Honoured to travel with the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, I had the opportunity to lunch and look into Nick Cave’s eyes last week.
What struck me besides an incredible kindness, was the intensity of those eyes. They translate his double vision of the world perfectly: how intensely he sees and feels the divides plaguing our society and how resolute he is to shake this, with a dance and many Soundsuits.
First of all, why on Earth does this lovely man declares loving wearing his Soundsuits, as a place where he feels safe, where he can hide, where he can see the world without being seen, be judged or threatened?
Some of you may have watched the movie Wonder (my kids studied the books in 4th grade and we refer to it a lot) in which a young boy born with a rare facial deformity only feels “normal” and able to “fit in” on Halloween, this being the only day when he does not have to bear the cruel gaze of others and it is ok to wear a mask…or a soundsuit.
This deformation affects 1 in 40,000 to 1 in 70,000 births: it is a terrible genetic injustice…so how come our society feels the need to burden millions of people, people of color, people of various sexual orientations, making them feel like they are better off hiding and avoiding being noticed at all cost?
What puzzled me with Nick Cave was that even though he may hide his identity when wearing a soundsuit, these suits are not quite the kind of dress to make you invisible or go unnoticed, Halloween or not.
I asked him about that and yes, in his mind, the push/ pull effect is constant: a soundsuit may be a hiding device but it screams “look at me” because becoming invisible is not an option nor a solution.
Nick Cave’s soundsuits may be suits of armour but they all speak of personality and individuality. All made in a variety of materials, they also talk of the painful hours of work these shields require.
Some made of toys, others stitched with recycled old sweaters, they may appear very autobiographical and comforting.
Some are elaborately embroidered on the front but worn out at the back, a metaphor for all of us showing a bright face when actually we are crumbling inside.
Many soundsuits have a target instead of a head: spiralling out to the world, spiralling into who we are but mostly referring to the social profiling Nick Cave denounces in a poetically crafted performance act and art.
For Nick Cave, it all started with Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD in 1991. As a black man, this tragic event made him feel the need to protect himself, to hide his identity, to shield his being within a protective envelope: that is how and why the first Soundsuit was created. How sad that Nick Cave’s art was unfortunately not isolated then, nor now.
Remember my post about Howardena Pindell? For her then, punching holes became key to achieving a grounding force, to make sense of how she – and we all – fit as small pieces (small hole-punched dots) within the wider universal frame we live in.
Through her art, she remakes a social fabric where tolerance reinserts and stitches members of all colors and genders back together.
For Mark Bradford now, more recent events such as Fernando Castile being shot four times in his car by police officers under the eyes of his girlfriend and toddler girl, unfortunately provide abundant material to be thread into his incredibly layered Portrait Tone 150.
Part of LACMA’s collection, the title refers to the color code for the pink or flesh color seen throughout the painting but which, obviously, would not apply to paint Philando Castile’s skin color.
With these incredibly talented artists, the techniques are as layered as the subject matter, and so it goes with Nick Cave soundsuits: not only are they painfully long to make, they take ages to put on, as witnessed during his Let Go performance.
Within the surreal setting of an old armory, incredibly moving voices from Sing Harlem Choir are given the opportunity to shine and rise. Nick Cave hires from communities, uncovers talents in the process and brings them on stage to put on an unforgettable show: on until July 1st at the Park Avenue Armory.
As the choir sings of hope and never giving up, fighting to be seen for who we are, a group of men are stoically helped to get dressed and built into soundsuits made of colorful mylar – those rainbow glittering threads which can only put one giant smile on your face.
The time it takes to fully transform, to reach a time, a place where all signs of identity are sufficiently covered by a rainbow of colors is incredibly moving. I wondered if dancing would be on the cards.
The weight of countless weightless elements must add up, in the same way each derogatory comment, lack of respect or full blown insult do. Would there be too much bulk? A lack of visibility?…Oh no, dance they did! Expressing the joy of being free, never to be judged…fully letting go!
And the beauty of it is how contagious this was as the audience joined in after…Dancing together, forgetting gender, race and all the divides!
Before leaving, seeing the Soundsuits pieces all packed up ready for the next performance, neatly displayed within the formal rooms of Park Avenue Armory proves to be another stroke of genius…
Because the guns that the Armory still stands for are the big underlying issue all along yet Nick Cave’ Soundsuits give the old Armory space a big run for its money. Nick Cave’s message is loud and clear: colors and art fight guns.
On stage, backstage and at the art gallery, Nick Cave fights back with a song, a dance and the magical Tondos at Jack Shainman gallery.
Superimpositions of extreme weather patterns with brain scans from black youth affected by gun violence, these tondos once more show the underlying target of racial profiling yet the colorful rainbow fur prevails.
It spirals out to your eyes and layers your brain: rest assured, Nick Cave will keep on finding colorful ways to fight for change.
The Let Go is on at Park Avenue Armoury until July 1, 2018.
Nick Cave’stondos are part of his Weather or Not show, on view at Jack Shainman Gallery until June 23, 2018.
My heartfelt thanks to Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego for this unforgettable experience with Nick Cave.
Learn more about the art of Howardena Pindell here and Mark Bradford here.
© 2018 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.