At AMOA-Arthouse, Nick Cave’s artistic Soundsuits inventively address identity
Nick Cave’s Soundsuits are instantly, viscerally compelling.
People passing by AMOA-Arthouse’s Jones Center on Congress Avenue, where Cave’s exhibit “Hiding in Plain Sight” is now on view, stop in surprise when they see the human-size art costumes prominently displayed in the center’s street-level windows.
Cave’s ornate Soundsuits are made of common material — faux fur, buttons, sequins, synthetic hair, pieces of knitted sweaters or crocheted caps or even twigs. But their uncommon profiles — topped with towering or bulbous heads — demand attention.
Cave — who heads the fashion design program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — has called his Soundsuits “armor, a second skin.”
Aesthetically, Cave’s Soundsuits are grounded in myriad influences, from Mardi Gras Indian costumes to African tribal dress, from Chinese opera masks to Italian commedia dell’arte attire.
Personally for Cave, however, the Soundsuit comes from a much more specific place.
He made his first in response to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police. Cave, who is African-American, had just moved to Chicago, and the repeated footage of King’s beating had a profound effect as he began to think about moving through a new city.
Ruminating on racial profiling, identity and public image, Cave, who has long used found materials for his art-making, began gathering twigs in a Chicago park, then assembled them into a garment. And then he tried it on. It made sound, the twigs clattering lightly as he moved.
That first Soundsuit, Cave has said, thus became a kind of personal armor for the black man — an artistically empowering disguise that subverts stereotyping, invites attention and acts as a playful camouflage.
Though he studied art at the Kansas City Art Institute, Cave also trained for a period with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and the connection the Soundsuits have to the body and to movement is undeniable. The Soundsuits utterly transform a body, letting its wearer masquerade and visually and aurally morph into something else.
“In order to be heard, you’ve got to speak louder,” Cave told an interviewer earlier this year. “I thought about the body as an alarm system that could go off any second.”
At the artist’s instigation, dancers have donned Cave’s costumes for flash mob-type street performances. Earlier this year, as part of a residency at North Texas State University, Cave worked with students to create “Heard,” a performance featuring about a dozen horse-like costumes made of brightly colored synthetic raffia.
A short film of various Soundsuit performances screens at the Jones Center as part of the Austin exhibit, which is not large — just seven Soundsuits are on display, along with a few of Cave’s mixed-media paintings.
Nevertheless, the installation at the Jones Center takes great advantage of the fact that the building was once Lerner’s Department Store. With a couple of the Soundsuits displayed so prominently in the first-floor windows, the suits function as art objects and costumes and even a kind of fashion statement.
Cave visited Austin recently to give a talk at the University of Texas that attracted a crowd of more than 300.
Raised in Missouri in a large family of modest means, Cave recalled how he entertained himself as a child by collecting what materials he could and making all manner of imaginative things.
“I was raised by a single parent,” he said. “We couldn’t afford watercolors or acrylics, so I was creative. I think that’s the beauty. You don’t need a lot to make something.”
“Nick Cave: Hiding in Plain Sight”