The Des Moines Art Center recently brought Nick Cave to town for a public conversation. An overflow turnout at Levitt Auditorium made one wonder if some folks thought it was Nick Cave the rock star from Australia instead of Nick Cave the artist, fashion professor and self-described “messenger” from Chicago.
“I think you are one of the few artists today who is a household name. I say that based on the turnout here and on the fact that you were the first artist I ever saw on CNN,” Senior Curator Gilbert Vicario commented. Indeed the CNN event Vicario referred to was a twice-a-day performance piece Cave produced at Grand Central Station. Audiences responded with so much enthusiasm that doors to the main concourse had to be locked to maintain crowd control.
That featured “soundsuits,” wearable costumes designed to accentuate movement. Brightly colored and reminiscent of African ritual clothing, soundsuits are made with feathers, brightly dyed hair, sisal, buttons, beads and sequin. They are dazzling on mannequins in a museum setting and absolutely enthralling in a parade of dancers. Cave explained their origin: “I came from a family with seven brothers. Our mother encouraged us to be creative. An older brother was an artist, so I had a clear path.”
Cave gave an insightful view of his creative process. Unintentionally, according to the artist, he works like a Hegelian dialectic. “I don’t give any thought to process. I just start with something and then wonder what it would be like in a completely different context. I might begin with a skirt and then turn it upside down and then add a waist band on the bottom.”
Cave learned to sew at the Kansas City Art Institute at a time he also studied with Alvin Ailey’s dance company. After completing graduate school at North Texas State and Cranbook Academy of Art, he spent several years in the retail clothing business.
“Then came 1992,” he said referring to the riots in Los Angeles after police were acquitted for beating Rodney King. “I became more acutely self-conscious about my identity as a black man in America. One day I was collecting twigs. I bent them into a cloak that made noise when it moved. I realized that is how an invisible man is heard — by making noise. That was my first soundsuit.”
Today Cave employs between eight and 10 full-time employees in the service of his art. This month he will hire an additional 20 for a year in order to prepare for a massive 2016 show for Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Cave said the space for that event is equivalent to three football fields. Soundsuits are now more a part of his resume rather than his repertoire. His current focus was inspired while shopping at a Massachusetts flea market. “I found a container shaped to resemble a black man’s head with ‘spittoon’ written on it. I spiraled out then and there. I began thinking about how much stuff is still out there that degrades and hides black identity,” he explained.
Cave said that he and his partner have begun a habit of buying one-way airline tickets somewhere far from Chicago, then renting a van and driving home with frequent stops at flea markets and antique stores. These have inspired his current phase of “racial consumerism.” The Des Moines Art Center currently shows several pieces that assemble numerous racist and racial artifacts in new, more hopeful contexts. Cave has also created sculptures of young black boys, including one who purportedly froze to death holding a lantern for George Washington. “I am trying to get in your face about diversity. I don’t think the new work connects. It does not generate the kind of dialogue about race that I intended. Even art writers and critics ignore that,” he explained. CV