For a week in March 2013, within the vast Beaux-Arts-era Vanderbilt Hall of Grand Central Station in New York City, the space came alive at twice-daily intervals by a group of some 60 Alvin Ailey School dancers to the strains of a live harpist. But this was no ordinary flash mob, like the kinds of wedding proposals you see on YouTube. In multi-coloured layers of fine materials reminiscent of a mop head, and decorated with intricate beading, the dancers formed the basis of life-sized horse puppets, replete with sculptured horse heads, as part of a site-specific project by the American artist Nick Cave. Specially commissioned by Creative Time and the MTA, New York’s transport body, the performance, Heard NY, celebrated the centennial of Grand Central in a way that truly engaged a vast and unsuspecting public audience through movement and sound.
“We’re so consumed by holding onto our jobs and just, sort of, surviving, that we really don’t dream, so to be able to bring something to the public that could help stimulate or jump start that sort of thought was what I was thinking about,” Mr Cave told the New York Times at the time, noting that the concept for the performance came from the history of horse-drawn carriages by MTA during the 19th century. “It’s looking at early puppetry and the simplicity of something so mundane that can take on this dream-like presence and have a really magical element to it. It’s about trying to get back to that dream state of existing, [because] dreaming allows us to connect to purpose in our lives. I try to use [my] work as an instigator to some degree.”
In November, Mr Cave will bring a version of the work to Sydney, at the behest of multidisciplinary arts centre Carriageworks, where for two days he will stage lunchtime performances in yet-to-be-announced public spaces throughout the city. “It’s really about intersecting these areas, like Pitt Street Mall, where there’s a heavy population of people,” explained Mr Cave on a planning visit to Australia earlier this year. “It’s important to engage in that moment, in that location, so that you step out of your office for lunch and all of a sudden have this unique encounter with a performance.”
These costumes represent fantastical, otherworldly creatures…
Mr Cave’s practice is representative of the prolific cross-pollination of music, art and fashion that defines 21st century culture. Indeed, while his art practice straddles performing and visual arts, the artist also serves as a professor of fashion design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is based, and sees no great divisions between the various mediums. “I have students come into the [fashion] program from a fashion background and are interested in video, performance and installation, which is how I work, because there is this whole other side to fashion that’s about presentation, about exhibitions, couture runway shows. The design element is one part of it, and that’s the beauty of it, because it’s not just about what happens in the [design] studio, but also the format in which you show it, and what ideas of display mean and look like.”
Yet Mr Cave’s artistic output originates from a more authentic place than many of the well known, and commercially driven, collaborative projects that define the contemporary art-fashion collisions. Born in 1959 in Missouri, the United States, Mr Cave has said that growing up with modest means instilled in him a creative spirit. “When you’re raised by a single mother with six brothers and lots of hand-me-downs, you have to figure out how to make those clothes your own,” he told the New York Times in 2009. “That’s how I started off, using things around the house.” It led him, quite naturally, to learn to sew more professionally, studying at the Kansas City Art Institute. While doing so, he enrolled in an Alvin Ailey dance program, studying between Kansas City and New York City, drawn to the expressive possibilities of movement. It wasn’t until later that the two worlds, of art and dance, collectively formed the art practice for which he has become known.
Mr Cave rose to prominence with what are called Soundsuits, which he describes as, “a sculptural object that, with movement, generates sound based on the way it is fabricated.” Typically, these costumes represent fantastical, otherworldly creatures, with appendages of “hair, metal bottle caps, buttons, twigs, anything I can get my hands on”, he says, that rise up and off of the body so as to transform and transfigure the body, removing the obvious link to the human form. In one, a web-like constellation steams upward from the head of the figure, with homely porcelain figures of birds, such as owls, ducks and roosters, entangled in the matter. In another, the costume stretches open to reveal a dense bouquet of intricately beaded flowers, a densely colourful riposte to the neutral tone of the suit. Mr Cave’s Soundsuits allude to folkloric costume practices around the world, and the mystical and mythical stories that surround them, offering a hybridised version of these historical traditions by bringing them into a contemporary context.” To date, the artist’s Soundsuits have been collected and exhibited by institutions including the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others.
But while dazzling to the eye as a result of their colourful intricacy and bold forms, Mr Cave’s Soundsuits, which can be worn for performance or exhibited as standalone sculptures, are used to communicate far more complex ideas about contemporary culture. “There is a very dark, political side to the work,” explains the artist. “For one thing, [the suit] can be used to hide gender, race, even class, so you’re forced to look at the work without any sort of judgement.” The suits, Mr Cave explains, came about in response to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which transpired after a jury acquitted police officers of charges of using excessive force and beating Rodney King. The riots, lasting some six days, ended with the death of some 55 people, with over 2000 injured. For Mr Cave, the original creation of the suits as a comment on the sort of protective shield – both visual and physical – required for “black bodies to move through the world.” Subsequent bodies of works have been developed in response to the killings of black men and women in the United States, such as that of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and, more recently, the Charleston shootings of 2015.
“There is definitely a political undertone to [my] work, but looking at it from an optimistic point of view at the same time,” says Mr Cave of the costume-sculpture hybrids. “Soundsuits play these double roles: there’s a humanness to the them, because they relate to the body, but they’re very unfamiliar as well.” Interestingly, the artist doesn’t view the works as characters or people, but “something else entirely. They live in between. They may be a reference to a particular artefact that I’ve come across, or something foreign. A multitude of things, really.”
In October, viewers will have the chance to immerse themselves in Mr Cave’s Soundsuits, with his largest-ever installation to date at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art [MASS MoCA], entitled Until. Employing MASS MoCA’s football field-sized exhibition space as his canvas, Mr Cave will present thousands of found objects and millions of beads, creating a rich sensory tapestry, as though stepping into the belly of a Soundsuit character. Conceived as a one-year project, the exhibition will serve as a platform for music, theatre and art performances, with appearances by a curated selection of singers, poets and composers, as well as a forum of panel discussions and community forums, exploring the notion, and abuse, of the “guilty until proven innocent” mandate that pervades the American social landscape, drawing on issues of gun control and race relations. “I view this work as a theatre set, or an elaborate community forum, as much as a work of sculpture,” explained Mr Cave of the project, which he intends to serve as a platform for debate and critical discussion.
HEARD-SYD, the Sydney iteration of the earlier New York work and Mr Cave’s first major work in Australia, will involve 60 local dancers taking part in a series of William Gill-choreographed performances comprising 30 life-sized horse suits, each inhabited by two dancers at a time. Constructed by coloured raffia and found materials, thus creating a distinct sound when activated, HEARD will disrupt the daily activity of Sydney’s office workers and tourists with its surreal explosion of equestrian activity, offering an escapist response to the bustling activity of the city centre. “It’s really a way, as an artist,” says Mr Cave, “of making working outside of institutions and museums and really getting [your] work into the public realm.”