The audience for Nick Cave's Soundsuits isn't really the audience. To put it another way, people looking at the artist's tall, bright, faceless garments from the outside are part of the audience. But another important audience member is the one wearing a Soundsuit: the person inside.
Although visitors to the new exhibition can't try on the suits, seeing them in person is just as good and not quite as tricky. At the two-year-old Anderson Collection museum at Stanford, the just-opened Nick Cave exhibit features seven Soundsuits and two video installations in the first-floor galleries, as well as one suit that has invaded the permanent collection of abstract-expressionist-era work upstairs.
For those new to Cave's projects, the suits up close are surprising; they seem to ask questions and patiently wait for the viewer to answer. What kind of movements would you make if no one could see you? From the interior of the suits come the sounds that give the figures their collective name. How would you react if you could hear these singular noises, the kind only made by thousands of hand-stitched plastic buttons and a food-wide swirl of copper wire? How about the sound of a metal-flower collection with acrylic-afghan underskirts?
Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2011. Mixed media including beaded baskets, pipe cleaners, bugle beads, upholstery, metal, and mannequin. (Photo by James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery New York)
The artist's Soundsuit project was initially a response to "feeling devalued, less than, dismissed" as an African-American man at the time of the acquittal of the Los Angeles Police officers who had, as the whole world saw on video, beaten Rodney King. Cave's first Soundsuit was a kind of safe haven, fully concealing the identity of the wearer at a time when the artist felt profoundly unsafe. The suits still hide, and have the potential to protect, the person inside one of these intricate pieces made from dismissed or cast-off objects such as plastic toys, pipe cleaners, and varicolored faux-fur. But over the years, Cave's project has expanded; it also now focuses on the inspiration of movement, dance, and expression based on what's heard from inside. An Alvin-Ailey-trained dancer, Cave often performs in the Soundsuits alone or with friends and collaborators, as shown in the exhibit's videos, and the suits in motion are riveting. Who's in there?
Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2011. Mixed media including beaded baskets, pipe cleaners, bugle beads, upholstery, metal, and mannequin. (Photo by James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)
Although Cave's work is rooted in response to painfully serious realities, it also shouts with a certain kind of silly joy—bright colors and absurdism dominate, and there are sock monkeys. The Anderson's show subtly emphasizes the accessibility of Cave's creations to children, with a decorate-your-own Soundsuit shape wall, as well as a "Family Pop-Up: Make Your Own Soundsuit" event on Oct. 15.
Whoever the audience members may be for Nick Cave, after listening to the questions, scrutinizing each suit's custom stockings, and considering the relationship of hiding-place to self-expression, all may come away with a better idea of how to listen to the person inside.
// Runs Sept. 14, 2016–Aug. 14, 2017, 314 Lomita Dr. (Palo Alto), anderson.stanford.edu