February 3 is the birthday of Nick Cave: dancer, artist, and creator of the popular and awe-inspiring Soundsuits. These colorful and dramatic costumes are designed by Cave to be worn and performed in, yet they also serve as stand-alone works of sculptural art, rich with detail and intrigue. Crystal Bridges holds two of Cave’s Soundsuits in our permanent collection: one bristling with an assortment of noise-making tin toys; the other covered top to toe with hundreds of loosely-attached buttons which you can imagine clattering together if the suit were in motion. I interviewed Cave back in 2012 for the C magazine, Crystal Bridges’ membership magazine. Here’s a sample from that interview. Happy Birthday, Nick Cave! We look forward to seeing your next inspired and magical creation! –LD
How many Soundsuits have you created so far? No clue. Probably 500 for sure.
You’ve described your Soundsuits as a “search for understanding of identity,” and you’ve also commented that once inside the suits, your identity completely disappears. How does this sense of losing your identity help you to better understand it? I think that when one is confronted with a Soundsuit, race, class, and gender disappear. You’re forced to be faced with something without judgment. It creates a new hybrid that we can’t categorize. We’re always looking for a place to put things. In this case, all of that is removed and you’re forced to look at something without reference.
You create your suits to be actively worn and performed in, and many are designed to make noise as they move. Do they lose something by standing still in a gallery? No. Actually when we go to the Met or the Museum of Natural History and see vestments that have been part of a cultural ritual or routine, and they’re taken out of context, we’re forced to look at them out of context. It allows the mind to think about it—its function—allows you to come to it with a sort of curiosity. It leaves a sense of mystery.
The suits are all very highly individual, and yet none have a title other than Soundsuit. Do you give them names or some other sort of designation in your mind to tell them apart? Is there a story behind each one? I don’t give them names. I think they each have a different personality and can be clearly identified as a singular sculpture. They’re too foreign to me to determine if they can have names or identities. My mind has never even gone to that place.
What do you mean by “foreign?” I don’t draw or sketch them. I can’t visualize them. They’re a material- or object-provoked impulse. (Each one is) as foreign to me as it is to you until it’s completed. I don’t even think of myself as an artist, I’ve been the one chosen that this goes through.
There is a huge variety of materials used in these works. Where do you get all the objects that are used? Estate sales, flea markets. Lately I’ve been flying to Austin, Texas, and renting a cargo van. Then I go online to find all the antique malls and flea markets, and then go to all the antique malls between Austin and Chicago. Once I went to Missouri, a trip that normally takes 6 or 7 hours, and I didn’t get to my Mom’s until 14 or 15 hours later. It’s a lot of work. Your eyes get tired. The objects provoke a lot of ideas.
You are quoted as saying that inside the suit you become a “shaman” of sorts. When I look up the meaning of “shaman” I find “A priest or priestess who uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events.” How do you feel the Soundsuits tap into that magic? I want you to be able to help us.. or you… get back to that dreamstate. We’re in a world where we don’t dream anymore. It’s about survival. I want to get back to that magical place of imagination, memory, nostalgia—based on materials. I want you to be able to walk away from each exhibition and want to come see it again. It’s about provoking thought. That way of thinking and realizing from a subconscious point of view that everything has a second life.
Do you feel like you are someone else—someone different—when you’re inside one of the suits? Completely. When I work with performers I spend a great deal of time talking about surrendering our identity. It’s mandatory when you’re placed in a Soundsuit. You have to be capable of making the transition. You’re covered in a shell. [Before you put on a Soundsuit], I will allow you to look at it and think about what it will feel and sound like when you’re in it. Then when you’re inside, you sort of settle down, surrender, to understand what you’re about to experience. It’s a lot of mental work. Once you’ve made the transition, it’s an extraordinary experience. There’s some resilience that comes through this hidden identity, a sort of permission that’s given. People will bring different things to it. I’m curious about new ways that movement is brought to my Soundsuits.
Which do you think is closer to the “real” Nick Cave: the Nick inside the suit or the Nick making the suit? Both. The Nick inside, I’m not sure… I don’t know what’s driving that Nick. Once I make the transition it’s an out-of-body experience. I used to try to bring resolution to it, but I had to accept that it’s just a feeling or experience. There’s really no way to understand it. I reach a point where I’m no longer present. It used to scare me. I have to accept the transition. I don’t need to understand it. How do you bring understanding to something that’s authentic?