Sounding off

Nick Cave’s wearable mash-ups
By GREG COOK  |  October 3, 2007
insideSoundsuit

Chicago artist Nick Cave (no, not the musician) remembers the Rodney King beating as a turning point in his artwork. Four white Los Angeles police officers beat King with batons after he led police on a car chase after they allegedly tried to stop him for speeding in 1991. But despite videotape showing the officers in the act, they were acquitted the following year, sparking a riot in Los Angeles that left 55 people dead.
 
“I was reading in the paper about how the police sort of brought description to him,” Cave tells me. “They were talking about this big black male figure that was bigger than life, that was mammoth-like. And I just started thinking about these words that were describing this human being, and I was like, ‘This is just fucking insane to me.’ ”
 
Cave will give a talk about the “Soundsuits” he began creating in response at the RISD Auditorium on October 10. He may also (keep your fingers crossed) perform.
 
The 48-year-old African-American artist grew up in Columbia, Missouri, and now chairs the fashion department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He trained in art and dance, made assemblage paintings, and then designed and marketed his own line of fashion for men and women and ran a retail clothing company, Robave, in Chicago for a decade. But Cave’s art world reputation comes from his “Soundsuits,” lavish, strange, beautifully-crafted outfits resembling mash-ups of African tribal ceremonial dress, Ku Klux Klan robes, Roman Catholic clergy vestments, yetis, Star Wars aliens, plumed and sequined carnival costumes, and fabulous drag queen gowns. Locals might notice a resemblance to the monstery costumes of Providence’s Forcefield collective.
 
A “Soundsuit” that the RISD Museum acquired this year and is on view there through October 11 resembles a tall fungusy rock with boney human legs. It’s made of found knit sweaters, socks, driftwood, dryer lint, and paint. The name “Soundsuit” refers to how all the surface decoration jingles and rattles when worn. The costumes are charged by their contrasting associations: African versus white supremacist, religious versus pagan, straight male warrior versus gay peacock. But they’re more than the sum of their references. They tap deep archetypes that can make them feel awesome — in the old sense of quaking in the presence of mysterious ancient powers.
 
“My first ‘Soundsuit’ was a twig-suit,” Cave recalls. “I was just sort of making a piece in response to that [Rodney King] situation. So I gathered all these twigs in the park and made this suit. I wasn’t even thinking that I could get into it. That wasn’t even on my brain. And then I made it, and then I put it on. And I was just like, ‘Oh. My. God.’ You just know when you’ve found it. And I just knew. And I thought, ‘Oh, God, am I ready to take on all of this right now.’ Because I just knew that it was a sculpture, it was this suit of armor, it was this very unfamiliar sort of territory that I wasn’t really quite sure what it meant.
 
“It was all of these things I was thinking about when I was in it,” Cave continues. “I could walk around in it and not really create a lot of gesture of movement. But then the moment I jumped in it — the clanging of those twigs against one another and this rustling sound — it just became this complete animated character. And so it was like, ‘Shit, this is just a whole new direction.’ It’s powerful, loaded and threatening, all at the same time. And yet seductive.
 
“And that’s really where it’s on the fence,” Cave notes. “That’s where it gets really kind of disturbing, because for some reason it is seductive. But at the same time you’re like, ‘hmm.’ But at the same time you’re too fascinated, captivated by that sort of power. I think we all have those elements or intentions within ourselves.”

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Related: Flashbacks: February 17, 2006, Getting to ‘no’, A living history, More more >
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