A talented sculptor and performance artist, Nick Cave is celebrated for his larger-than-life Soundsuits, which blur the boundaries between art, fashion and dance, as well as his found object assemblages that cleverly comment on American culture and consumerism. The subject of multiple museum shows, public projects and publications, Cave recently took time out of his demanding schedule to talk to FLATT contributing editor Paul Laster about his point of departure and current work that takes issue of race to a completely new end.
PAUL LASTER: How did you come up with the idea for your Soundsuit sculptures?
NICK CAVE: The first one was inspired by the 1992 Rodney King incident, which provoked a shift in my work. The incident was so profound to me that I started to think what does that look like. Being a black male, who is ripe for profiling, is how I’m viewed in the world. I started to consider what it means to be discarded, being less than, to be dismissed, and I happened to be in a park. I looked down and saw a twig and I literally started gathering all of the twigs off the ground, brought them to the studio and proceeded to build an object without realizing that I could physically put it on.
Once I saw that I could wear it, I discovered that moving in it generated sound. That was the initiator that started to really change my body of work. Then sound led me to think about the role of protest, to be heard you have to speak louder, so it just kept unfolding and providing me with an amazing vehicle to use. When I put it on, my identity, race, and class were removed from the viewer. To respond to something without judgment we want to find that locator to identify things in the world. It kept evolving into these hybrid objects.
PAUL LASTER: How many varieties are there?
NICK CAVE: Oh my God, no one’s ever asked me that question. Probably 30 in terms of forms, but each one is one of a kind, so there are never two that are alike. Variety-wise, there could be over 500.
PAUL LASTER: What are you looking at as sources of inspiration or points of departure for them?
NICK CAVE: The impulse around the work is just me scouting around outside the studio. My resources are really right outside my door. That means frequenting the flea markets and antique malls. What I’ve been doing over the past four years is flying to a distant city, such as Washington DC, and then renting a cargo van. Then we scout the flea markets, yard sales, and shops all the way back to Chicago. This process has also introduced me to new bodies of work and ways of working that I’m just starting to show.
It’s always an object that triggers another way for me to think, another direction to move in, and I’m really not sure what that’s going to be until I see it. When we’re flea-marketing there are always the standard things I’m seeking, but I always remain open to new impulses.
PAUL LASTER: When did you first develop this fascination with found objects?
NICK CAVE: I think it’s always been part of my DNA. Being raised by a single mother with seven boys, all one year apart. It started with hand me downs, which I had to reinvent in order to identify myself with a garment that was never mine from the start. I think it’s me trying to look at something and find a voice or language within the object.
PAUL LASTER: When did performance enter the picture?
NICK CAVE: Performance has always been a part of it. In high school, I was involved in theatre and dance and art. I was studying at the Kansas City Institute of the Arts and took my first class in dance at the University of Kansas with an Alvin Ailey program. I’ve always looked at dance as another medium to consider— not as a career, but really as another discipline, another approach for the work. Collaboration started when I was around 16. I went to a public school where we had fashion shows and talent shows. I was already working amongst a group of people or putting a collaborative team together—I’ve always had that ability to work in that way. As I got to college I started to look at ideas of procession and parading. I constructed things to be worn in a procession through the plaza in Kansas City with a group of 30 friends. Movement has always been an important part of my language.
PAUL LASTER: Are there Soundsuits that are only used in performances?
NICK CAVE: It’s quite distinctive as to whether or not it’s a sculptural object or a performance piece. The difference is that when it’s a sculptural object the material can be a lot more forgiving and I can be more sensitive and fragile with it, but in performance I really have to think about the logistics, the wear and tear and stress on the material. It changes how we approach it in the studio. I’m very curious about the characteristics of a Soundsuit on the body. What is the weight of it? What are the restrictions and limitations built within the piece? How do I respond to movement based around these obstacles? I never know theoretically how one can move in it until someone puts it on. Each person responds differently to wearing it. There are always interesting learning curves, without definitive conclusions.
PAUL LASTER: Are the performances choreographed or freeform?
NICK CAVE: It’s a combination of both. Between dance and movement, I’m more interested in movement. It really depends on what the narrative is around the work. It also depends on whether it’s a 20-minute performance piece, an invasion, a 5-minute procession leading an audience into something. It varies.
PAUL LASTER: What’s the idea behind the rescue dog series?
NICK CAVE: Again, it was a case of me being at a flea market, where I found this ceramic Doberman. I liked it because of the way that it was painted and built. The piece had an early-colonial style. It was really interesting looking and not totally realistic yet still real looking. I found him and I said out loud that I needed to find a settee that he could sit on. My friends thought I was crazy. They said OK, we’ll find one at the flea market and you know what? We did. The thing that’s interesting for me right now is that I’m discovering that I’m building a lot of work right on the spot. I will call out what I need and by the end of our journey we will have found it. Not just it, but the exact thing! The rescue pieces really are going back to sticks—the notion of reclaiming or repurposing materials and renegotiating the role of surplus. I also started looking at the role of dogs in 19th century painting and then started breaking it down into breeds and mutts, which allowed me to speak about the broader levels of class. And then there’s the notion of you’re my dog (bringing it to an urban place) or the idea of dog as protector, dog as a guardian—things of that sort.
PAUL LASTER: Are you building nests around them? It’s interesting when you talk about the Soundsuits starting with your picking up a stick in a park and then picking up more sticks. It made me think about how the assemblage around the figures is almost like a nest.
NICK CAVE: Yeah, but I’m creating dens. I’m thinking about my own dog. In terms of comfort, dogs tend to go into small dwellings. I’m also creating these dens filled with a certain sense of opulence, especially for those toy dogs that fashionable women carry in bags— the glam of all of that.
PAUL LASTER: What are some of the strangest objects that you’ve employed for making a piece?
NICK CAVE: My latest work finds me working backwards to deconstruct what’s behind the Soundsuits, which tends to be more about me as a black male in society, along with the oppression and the despairing conditions that are layered on top of it. I was at a flea market and came across an amazing, ceramic head of a screaming black man. When I pulled it off the shelf I read the label and the label read ‘spittoon.’ I flipped out. I was in a state of disbelief and shock. I was like ‘Oh, my God. You have to be kidding me.’
That set me on a 90-degree shift for my next series of work for my show in New York. I proceeded to travel the entire United States creating a mapping system and all of this data looking for the most oppressive, the most insulting, disparaging black memorabilia you could imagine. Of course, there are the black mammy salt and pepper shakers, but they’re a bit more passive. It’s not the same as if you find a mahogany carved piano stool of a black man holding up the seat.
The show was titled Made by Whites for Whites and the work is really, really intense. The objects are extraordinary in the most appalling way. I’m reintroducing them back into society while speaking about the fact that we’re looking at racial consumerism. These are products that have been produced and that they were also signifiers placed in the world for us to identify our place in society. It’s quite intriguing.
PAUL LASTER: Is there something transformative that happens when you repurpose these objects?
NICK CAVE: Yes, definitely. Every piece has been elevated to some degree. Each work is accompanied by a data sheet that tells where it was found, the date, who made it (if we can identify that) and a description of what it is.
PAUL LASTER: What’s the message that you hope the viewer will take away?
NICK CAVE: I don’t ever recall, in my sort of upbringing, a conversation around the domestic object and its association to racism. I really want that kind of conversation to take place. I’m not blaming anyone, but if I’m buying these things then they are out there in the world. This propaganda continues to feed our minds. I want people to be aware of it.
PAUL LASTER: In another context, your art could be associated with folk art. Do you feel an affinity to self-taught artists?
NICK CAVE: I pay attention to the work’s relationship to a lot of things and I want there to be this level of naivety. My studio practice is very structured, but at the same time I really don’t want rules and boundaries. How do you keep it authentic? I think that’s really what I’m after.