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September 28, 2012 8:46 pm
It’s a stifling hot Saturday in August and artist Nick Cave is on day four of a film shoot featuring the highly inventive wearable sculptures he calls Soundsuits. Cave, his smooth dark skin set off by a grey goatee and the shortest of grey hair, is a picture of calm as he quietly instructs four male dancers encased head-to-toe in Soundsuits at a Chicago production studio.
As if the heavy, button-encrusted costumes weren’t hard enough to negotiate, the Soundsuits mask the men’s faces, two with abacuses, another with an old-fashioned washboard, and the fourth with fabric that stretches in the shape of a giant dagger several feet above the head. The only body parts exposed are the men’s hands and heels.
The scene calls for the cast to interact with a complex combination of physicality and emotion. “It’s these individuals caged within these worlds, trying to find a way to break out, and they cannot,” Cave explains. “At the same time, they’re trying to find a way to exist within these worlds.”
With the grace of a trained dancer, Cave mimes the tender curiosity, the yearning to connect, tinged with fear and aggression, that he wants to convey. “You’re going to be like a shark,” he tells the dagger. “You’re going to swim it out in big motions. Use your arms to guide you,” he says, demonstrating with fluid, backward strides.
The camera rolls and the dancers improvise, rattling buttons, scratching the washboard and jingling the beads on the abacuses – producing the sound effects advertised by the artworks’ name – as the occasional errant button rolls on the floor. Cave betrays little emotion but his assessment of the tentative performance is easy to ascertain. After the director yells “Cut!”, Cave quietly benches two dancers, recasting Tucker Worley, a performer who Cave said “tore it up” in a solo piece earlier that morning, as an abacus. When the dagger Soundsuit appears on the set again, it is Cave himself inside it.
The second take is markedly different. Worley scurries around like a panicked animal, while Cave explodes with a provocative energy that verges on violence, frantically scraping and jumping up against the white wall and even knocking into other performers with his dagger head.
“We do what we need to do,” Cave says a few minutes later, during the lunch break. “It’s not about whether feelings are hurt or not, it’s what you have to do to get the piece.”
And Cave, who has commanded the art world’s attention with work that hits major trends from performance and a focus on the body to the resurgence of craft and the use of common objects, knows what he needs. Serving as his own house model, he tries on every Soundsuit and is intimately familiar with each example’s unique way of moving and creating noise, whether it’s rustling raffia or the gentle tinkling of a child’s jack-in-the-box.
Cave made his first Soundsuit, of twigs, in 1992, in reaction to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. “It is about similarities and differences and communicating without speaking,” he says of his oeuvre. The references have since multiplied, touching on ceremonial dress, skin and ethnic rituals.
With such deep background, “I was able to get into the suit because I’ve done it,” he says simply. In addition to being the designer, “I’m also the teacher, the choreographer and the director, so I have to be able to verbalise my experience. You may feel claustrophobic, trapped. How do you translate that?”
A few days later in his Printers Row headquarters, Cave seems recovered from shooting eight films in five days, the last with a cast of 100 in the alley behind his building. His default mode appears to be one of calm confidence. The new film series is destined for a show in Lille, France, opening on October 6.
Cave’s three studios are troves of everything from vintage sweaters to plastic toy horses. One looks like the storeroom of a tchotchke factory, with shelf after shelf of kitschy china birds, cats, dogs and suchlike awaiting placement on intricate metal frameworks that can be stand-alone sculptures or worn in performances. Cave likes to have options.
A typical Saturday has him and a friend driving four hours from the city in a given direction and hitting every flea market and antiques shop on their way back. “It’s not like I know what I want,” Cave says. He’d seen washboards, for instance, for years before figuring out they would “provide an amazing framework for ideas around isolation”.
“Yet at the centre of all this is the body,” he says in his large, airy apartment upstairs from the studios.
Cave arrived at his current status through an unconventional route. After an underprivileged childhood in central Missouri – he is the third of seven sons – he entered the Kansas City Art Institute, where his interest in using the body as a vehicle led him to learn to sew and to study dance with Alvin Ailey. He resisted his own professors’ push for him to specialise in one medium. “I struggled with it for a long time – where do I fit in?” Now he revels in his individuality, including his decision to live in Chicago, away from art’s white-hot centres. “I have my own agenda,” he says.
Textiles were always a preferred medium, though, and he staged his first parade – 50 people adorned in his printed fabrics – at the age of 19. He owned a store for 10 years and now heads the fashion department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he has taught for more than 20 years.
His artistic fascination lies with the connection between clothing and movement. “I’m not a conventional designer,” he says, though the fashion world, too, is in his thrall. Both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar have constructed layouts around him.
Back at the shoot after the lunchbreak, Cave has one last piece to shoot before finishing for the day. His dance wrangler had recruited a team of male gymnasts, along with their coach and the dancers from the morning’s performances, to don Soundsuits covered in long strands of raffia in a riot of colours. Cave wanted them to traverse a course of 14 rings dangling from the soundstage’s rafters. Short and broad-shouldered, as gymnasts are wont to be, the men looked a little like cheerleading pom-poms on steroids as they coated their hands in chalk and, one at a time, climbed a ladder to reach the rings. The set was growing hotter and stuffier – Cave had ordered the air conditioning shut off because the din was obscuring the subtle audio emanating from the Soundsuits.
The gymnasts started across. Amid the swishing of raffia, some finished, others got bunched together, and a few gave up and dropped to mats on the floor. Cave did not consider the falls mistakes. He found the struggle compelling. “I just want them to fall and run it out, or roll it out,” he instructed before the next take. “It’s all part of it. I don’t need it to be cleaned up. It is what it is. That’s the beauty of it.”
‘Fantastic 2012’, Lille3000, October 6-January 13. jackshainman.com
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