On Wednesday evening, artist Nick Cave spoke at the Granoff Center, kicking off the Brown Arts Initiative’s brand new Warren and Allison Kanders Lecture Series. The series will bring four contemporary artists to Brown each year in an effort to open a dialogue on campus about contemporary art and its impact on today’s world. This first lecture was sold out within days of opening, and was highly attended both by members of the Brown community and the general public.
Nick Cave, Wednesday’s guest of honor, is not only an artist, but also a dancer and performer. He is best known for his “Soundsuits,” which are ornate and whimsical wearable sculptures made of found objects—anything from yarn to twigs to hair—and are both shown as pieces of art and incorporated into performances. Before Cave was introduced, the audience was shown a screening of his recent short film “Up Right: Detroit,” in which young people from Detroit are dressed in Cave’s Soundsuits and then brought back out into the city, utterly transformed. This film introduced us to Cave’s focus on issues of identity, especially those of race, gender, and violence.
Three of Cave’s Soundsuits
After the screening, the conversation was led by Denise Markonish, the chief curator at Mass MoCA, where Cave recently had an installation. To open the talk, Markonish asked Cave to explain how he got to where he is today, to which he responded that his original inspiration for becoming an artist was Michael Jackson. As a young boy, Cave identified with Jackson’s energy, and was inspired by the emotional effect that art could have on people. Cave went on to attend college and then graduate school in Bloomfield, Michigan, where upon arrival, he experienced total culture shock when he found that he was one of the only minority students. Studying in Bloomfield, Cave began to dedicate his work to his experience of race.
Cave’s focus on issues of race and violence continued when he created his first Soundsuit in 1992 as a reaction to the beating of Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots. He explained that what began as a mere collection of twigs turned into so much more when he put the suit on his body and noticed that the sounds it made seemed to connect to the role of protests in society, while the suit itself represented the masking of identity. In a later show, titled, “Made for Whites by Whites,” Cave furthered his use of found objects, seeking out the most racially offensive items he could find and using them in his artwork. To Cave, this repurposing was a form of power. However, when no one would review the show, it became clear that even the art world was still divided and political.
A few years ago, Cave was asked to do a show at Mass MoCA, but with a catch—he could not use a single Soundsuit. At first, he was unsure how to fill the massive space, but knew he needed to continue to shed light on the racial rift in our society, as tensions were swirling in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, among others. When asked about his inspiration for the show, Cave began to tear up. “Is there racism in heaven?” was a question central to the creation of the installation. He used this prompt to create a show that could both stand alone as a powerful experience—one that was supposed to make the viewer feel as if they were actually within a Soundsuit—and could also be used as a performance space for other artists. Incorporating the aspect of collaboration into his shows has allowed Cave to spread his message more effectively, and he plans to continue down this path in the future. Cave sees himself not only as an artist, but also a messenger for the issues he is passionate about, and this certainly came across in his presentation as it does in his work.
Nick Cave’s Exhibition “Until” at Mass MoCA