a relation to fashion and sculpture. Dance and performance also become a part of the discourse surrounding his work: the soundsuit “invasions” are presentations in public spaces (not to mention that the word on the street is Nick Cave trained with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company). It could also be read as a commentary on late-capitalism: much of the found materials are mass produced castaways and ephemera that are repurposed. And just as interestingly, the work is often read as interpretations of African ceremonial masks and ritual. Indeed, the Seattle Art Museum previously displayed their own Cave pieces in the African Arts wing as opposed to the contemporary section. Perhaps his largest exhibit on the west coast prior to Meet Me at the Center of the Earth was at the Fowler Museum: an institution originally titled Museum and Laboratories of Ethnic Arts and Technology with a focus on non-Western Arts. The soundsuits fit into any or all of these social and political lineages without feeling like a stretch. Yet all of the references have a way of becoming white noise. What emerges from this noise are demanding sculptures that establish a visual presence and their own context that is more than the sum of its cultural parts.
Perhaps the most layered attribute of the suits is how they seem to be in a state of constant transition, existing somewhere between movement and stillness, action and rest. They are pieces about contradiction. As I look at them I can easily imagine the sounds they would make if they were used in a performance; this makes the silence of the gallery so conspicuous and present. And yet even though they are often worn as costumes, it is difficult to imagine them as being used by just anyone. They seem cumbersome, either to be put on only by professional dancers or not at all. One of the soundsuits has metal floral sconces positioned on a metal armature. This armature wraps tightly around the mannequin starting at the waist with a woven floral bodysuit underneath. Although the piece invites the gaze with the delicate palette and attractive use of roses and shrubbery, it is also cold and guarded. The armature creates a kind of cage or prison around the figure, the metalwork emphasizing a symbolic wall between object and audience. Even the most tactilely inviting works, large suits made of human hair, exist in a state of flux, moving between engagement and distance. They are fuzzy and warm with the colors of gumballs, lollipops or even Mondrian paintings. They are fun. But they are huge and daunting; monoliths of fur that are 7 feet tall, giddy from far but imposing up close. This kind of visual dichotomy is the strength of the work, the active nature of the sculptures that never feel quite settled but always engaging.
You’ve seen Nick Cave’s materials before. He uses a vocabulary that you know. It feels familiar and recognizable, but it also feels new. When you see Meet Me at the Center of the Earth, you’ll be sure to find something for you.