The Soundsuits by Chicagoan Nick Cave (not the rock star) are the dazzling mutant offspring of disco, Bigfoot, Teletubbies, African and Caribbean carnival costumes, troll dolls, flea markets, Wookiees, and cheerleader pompons. They're literally suits: tall costumes that loom over you like daunting giant monsters, like fabulously armored warriors, like blow-your-mind Rio carnival dancers. The sound part refers to the noise they might make if they danced about, but the three on view in his showcase at the Peabody Essex Museum are silent, frozen mannequins.
One Soundsuit here is a tower of wildly patterned lumps — that slowly reveal themselves as crocheted hats and bags — plus a knit bullseye face. Another is a white suit covered with a sparkling skin of buttons. Its face is obscured behind a found funeral wreath decorated with beaded wire flowers. The third is a skintight costume embroidered with pinwheel designs. Its head is hidden in what looks like a tree cobwebbed with necklaces. Porcelain birds perch on each limb. A vintage gramophone horn extends down from the tangle as a sort of mouth.
A happy music video shows people in pompon Soundsuits dancing and leaping and rolling around a seamless white space to club music. More interesting is separate footage of a gang of eight or so of these fluorescent pompon people wandering around downtown Chicago, carnival masks ominously hiding the performers' faces, and what they're thinking. The videos, though, are disappointing — more prosaic, less otherworldly than the suits here. And they don't highlight how the Soundsuits sound.
Cave, an Alvin Ailey–trained dancer, says the Soundsuits were originally a reaction to monstrous descriptions police put forth of Rodney King after they infamously beat him. That, in part, is the source of the sinister undercurrent running through the costumes, through the hidden faces, channeling white America's racist caricatures of scary black men. But the costumes are also a sort of armor against the world, and a vision of wondrous possibilities.
The museum reports that these are among the last Soundsuits Cave intends to create, after making more than 500 since the early 1990s. They're one of the landmark projects of the past decade. So how come this show feels frustrating? Cave's art is so incredible that to have just three of his costumes here is a tease.
"FREEPORT [NO. 006]: NICK CAVE" :: Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St, Salem :: 978.745.9500 :: pem.org :: Through May 27