Voice and resistance in Nick Cave’s Soundsuits

All images: Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2015, mixed media including gramophone horn, ceramic birds, metal flowers, strung beads, fabric, metal and mannequin, 284.5 x 150 x 122 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Nick Cave, courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photo: NGC


Nick Cave is an established contemporary artist who lives and works in Chicago where he is also Chair of the Fashion Design program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His Soundsuits are an expressive series of figurative sculptures that can be worn and performed. They are at once a space of safety and privacy, an insulating layer of accumulated materials and meanings that shield the wearer from the outside world. At the same time, they project up and out past the limits of the body, claiming space for the potential performer or the imagined character within. Both of these functions inherently relate to the position of the Black body in North America – as simultaneously vulnerable and resolutely present.


Cave, a gay Black man, has revealed that the impetus for creating the first suit, made of sticks and twigs that rustled when they moved, came from his reaction to the 1991 beating of the unarmed Rodney King by four white police officers in Los Angeles. At that time Cave felt the need for a layer of protection, and imagined the suit as a kind of “second skin, or a suit of armor” which “erases gender, race, and class.” Curator and author Nato Thompson quotes the artist in Nick Cave: Epitome as he reflects on that period: “I remember thinking that my identity is really only protected in the privacy of my own home. That the moment I leave this space, I could be just another profile.” Today, these words unfortunately echo all the more urgently, underlining the relevance of Cave’s project in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and ongoing state violence towards racialized populations in both the US and Canada.


Cave has continued to produce Soundsuits with materials ranging from antique toys, keepsakes and collectables, beads, buttons, balloons, pipe cleaners and seasonal decorations, pompoms, quilts, and brightly-coloured hair or faux fur– a sensorial array of adornments all elegantly and extravagantly condensed into single sculptures. Many of these materials belong to the realm of craft, kitsch, or folk, while the forms of the suits evoke the outfits and celebrations of Mardi Gras parades, drag performance, and shamanistic or ritual costumes. The performative aspect of these works is essential to their meaning and value; Cave regards his Soundsuits as potentially transformative objects with life-affirming potential when they are worn.


Cave’s 2015 Soundsuit, which is included in the 2017 Canadian Biennial (and its lead image), makes the connection to ‘sound’ even more explicit, and features a large, blue gramophone in the place of the figure’s face. A swirling nest of toy songbirds, beads and flowers extend chandelier-like around its head and give form to the cacophonous and joyful voice we might imagine emanating from the wearer of this particular suit. While the playfulness of its colours and sparkling textures evoke a celebratory and opulent feel, this ‘amplified’ suit also remains firmly connected to the political impetus behind the work. As Cave described during his 2015 talk in Ottawa, upon hearing the sound of the first suit, he “…started to think about the role of protest. In order to be heard, you have to speak louder.”

The fourth edition of the Canadian Biennial is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until 18 March 2018. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, available from ShopNGC.ca. See Nick Cave’s interviews at Art Talk: An Interview with Nick Cave at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and with Jonathan Shaughnessy at the National Gallery of Canada’s ‘Contemporary Conversations’.


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