Sound Garden: Nick Cave at the Center of the Earth

Exhibit at Boise Art Museum pushes the boundaries



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He obtained his bachelor's degree in Fine Arts at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he studied sculpture, fabric art, performance and dance. During summer breaks, he trained with Alvin Ailey dance programs in Kansas City and New York. While working on his master's degree at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, he was criticized for not being more focused on one specific art form. Apparently, such an approach was never meant to be as he has remained an artist of multiple disciplines.

Consequently, Cave's oeuvre is remarkably diverse and prolific. His interplay between art and craft makes the boundary between the two indistinguishable. The large hard-bound catalog accompanying the touring exhibit is like a catalogue raisonne of the range of Cave's artistic production over the last half-dozen years, going well beyond the scope of the exhibit at BAM.

But tellingly, and perhaps prophetically, Cave's youthful proclivities, love of movement and dance and post-graduate adventures in fashion came together in his work as an artist in an unexpected way via an act of brutality.

In 1991, the world watched the videotaped, savage beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. This violent, racial hate crime had an enormous impact on Cave, who had come close to experiencing the same thing himself, and so it induced a mix of outrage and vulnerability that cried out for a response.

The result was Cave's first soundsuit.

Wandering in the woods to contemplate this act of inhumanity and racism, he returned to his gatherer ways, collecting twigs and branches from which he created a wearable sculpture that clattered with movement. It was a provocative, uncomfortable vision to confront. Its demeanor said "stand back." Cave told an interviewer that the experience enabled him to transform emotional trauma into creative energy, that his sculpture, in part, "was an armor of sorts, protecting my spirit."

Cave backed off from the defensive-aggressive dynamic of the soundsuits for several years after the 1990s, but when he returned to them, he proved himself a gentle soul. Even though at times dark forces peek through in Meet Me at the Center of the Earth, the exhibit at BAM is as generous as it is eye opening.

Going into the exhibit is like entering some magic kingdom of the imagination where tall humanoid figures in outrageous tights sport lush vegetation, floor-length hair, and all sorts of paraphernalia, materials and playthings. Meanwhile, larger-than-life bears and smaller creatures lumber about covered with crazy quilts of mismatched woolen sweaters and swaths of fabric. Serpent-like fabric tubes writhe on the floor or crawl up mannequins obliterating any recognizable features. Glimmering, shimmering coats of sequins, buttons and a variety of faux ornamentation, the sheer volume of which is enough to produce a rhythmic clatter when set in motion, makes for a different sort of clamor, as demonstrated in several videos. As one voice-over repeats again and again: "This is a journey into sound."

The exhibit is very much an Alice-in-Wonderland experience, with its mix of playfulness and the inexplicable. Cave manages to instill his mundane, inanimate materials with a secret life empowered by contextualization and association. The fact that the implied potential movement of the sculptural pieces seems to be one of slow motion lends an air of pent-up energy threatening to cut loose, a sense reinforced by the large color photographs of individual works in dance-mode on display throughout the show.

His concerns for the animal kingdom are emphasized not only in a small gallery off BAM's Sculpture Court but throughout the exhibit. The larger-than-life bears add something of a circus element to the exhibit, especially in their unlikely costumes of stitched-together human clothes. In fact, Cave's message can be seen as a jab at our mistreatment of animals via a role-reversal whereby these creatures clothe themselves in human attire versus our dressing ourselves in theirs.

In a sense, it makes us look a little ridiculous, not them. Clearly, Cave's depiction of these imposing creatures is intended to encourage compassion toward them.

The ubiquitous priest-like creatures covered in fine, floor-length, brightly dyed human hair and decorated with abstract designs conjure the human body despite their limbless, alien otherness. The designs on their hair "suits" appear to have a ritualistic significance as they share a vague, emblematic uniformity. The duplicative effects they create in dance stamp them as representing a shaman class in this multifarious society Cave conjures from the Center of the Earth.

There is a powerful suggestion of pagan ritual in Cave's art, and the world he imagines requires intermediaries between the natural and supernatural realms to work their magic and cure our spiritual ills. He talks about creating through these figures: "hair creates an animal sensibility ... it's seductive but also a bit scary."

BAM's Sculpture Court part of the exhibit appears to underscore the role of these shamans. On the west wall are two immense tondo compositions, beautifully designed and alight with beads, sequined shapes and stellar appliques. The darker tondo on the left reads like a constellation map capturing classic mythology in a glorious night sky. The other is a more fanciful and dazzling symbolic interpretation. Both imply humanity's overlay of its imagination and vision on the eternal.

In the center of the Sculpture Court standing before the tondos are five hair-covered shamanesque figures, the personification of humankind's search for meaning in the midst of nothingness. The reverent silence there is palpable.

Cave's Center of the Earth is not simply a geophysical fact but a place for the imagination and the spirit. In the end, one cannot deny the primeval impulse that fuels Cave's project.

There is an element of animism in his aesthetic, the belief that all natural objects and phenomena--and perhaps the universe itself--possess souls, which may even exist apart from their material bodies, seeking to express themselves. Cave, I believe, is tuned into this. Perhaps it is what art is ultimately all about anyway.

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