The impetus for the creation of the first of Nick Cave's Soundsuits was the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police in 1991, and the deadly riots that followed in reaction to the officers' acquittal. The suit was made out of twigs that Cave gathered in a park, and was intended only as a costume for a performance piece. When the artist put it on, he found that his movement was severely limited, but that something else was happening besides motion: Sound was being formed.
Cave continued creating performance pieces, and continued fabricating what eventually became known as Soundsuits; the once-accidental noise element became intentional. Using imagery found in religious ritual, the trappings of revelry, and contemporary culture, he married the visual to the aural, and has been the architect for a variety of sculptural garments that are as glorious to the ear as they are to the eye.
The Soundsuits on exhibition at the Society for Contemporary Craft are masterpieces of texture and color. They're pieced together from everything: bottle caps, fabric, sequins, plastic, hair, carnival masks, wire, bird cages and whatever objects caught the eye of the artist, whether unearthed at a flea market or plucked off the sidewalk. Inhabited, they rustle, echo, clank and clatter; empty, they entice with promises of whispered secrets. Alternately or simultaneously suggestive of ceremony, exorcism, celebration, trial and confrontation, they speak, and have volumes to say.
Their words, however, can be ambiguous. One, glistening with beading, transforms from priest to Klansman before your eyes. A joyous garden of flowers, twigs, leaves and vines can suddenly become a funeral display. And an incredible costume of hair could be straw pile, scarecrow or animal.
As much as the Soundsuits communicate, they have a stronger power: provoking desire in the viewer. It's impossible to look upon these mad constructions that shimmer or glow, erupting in unruly hues and guaranteeing something interesting under your hand should you touch them, without wanting to reach out and do exactly that. They're just so incredibly fucking tactile that it's hard not to pet them; but whiling away an afternoon at the art museum fondling the sculptures is not really so much encouraged, so you'll just have to get over that.
Moreover, the suits elicit even more irresistibly the longing to animate -- to be responsible for breathing life, and consequently, sound into them, to make them resonate through movement. Good luck on that as well.
Cave began his career in the arts as a dancer, studying with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and his visual-arts career began with costumes meant for use in performance, but fully capable of standing alone as aesthetic achievements. The same goes for the Soundsuits -- though they're completely fulfilled when occupied by a body in motion, they're just as striking when silent.
Nick Cave continues through Feb. 23. Society for Contemporary Craft, 2100 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-261-7003 or www.contemporarycraft.org
- Rustler: One of Nick Cave's Soundsuits.