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Nick Cave is considered one of the leading African-American artists working today and has been widely exhibited in the United States. The artist is renowned for his assemblage costumes that are activated for performances, documented in videos and displayed as sculptures. Cave aims to address the broad issues of ceremony, ritual, myth and self in his works and draws on his experience as a queer African-American man. Cave has attracted a great deal of attention for HEARD 2012, a large-scale performance piece that includes 30 horse costumes and live musicians, which has been presented at the Nasher Sculpture Centre, Dallas and University of North Texas, Denton (2012); Denver Art Museum (2013); Creative Time, Grand Central Station, New York (2013); Cranbrook Art Museum, Detroit (2015); and Sydney, Carriageworks (forthcoming). The acquisition of this key work would be the first by the artist to enter an Australian public collection.

‘Soundsuits’ 1992-ongoing are Cave’s signature series of artworks; the term ‘Soundsuit’ was coined by the artist to describe his intricate sculptural forms that completely cover the wearer and the way that the materials of these heavily decorated suits emanate sounds when in motion. The ‘Soundsuit’ camouflages the human form, eliminating markers of identity such as race, gender, class and sexual identification, thereby protecting the wearer from discrimination. Cave’s first ‘Soundsuit’ was made entirely of twigs, in reaction to the beating of African-American taxi driver Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department Officers in 1991. By creating costumes that facilitate physical transformation, in his terms Cave asks his audience to ‘look without judgement’, and to question their understanding of complex concepts of identity. 

Cave - working with a team of assistants in his studio on Chicago’s South side - has created around five hundred ‘Soundsuits’ using an array of found materials such as twigs, buttons, beads, sequins, synthetic hair, dollies, and raffia. Many of the materials and patterns in the ‘Soundsuits’ reference rituals and folkloric traditions, including the costumes traditional by the Yoruba people from the Republic of Benin to the ‘Mardi Gras Indians’ in New Orleans, an African-American custom that is influenced by Native Americans (1). The artist states: ‘I’m always trying to use materials in a new way …to reintroduce them into the world through embellishment… to preserve their original reference but to shift their meaning completely.’(2) By mixing every day materials together with signs and symbols from a multitude of cultures Cave is a producer of a do-it-yourself creole culture. This is also mirrored in performative aspects of Cave’s artwork that relate to his formal dance training in the 1960s with Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), who was celebrated for his unique choreography incorporating many styles of dance including from African American street culture. Cave’s performances engage a range of dancers and musicians and use improvisation to draw on their diverse cultural backgrounds. This approach ensures that each time the works are performed they reflect the culture of the presenting city.

Cave brings together a multitude of global references within his artworks but does this in such a way to create experiences that are also uniquely personal. As the art critic  Stephanie Buhmann notes:
‘much of the allure found in Cave's fantastic world springs from his preference for elaborately patterned textiles and a palette rich in deeply saturated and fluorescent hues. The overall sentiment is playful, at times whimsical, and celebratory. Both indulgence and grandeur characterize the ‘Soundsuits’. They are worthy of dressing up a mysterious of elite kings and queens, shamans, medicine men, magicians, and witches. Through skilled fabric manipulation, Cave's garments become much more than mere physical decoration. Not unlike tribal ceremonial costumes, the ‘Soundsuits’ offer the promise of spiritual empowerment. Those who wear them find themselves transformed into something otherworldly, strong and independent of social norms.’ (3)

The work proposed for acquisition can be likened to a large group of Cave’s ‘Soundsuits’, HEARD is comprised of 15 horse costumes made of vibrantly-dyed raffia, and each horse has a face mask created from fabrics and other embellishments from across the globe. As a performance it involves thirty dancers, dressed in the costumes carrying out choreographed movements to live music. The artist provides notes for the arc of choreography and music that the performers then improvise from. Cave’s innovative use of materials adds to the vitality of the work, the layers of raffia makes distinct swishing sounds as the dancers move. The effect is mirrored visually by the swirling of colours. Over the course of the performance, as the music quickens, the dancers shift from gracefully gliding to energetically thrashing through the space as the head and the body of each horse breaks apart to dance separately in a state of reverie.

The strong influence of Rave culture on Cave’s practice becomes most apparent in his large scale performances such as HEARD. The intensity of moving colour, the overwhelming sound of musicians, dancers moving in and out of collective formation induce the crowd to move with the music and let go of the social codes normally adhered to in public spaces. Cave describes his participation in Rave culture in the 1980s as having ‘saved his life’.(4) In the 1980s and 1990s in reaction to political conservatism of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, Rave culture became a way for young people to enjoy a sense of unity. Reflecting on this social phenomenon, curator Nav Haq notes that:
raves were ‘spontaneously organised concentrations of people and musically creativity that eluded formal structures of control… raves possessed some extraordinary qualities, transgressing even notions of race and class in terms of participation… Rave was an exhilarating cultural phenomenon - pushing the crowd to the limits of their sensorial capacity.(5)

Cave’s HEARD oscillates between a Rave (revelling in sense of unity), a rally (united political voice) and a parade (overwhelmed by spectacle). On the potential of these types of public moments, Creative Time Director, Nato Thomson writes:
‘they provide an opportunity to produce a sense of what is acceptable. Acceptability, by nature, is that thing which is publically agreed upon and thus, parades have a very political potential. It is for this very reason that parades often possess deeply political underpinnings as public gatherings become places to reconfigure what constitutes the real.’(6)
Cave’s works provide a moment for the general public to rethink the everyday, and celebrate living in a moment that is rich with diversity.

HEARD is one of the most significant  works in Nick Cave’s practice and brings together key concerns by the artist in a thought provoking riot of colour, movement and sound. The work will be the centerpiece for the forthcoming Collection exhibition ‘Sugar Spin: You, Me, Art, Everything’ opening at GOMA in December 2016.

1. Pamela McClusky ‘and to think we saw it on East Marginal Way’ in Nick Cave : meet me at the center of the Earth. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, New York, 2009 and Dan Cameron ‘Shape Shifting’ in Nick Cave : meet me at the center of the Earth. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, New York, 2009, pp.21-2.
2. The artist in conversation with Andrew Bolton in Nick Cave: Epitome, Prestel Publishing, New York, 2014, p. 89.
3. Stephanie Buhmann, ‘Nick Cave: Jack Shainman Gallery’ Sculpture #28 #6, 2009, p.75.
4. William Morrow ‘Unfamiliar extremes’ in Caruso, Laura, (ed.) Soujourn: Nick Cave. Denver Art Museum, 2013, p.7.
5. Nav Haq ‘The electric-chemical black swan’, Rave and its influence on art and culture p.12.
6. Thompson , Nato, ‘Out of a Riot Comes a Dream: The Public and Private Iterations of Nick Cave’, in Nick Cave: Epitome,  Prestel Publishing, New York, 2014, p. 40.

Artist biography:
Nick Cave was born in Missouri in 1959, and currently lives and works in Chicago where he is the Professor of Fashion Design (Body and Garment) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Cave graduated with a BFA from Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri (1982), completed his graduate studies at North Texas State University in Denton (86), and obtained a MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan(1989). Cave has received a number of prestigious awards, such as the Joan Mitchell Foundation Award (2008), the Joyce Award (2006) and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2001).

Cave’s work has been the focus of notable solo exhibitions, including ‘Nick Cave:Until’ Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, (2016); ‘Currents 109: Nick Cave’, Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri (2014-15); ‘Nick Cave’, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2014); and the touring exhibition ‘Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Centre of the Earth’, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Arizona, Fowler Museum, University of California, Los Angeles, Norton Museum, West Palm Beach, Florida, Seattle Art Museum, Washington, Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia, Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio, Boise Art Museum, Idaho (2009-12).

Related artworks

Generated image of the artwork: HEARD

HEARD 2012

CAVE, Nick

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