(Sound)suit Up!

Pushing the Palette Knife
Let the wild rumpus start!
Let the wild rumpus start! // Creative Commons

Artist-dancer Nick Cave’s wild creations have found their newest home at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Boston, where they will remain until May 4. The Chicago-based artist rose to fame with his Soundsuits, full-body costumes made up of castoff objects from antique shops and flea markets. The suits overtake the body with their metallic, furry, flowery, sparkly materials, and transform humans into something unrecognizable. They are somewhere between beast and machine, but certainly not anything you have seen before. They are displayed as individual pieces and, in video recordings as well as in live performances, dancers animate them to a variety of musical genres. By reintroducing the human element, the artists reveal new properties of the materials in their movements.

You may recognize Nick Cave’s work from his HEARD NY installation at Grand Central Station last spring. There, he installed 30 wildly colored horses that broke into choreographed dance twice a day. Cave is both an accomplished dancer — trained at the prestigious Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre — and a student of fashion and art. Since 1990, he has been a professor and the chair of fashion design at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago. And Cave’s background reflects the nature of his creations: Much of his work lies at the intersection of movement and material.

His show at the ICA, Boston pushes the boundaries of art even further — if imaginable — beyond his radically restructured suits. The Soundsuits still do appear, but he has added new assemblage pieces to his repertoire. These freestanding structures highlight Cave’s shift in focus to a new type of form, one that is liberated from the confines of molding to the human body. Here, he employs the same techniques as for his Soundsuits, but plays even more on the history of his materials. He uses dog figurines in one sculpture, claiming to have rescued them from a flea market, just as discarded dogs are rescued from shelters. However, Cave’s use of “rescued” is an understatement, and the verb “coronated” better describes these pieces. The life-sized dogs are each enthroned on a plush couch, surrounded by a delicate floral canopy. Interested in blending time periods and cultures, Cave says these sculptural pieces merge the dogs in Renaissance painting with the “dawgs” in hip hop culture.

The show also features large bas-relief sculptures that Cave calls paintings. These works, though devoid of the Soundsuit human motion element, still jump off the wall. Each large relief is framed, but the contents, composed of the same materials as his other work, spill out over all four edges. They refuse to obey the barriers imposed upon them, and channel Rodin’s Gates of Hell. The subjects of Rodin’s massive bronze relief climb from one panel to another and, when the piece was created, it revolutionized relief style by breaking through neatly partitioned barriers.

Like Rodin, Cave charges immobile art with movement. These “paintings” are a return to his earlier work, before Soundsuits. However, these new creations are visibly informed by his experience with performance art. They appear alive, growing and slithering beyond their allotted space. One massive eight by 24 foot triptych is a garden plot — a landscape. But a layer of found crystals spreads across the garden’s surface, representing the frost that hinders growth in early spring. Though spring is a time of rebirth, these crystals are an almost sinister reminder of the obstacles that hamper any sort of renewal.

Though Cave’s loud and bright creations provoke happiness and excitement, their origins are rather gloomy. He created his first Soundsuit in response to the Rodney King beating in 1992. He describes this first piece as armor. The Soundsuits hide everything about who is inside: gender, class, race. Only after trying his suit on did Cave realize his movement in it could produce sound. This made him think of the importance of protesting — motion and sound combined to effect change. In this vein, Cave uses his art as an instrument of social reform, transforming recognizable bodies and materials into something beyond our preconceived judgments.

Cave’s artwork pulls me in, but I don’t know why. There is something so relatable about what is profoundly foreign — almost extraterrestrial. He wants to appeal to his international audience while also forcing them to question the many hats — or perhaps suits — that everyone wears in daily life. Each work is a paradox of competing forces. Though his Soundsuits take human form, they look more like an inanimate object than a body. Yet, he animates them through dance, and restores the grace of human motion to the things we have left — in antique shops and flea markets — for Cave to pick up.

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