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Ian Russell April 25, 2010
Resonant Garments : The Soundsuits of Nick Cave Socks, paint, dryer lint, wood, and wool. This may seem like the most mundane list of materials, perhaps nothing more than might be found behind the washer and dryer. Contemporary Chicago artist Nick Cave reveals, however, that items such as these can be resonate with layered meanings. Cave assembles diverse found objects into ‘soundsuits’ that sculpt identity and re-figure ritual practices of the past. Cave’s soundsuits have a distinctive kind of formal slipperiness that makes them difficult to describe. They could be sculpture, couture, instrument, or ritual costume. Through combination of various materials and ambiguities of form, Cave’s soundsuits bring together evocations of many times, places, and peoples to fashion dramatic transformations of the body vibrating with vast genealogies of materiality and cultural history. One of Nick Cave’s soundsuits Soundsuit 1 (2006) is currently on display as part of the “The Figure” exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, which runs through February 2011. The exhibition itself is presented as disparate jumble of artists and approaches, which, even under the broad framework of ‘the figure’ struggles to find a cogent thread. At times, negotiating around the pieces and locating their labels is even challenging. Amongst the clumsy needlework of Tracey Emin and the over-wrought engraving by Grayson Perry, Cave’s soundsuit asserts its presence. More than any other work in the exhibition, it engages with the notion of ‘figure.’ As a sculptural object, the work Soundsuit 1 (2006), by Nick Cave. Medium: socks, represents the human figure, offering a particular interpretation of paint, dyer lint, wood, wool. In the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.
this familiar artistic subject. As clothing, the nine-foot tall suit suggests a re-definition of human form, restructuring its volume both in scale and sonic expression. The title ‘soundsuit’ suggests that the work’s exploration of the figure is at once material and aural. The material ‘suit’ quality is obvious; the sonorous quality of the work in the silence of the gallery, must be interpreted. If this suit was worn, it certainly would make noise: the driftwood would clang and click together with each movement. This literal resonance is augmented by the metaphorical echoes produced by the imaginings, recollections, and perhaps even conversations its formal and material allusions spark. From this one object many vibrations emanate: the footsteps of obscured sacred dances, the murmur of whispered oral traditions, the muffled screams of obfuscated violence recalled, the jubilant cries of carnavale, and the rhythmic pulse of the house-ball dance floor. The suit truly has its own and sound; in fact, one might say even it has its own distinctive voice. For this reason, Cave’s soundsuit truly stands out as the most powerfully articulate work in the show. Its presence—alive in the sonorous imaginings it creates—has an uncanny animacy characteristic of the entire series. In this way, Cave’s soundsuits are dense and vivid sonic palimpsests of past and present that can be worn on the body and felt by those bodies that encounter them. Nick Cave’s ability to create auratic objects from simple materials stems from his upbringing in rural Missouri in an agrarian working-class family. Interested in fashion from his youth, he began to create his own accessories from what he could find around the house. As his design-sense matured, he went on to the Kansas City Art Institute where he learned construction, received an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, and eventually opened his own store. Concurrent with his study of the body through fashion, he had become interested in dance, studying with the renowned Alvin Ailey company.1 Alvin Ailey is a modern dance company based in New York, founded in 1958 by choreographer and dancer Alvin Ailey. Its dancer’s are primarily of African American descent.
In 1992, Cave’s training in design and movement came together in his creation of his first soundsuit. After hearing of the Rodney King beating, he says “I started thinking about myself more and more as a black man—as someone who was discarded, de-veiled, viewed as less than.”2 Cave relates that while contemplating these thoughts in a local park, he noticed twigs on the earth. He collected twigs and eventually attached them to a garment structure which he could wear. Once he was within it, the soundsuit disguised his identity and re-figured his body; it restricted and directed his movement. For Nick Cave, there was freedom in this restriction. His strange clothing became a communicative articulation of a body, a self, an identity liberated from stereotype, and instead flexible, shifting, and layered. Inspired by the potential of this initial re-figuring of the body, Cave has created hundreds of soundsuits in different materials like beads, feathers, human hair, trash, sequins, and raffia. The ultimate success of the work as soundsuits, rather than simply suits, relies upon these materials. The materials which Cave chooses for his work index specific cultural and personal meanings. The twigs for example generally connote something natural, for Cave they also suggest isolation and disregard. Found objects, of which many of his suits are made, inherently have imbedded, and often obscure, stories. The purchased materials like hair and sequins are evocative of particular material relations and social systems of exchange. Cave collects all these material stories, narratives, and meanings into a garment to be worn. Through wearing these materials are, as he suggest, re-animated. By putting them ‘into play’ and giving them ‘voice’ through performance, Cave creates an expressive space for a re-appropriation and re-negotiation of their meaning. Though some suits made of sequins or dyed hair may look carnivalesque or jubilant, the soundsuits are not simple aesthetic objects. They are designed to be inherently social and political. Cave’s impetus is to uproot notions of fixed identity. As Cave has said, “I don’t really think of
Finkel, Jori. “I Dream the Clothing Electric.” NYTimes. 5 April 2009. Accessed 4 April 2010. < http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/arts/design/05fink.html>.
myself as an artist, but as a humanitarian. I’m using my work as a vehicle for change.”3 The soundsuits function as wearable sculpture and as a kind of performative text that can be read, or perhaps more aptly, heard. That text’s meaning is obscure or illegible to some extent. This is because the soundsuits are dense, overlayed with murmurings of many different meanings. Soundsuit 1 has murmurings of couture with its unusual volume and scale, Yoruban ritual through its shape, and even whisperings of the tarred black body with the black paint that mats down the fibers. All of these suggestions have associated sounds, and the suit approaches encapsulating their dense overlay in the soundscape of this one garment, which, in this way, truly has volume. Other soundsuits have echoes of Klan uniforms enmeshed with utterances of Mardi Gras Indians and clowns. Violence and jubilance merge into one form and, potentially, into one body. Generally, the suits have both unknowable and familiar evocations, and like the identity of the wearer, are released from fixed identity and definition. These are not decipherable pieces. Soundsuits are meant to be sensed viscerally. As Cave says himself in his artist profile, he works to make work where my ability to make objects come alive is…a testament to my ability to have things resonate with their past history and usages alongside my personal through opaque meanings. I want my work to open up vistas to many cultures (including our own), explore a wide range of materials and formal approaches and look inwardly as it examines personal and cultural identity in relation to the world.4 His re-designs reform the contemporary body through a collage of past contexts making it speak a different (body) language. The language of Cave’s soundsuits may be foreign, but they speak effectively through their evocations of affect. They recall emotional, sensual experience, which translates to the viewer. When encountered, produce intense experiences that draw the viewer into a multivalent discourse.
Huston, Johnny Ray. “A Q&A with Nick Cave.” Pixel Vision. 9 April 2009. San Franciso Bay Guardian. Accessed 4 April 2009. < http://www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision/2009/04/09/qa-nick-cave>. Cave, Nick. “Profile.” Art Institute of Chicago. 2010. Accessed 4 April 2009. < http://www.saic.edu/gallery/saic_profile_faculty.php?type=Faculty&album=461>.
The suggestive material and particular expression in performance of the suits is suggestive of many historical embodied traditions, like African ritual, chattelry, and festivities. Simultaneously, through those same materials and performative uses, the suits are redolent of contemporary popular body cultures like S&M, drag, carnavale, and hip hop. The suits speak many languages, both past and present, currently. Through these complex articulations, Cave’s soundsuits say something, quite audible but not always understandable, about the perpetually re-fashioning of the self, of race, of culture through embodied practice. While each soundsuit offers a different narrative through its materials and shape, as a corpus of work they suggest that clothing design can be used to manipulate, alter, and change perception and embodiment of heritage. By appropriating past practices, forms, shapes and combining them with contemporary materials, Nick Cave’s soundsuits use design to re-define the present. In recent years, Cave has recognized that this power to re-define is profoundly galvanized through performance. He currently presents nearly all of his work through dance and performative happenings. These performances mobilize the voice of his garments, bringing them out of the gallery and into unexpected places. These performances add a powerful social charge of the works, activating these embodied re-designs in spaces and places, on bodies and in relation to them. Whether still or moving on a human body, Nick Cave’s sound suits set a specific and expressive politic in motion through the sensual impact it makes on the viewer. As audiences stand enraptured by these resonant garments they are pushed to confront how bodies and their display are designed in daily life. Through the resonances of his soundsuits, Cave ultimately communicates that we always already perform our pasts. We already wear the dense complexity of our cultural histories externally, and are formed by them internally. We already appropriate the mundane, the contemporary, and the unexpected for these functions. His soundsuits simply make this visible and
audible with their powerful presence.
Cave, Nick. “Profile.” Art Institute of Chicago. 2010. Accessed 4 April 2009. <http://www.saic.edu/gallery/saic_profile_faculty.php?type=Faculty&album=461>. Finkel, Jori. “I Dream the Clothing Electric.” NYTimes. 5 April 2009. Accessed 4 April 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/arts/design/05fink.html>. Huston, Johnny Ray. “A Q&A with Nick Cave.” Pixel Vision. 9 April 2009. San Franciso Bay Guardian. Accessed 4 April 2009. < http://www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision/2009/04/09/qa-nickcave>.
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