Detail of "Untitled" (2006) by Nick Cave. This is one of several soundsuits Cave made out of twigs.

Nick Cave on Practice, Performance and Violence

Twigs are unassuming, irregular, trodden-upon nuisances to be swept up with the leaves in the fall. However, in Nick Cave’s Soundsuit (1991), the humble twig, collected and assembled into a garment, becomes deeply powerful. Soundsuit’s texture seems both shaggy and rigid; its form is ponderous and dynamic, strange and familiar. Further, the imposing anthropomorphic structure also serves as regalia for Cave’s performances, which animate his artworks with dance and music. Although these performances are celebratory, the soundsuits, for there are many, also critique social injustices, existential explorations of self in relation to society, and the power of collective experience.

During an October 13 conversation with Cave at the University of New Mexico’s Rodey Theatre, Kymberly Pinder said that Cave’s twig soundsuit helped her conceive of the exhibition Necessary Force: Art in the Police State, which she co-curated with Karen Fiss at the UNM Art Museum. Cave said the original impulse to create the twig suit evolved out of the artist’s heightened awareness of what it meant to be a black man in the United States following the Rodney King beating in 1991. The brutal police violence against King, along with Cave’s own experience of being a black student at the mostly white Cranbrook Academy of Art, motivated him to shift the course of his artistic practice.

At the talk, Cave recounted the experience of sitting in a park and noticing an insignificant twig on the ground. The twigs had been cast-off and rejected but by gathering and assembling hundreds of them, he transformed the individual twig’s status and power. This gathering mimics the power of collective action in response to social injustices. While Cave’s exploration of materials has proliferated, his subsequent works all seem to retain the same initial impulse as that first twig assemblage: Their playfulness creates a dreamspace, a temporary separation from reality, while their questioning of the individual’s role in society draws attention to its unequal structure.

In addition to a discussion of Cave’s artistic practice and methods, the conversation at Rodey Theatre also included a screening of a collaborative video project for the recent exhibition at the Cranbrook Art Museum, Here Hear. This mini-documentary followed Cave and a team of collaborators as they scouted urban sites for performances in Detroit, set up shots, and costumed one another in the soundsuits. While Cave’s work often manifests in the form of performances, this case was different; the documentary recorded not only the performance, but also the collaborative process behind it. Cave’s team actively participates in the creative process. The visually diverse nature of the locations also create a sense of inclusivity not always apparent when the soundsuits show in galleries and museums.

In vernacular, urban spaces such as warehouses or near graffiti-decked bridges, Cave’s soundsuits interrupt the traditional canon of art history. The materiality of his work acknowledges a wide range of traditions, including West African and Native American influences, Mardi Gras Indians, and domestic arts traditionally gendered as female. All of these contexts have historically been classified as popular, low-art forms and systematically disallowed from the Western world of museums and galleries. Cave’s use of such decorative and primitive forms thus disrupts the hierarchy of art history and high culture. Although the soundsuits are now incorporated in the contemporary art world, they continue to acknowledge forms and traditions outside the realm of Eurocentric, Western art practices.

Cave conceived of his recent work in Detroit as invasions or interventions: opportunities to forge contact with community leaders, and embark on collaborations. For the projects HeardŸDetroit, and Up Right: Detroit, Cave worked with local young people, who performed as dancers and helped design the movements for performances. Pinder asked Cave to explain the reciprocity of his relationship with the student volunteers, asking what he leaves with them. A soundsuit? An artwork? Cave said that he leaves students with an “imprint”: the opportunity for students to collaborate in the artistic process, carry out a significant project, and learn to move in the soundsuits as a confidence-building, impactful experience.

A video by Detroit-based production company The Right Brothers, documents one such collaboration between Cave and the 60 dancers from the Detroit School of Arts and Wayne State University who participated in the HeardŸDetroit performance. The artist not only instructs the students in what kind of movements to produce, but also attempts to bring them into his mode of thinking, making clear the power and importance of the performance. HeardŸDetroit successfully draws attention to liminal spaces and identities.

Nick Cave: Heard•Detroit from Cranbrook Art Museum on Vimeo.

The performance’s siting in Detroit reshapes understandings of a city that has been marginalized and disregarded on a national level. Subverting conceptions of a tired, post-capital Detroit, this performance creates a space for both performers and viewers to gather in a civic celebration. In addition to eliding class, race, and gender (as all of Cave’s soundsuits do), the horse forms he uses in this performance even allow the dancers to transcend the particular associations of the human body by creating a part animal- part human identity outside the limits of the rational.

Equally powerful is Cave’s use of a marching band, horses, and costumed human figures that  reference the notion of military tactics and a struggle, perhaps against societal oppression, with strong, coordinated movements on a large field. Like Cave’s twig soundsuit, this performance inhabits the space where individual identity and society overlap, contemplating social injustice and the potential for change as well as the meaning of each dancer’s relationship with the dynamic soundsuit and each audience member’s experience of the performance.

Cave emphasized that the performances really rely on the dancers’ groundedness. The soundsuits can be overwhelming, so before a performer dons one, she must sit quietly with it, look at it, perhaps touch it, and prepare herself to work with the energy inherent in the suit itself. After all, the suits carry with them an entire cosmology: Each one refers back to Cave’s initial impulse to make the twig suit, to global associations with ritual and performance, and longstanding traditions of ornamentation and fiber arts.

It’s a lot for an individual dancer to carry. And, yet, perhaps the urge to costume ourselves in a way that armors the body while also carving a space for our own voices and locating ourselves within a larger social context is not so unusual. During the conversation with Cave, Kimberly Pynder’s cell phone buzzed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s my daughter. She’s trying to work on her Halloween costume, and I’m supposed to be helping. She wants to be a spooky tree. Actually, maybe you can help with that, Nick.”

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