At first glance, Chicago artist Nick Cave’s soundsuits are a colorful, even cheerful, spectacle. These often-wearable costumes are made of all sorts of materials — woven synthetic hair in kaleidoscopic hues of fluorescent greens and pinks, ceramic birds, glitter and bundles of twigs — and often resemble mythical fairytale creatures or sci-fi aliens. But despite their impressive appearance, these sculptures were originally born as a response to complex social and political realities. Cave, the bborn 1959 in Fulton, Missouri, created his first “soundsuit” in 1992 after the Rodney King beating. “It’s amazing how something so profound can literally change the way you think and create,” the artist said in an interview with the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.
While walking through the park, the artist intuitively began to collect branches and use them to construct an elaborate costume. When worn, the costume made its own unique sounds – and the Soundsuits were born. Over the past 30 years, Cave has created over 500 soundsuits, intricate sculptures inspired by African tribal regalia and even medieval cloaks. The artist sees these works as a kind of protective armor that veils the race, age and gender of the wearer; meanwhile, her sensual richness dazzles the viewing audience. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is currently hosting Forothermore, a survey exhibition of Cave’s artistic output, including several of his iconic soundsuits.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the creation of the first soundsuit, we decided to take a closer look at this pivotal series and found three facts that might make you see it in a more complex way.
Cave’s interest in costume began as self-expression
Cave, now director of the graduate fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, discovered his talent for transformation early on. The youngest of seven boys raised by a single mother, Cave grew up wearing used clothes. “You have to figure out how to make these clothes your own… That’s how I started using things around the house,” Cave said in a 2009 interview. Cave’s mother encouraged his creative forays and experimentation with fabrics, and the artist vividly recalls the imagination of the sock puppets she made for him. “The transition from being the sock that was just a sock to being my best friend in that moment was so tremendous and yet so easy for me as a kid. How do we get back to that innocence? How do we get back to this place of dreams?” asked the artist.
The Soundsuits recast Humble Materials in a starring role
Just as the first soundsuit was built from twigs found in a park, Cave still scours the world around him to collect the objects that make up these sculptural mixed-media costumes. Though the soundsuits may seem otherworldly, the sculptures are made from everyday materials—plastic buttons, feathers, sequins—that create a tension between the familiar and the imaginary. The artist describes the soundsuits as his way of “slamming” into a world that often devalues people based on race, sexual orientation, class, or gender. Similarly, Cave subverts traditional definitions of fine art by creating objects that lie somewhere between sculpture, fashion and performance.
“I found that this whole idea of throwing away interested me. I started collecting materials from flea markets and antique stores. And so for me, I’m taking those objects and reintroducing them and giving them a new kind of role,” Cave said in a conversation with the Museum of Modern Art. “A lot of the things that you find in a soundsuit , are things we all recognize. You know how do we see things being devalued, thrown away and giving them a different kind of relevance?”
They can also be activated by dancing
Before becoming a visual artist, Nick Cave was a dancer who trained at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This passion for dance fueled the artist as he began his career, spending hours in clubs dancing alone and working his mind through.
Over the years the artist has organized numerous performances with his soundsuits. While not all soundsuits are meant to be worn, many were made with performers in mind. In 2013, the artist choreographed the site-specific performance “NY owned‘ in collaboration with 60 dancers from the Alvin Ailey School at New York’s Grand Central Station. These special soundsuits were made from brightly colored ruffled raffia in shapes resembling life-size horses, with each costume worn by two dancers. Together, the 30 horses – a herd – referenced the use of horses for transportation by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority in the early 1900s. The performers spontaneously broke out in the famous passageway hall.
More recently, Cave has orchestrated Soundsuit performances with disadvantaged children. The sculptures, which can weigh up to 40 pounds, are designed to transport the wearer into a space of dreaming and revelation. Cave recalled trying on his first creation and said: “I was in a suit. You couldn’t tell if I was a woman or a man; if I were black, red, green or orange; from Haiti or South Africa. I wasn’t Nick anymore. I was a kind of shaman.”
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