When Nick Cave made his first soundsuit in 1992, the elaborate bodysuit he is best known for, it was his response to Rodney King being beaten by police officers. Cave has described this genesis as “an inflammatory response,” a conduit of anger and helplessness channeled into something both theoretically wearable and visually striking.
The first suit, with its prickly skin of twigs and branches, was a cure for both racial profiling and physical vulnerability – armor as a protest. That the Soundsuits’ relevance remains 30 years later is both a triumph and an unrelenting nightmare for the 63-year-old artist. Cave has created almost 500 examples.
A 2011 version, featured in Forothermore, an alternately beautiful and deeply sad survey of Cave’s work at the Guggenheim, illustrates how the soundsuits have since evolved into near-autonomous beings. A massive exoskeleton made of clipped branches wrapped around a metal armature, it looks human, but only just. His shoulders slumped, the weight of his oversized head made him look like a Maurice Sendak creature—a savage thing, terrifying and melancholy. It stands like a golem, an entity in Jewish tradition, carved from earth and animated as the protector of a persecuted community.
Cave has created several versions of Twig, but these are outliers; The soundsuits tend to be elaborately decorated, eschewing organic material for consumer goods, laden with scaffolding made from lost toys, or resplendent with beadwork, buttons, and artificial flowers. Unlike that first suit, which aimed to camouflage a wearer like a piece of tactical gear, Cave’s soundsuits became as unobtrusive as a marching band in a monastery. They reach for masterful extravagance, sprouting constellations of classroom bullets, or are covered in shaggy, garish hair like a feral Muppet caught in a Manic Panic cache.
The soundsuits are the most well-known part of Cave’s practice (he’s translated them into mosaics in the Times Square subway passages and oversized jigsaw puzzles) and are undoubtedly the draw here, but they’re also a part of his larger, more enduring project , which focuses on the black American body and the ways in which it is devalued and brutalized. The poll, curated by Naomi Beckwith, is a condensed version that was created earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in Cave’s hometown. Last January, the Guggenheim appointed Beckwith chief curator and associate director, and she recreated the exhibition here.
As with Chicago, “Forothermore” is broken into three sections titled “What It Was,” “What It Is,” and “What It Shall Be,” a crude past-present-future lens through which Cave’s themes can be digested . (The exhibition deliberately avoids the word “Afrofuturism,” which has recently been stretched as a curatorial conceit; attempts to see into the future, as recent years have shown, have failed.)
This structure would probably have naturally gone into the museum’s rotunda, but that’s currently occupied by Alex Katz. Instead, it is laid out loosely chronologically across three floors of its tower galleries. (“What It Was” includes work from 1999 to 2015, a time frame that overlaps with the following two sections, so that anyone hoping for a linear reading of Cave’s development is stymied). The sections focus on several of Cave’s works: his larger bas-reliefs; his cast bronze sculptures; and finally the sound fits. Cave’s often insightful performances and video works are largely absent, presumably for reasons of space. (There are three short films worth seeing in the basement of the museum.)
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Nevertheless, recurring motifs emerge: Cave’s magpie eye for shiny things, his zeal as a recycler, his fondness for strange simulacra of nature. The work here is united by two horrors: the myriad psychological oppressions faced by black Americans — ugly caricatures and minstrel depictions grafted like carnival games and spittoons onto mundane Americana whose reverberations can still be felt — and the sea of discarded plastic waste that threatens to suffocate us. Like Kurt Schwitters, Cave delights in shimmering trash, but Cave’s rescued tchotchkes are meant to rhyme with the way life in this country is so readily thrown away. There’s a graceful, ethical reflection on material acquisition and a haunting evocation of the way time folds in on itself – how nothing is ever truly lost, not even spooky lawn ornaments if remembered.
The central section revolves largely around Cave’s bronze casts and found object sculptures, many using the artist’s own disembodied limbs, adorned with intricate floral brocades. They are confrontational, sometimes eloquent, as in pieces in which arms and hands reach out from walls in ambiguous gestures, stretched out and laden with towels, poses that suggest subservience and invoke psychological dispossession, like a Robert Gober, but with mercifully less body hair.
Elsewhere, where a head rests on an American flag composed of spent shotgun shells or a stack of tacky flag-printed shirts, the effect is obvious and flat. They seem to want to evoke surrealism’s ability to make sense of misfortune, but they pale in comparison to the everyday surrealism of life in this country, which surpasses art’s ability to depict it. As in “Platform” (2018), an installation of grotesque bronze gramophones sprouting limbs, much of the experience of American life can be equated with opening your mouth to scream and hearing no sound.
All fashion ends up being a kind of armor. And the soundsuits are essentially clothing. They display the hand of a courtier in their fall, precision and sense of drama (the Twig suits in particular are reminiscent of Alexander McQueen’s most exquisite razor shell dress). As much as Cave’s suits suggest figures from a vague folklore, the ornamental headpieces follow the exuberant costumes for J’Ouvert celebrations and the ceremonial regalia of Native Americans, they also derive from the camp of drag, the baroque stage costumes of funk acts like George Clinton and earth, wind and fire and the haute too muchness of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler.
Cave, who ran a clothing line of the same name in the 1990s, convincingly uses the paradox of fashion, its simultaneous desire for concealment and recognition, in a way that both anoints black cultural history and illuminates its fears. “Hustle Coat” (2021), a trench coat that conceals a tunic of striped costume jewelry and fake Rolex watches, is a sly sight gag for the coat-flashing street vendor, but it also brings the idea of ”ghetto fabulousness” to the style’s face of deprivation.
“Golem” can mean “incomplete” in Hebrew. Cave’s soundsuits are intended to be enlivened by the body, which creates the clinking, rustling and clattering sounds that give Cave their name. Viewing them lined up in a neat row, politely static, can be frustratingly anticlimactic. They represent an amazing level of craftsmanship (and preservation), but they aim to serve their purpose, which is to move and be loud.
Cave’s art revolves around performance, community through ritual, and shared mourning. In their absence, we have to imagine the weight of a suit composed of hundreds of sock monkeys and take the power of their talismanic powers at their word.
Artists now like to conjure up the notion of joy, a radical resistance in the face of so many conspiracies against it. The wall text of the exhibition uses the word. But there is little joy to be found. In their ability to disguise and reject identity, the soundsuits propose a model for a utopian future in which gender, race and sexual orientation become irrelevant.
Meanwhile, the soundsuits are tragic figures bracing themselves for violence, their knick-knack cases poised to absorb the pain that inevitably comes. The exertion required to carry their intense armature makes them intimidating, at least chiropractically unhealthy. They challenge us to think about what kind of country we are left with if that is what it takes to survive in it.
Nick Cave: Also
Until April 10, 2023 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-423 3500; guggenheim.org.