Nick Cave's art practice casts a web around the disciplines of modern dance, textiles, performance, photography, and video, but the visceral reaction induced in the imagination when confronted with Cave's work is akin to looking through a kaleidoscope. The experience is less about the complex relationship between shifting color and forms, but rather how those geometric configurations were created in the first place, who managed to contained them in a small viewing object, and why their delicate construction changes depending on the viewer. The invisible structures responsible for the architecture of Cave's work may be momentarily forgotten when analyzing his spectacular, intricate, and other-worldly Soundsuits constructed of found materials that are re-born through Cave's vision and delicate hand. If not for the Soundsuits these items would serve no precise purpose; Edith Wharton would have likely labeled them as "use unknown." The semiotics inherent in Cave's work demonstrates a linguistic elasticity that create an unreal reality, providing a welcomed alternative to the traditions of textile and dance.
The word "Soundsuit" is an invention of Cave's design that describes a sculpture constructed of various materials including twigs, buttons, dyed human hair, vintage sequined material, hot pads, baskets, doilies, stuffed toy bears, and metal flowers. It steps out of the classification of sculpture, implicit of a static object that endures the test of time. Instead the Soundsuits can be worn and when activated by the human form they create sounds unique to the materials from which they are constructed. Cave explains the suits are vehicles through which to project one's personality, and each performer "brings a different kind of movement, a different kind of identity, which always keeps me curious because it's always handled and approached in a way that I might not familiar with. We are all individuals and I think that also allows this interesting space of investigation." This point of "investigation" includes the transformation of the suits from a sculptural object into a gesture of performance. The Soundsuits interact with space and demand that the performer negotiate their movements in accordance with the materials. The materials become embedded with memories that exist not in the past but in the present. Their life cycle is organic as they begin in the studio, travel the world, and return back to the artist who then sends them off to museums and private collections. Being worn day in and day out is a test of their construction, which must be constantly mended.
Not one to shy away from experimenting with materials, Cave confesses that the strangest material he ever used were his own socks that were coated in latex paint and while still wet covered with dryer lint. "It's really that mad method," he points out, "that I go through in just preparing the materials because what's important in the studio in the final conclusion of the piece is that the material does move itself through a transformation so it too becomes something other than what it was."
It's the unlikely pairing of materials that make the Soundsuits so visually arresting; James Prinz's photographs of Cave animating the suits enhance their palpable mood. One suit is a pair of pants and jacket camouflaged in a sea of colored buttons with vintage abacus masking its deep hood. Once used for performing mathematical calculations, the abacus acts a screen that inhibits peripheral vision and promotes forward motion. Another suit, which marks the beginning of Cave's investigation of the Soundsuit form, is constructed of twigs and completely buries the person inside the suit with the weight of the debris making the body fall limp. Inspired by the 1992 Rodney King Riots, the suit is shaped like a giant seesaw that perhaps speaks to the emotional turmoil of the Riots, and the overwhelming assortment of twigs that surround the head constricts movement and denies vision of the outside world. As a jubilant juxtaposition to the button and twig suits, the Soundsuit crafted from vintage sequined material that may have once been used as interior upholstery boasts a decadent patchwork that seems to celebrate the bounty of spring and an overriding joie de vivre.
All of Cave's Soundsuits are imbued with a narrative that marks the intersection of his fascination with community based festivals --like Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, Mardi Gras, and the flags of Haitian Voodoo-- with a desire to create his own mythology where a community is actively engaged in the performance and celebration of the Soundsuits. His traveling exhibition, Meet Me at the Center of the Earth, contains 50 Soundsuits, and the title of the show marks another instance of Cave's semiotics at play: "the center of the Earth" is relative to the relationship to the Soundsuits, implicating an exact destination where we are collectively and independently. Cave's fascination with the absolute commitment involved in ceremonies coupled with the magnitude of their potential influence makes his traveling exhibition a fitting gesture that looks ahead to his solo exhibitions at Jack Shainman Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery in New York, September 2011. His future plans also include work on a production in Chicago that will feature 90 of his Soundsuits.
"At the end of the day," he admits, "I want my work to be a vehicle for change and what I don't know is how it can be used in a way to unify people within a community to become an anchor and to make people validated that the matter."