The Noisemaker

For years, Nick Cave's Soundsuits have made a major rumble in the art world. They're wearable sculpture that can whoosh, trill and clang.

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James Prinz / Nick Cave / Jack Shainman Gallery

Four of Cave's Soundsuits

When you’re about to meet the artist Nick Cave, you might expect to see somebody a little outlandish. His art is all wild-style camouflage: costumes so elaborate that it’s hard to be sure there’s a person in there. When he answers the door to the loft-style Chicago building where he lives and works, the trim 53-year-old is wearing a quilted-crepe down jacket — an elegant touch, but not exactly an iridescent purple monk’s cowl, which is what one of his Soundsuits resembles. And those suits make odd noises — this one a rustling swoosh; that one a metallic clang. Cave just sounds like a nice guy from Missouri.

However unassuming, Cave possesses a unique mind and a powerful resolve, and over the past two decades, he has developed an art form all his own. His Soundsuits have been called wearable sculpture: they use the body as a point of departure, then push it into unfamiliar places and shapes. Stemming from a costuming tradition that stretches from Renaissance pageantry to Mardi Gras parades, they can evoke African tribal dress, shaman robes, Surrealist assemblage sculpture and the mock-ecclesiastical fashion out of Fellini’s Roma.

But these cultural sources are merely where the Soundsuits start. Where they end up is a place beyond masquerade, where the body is engulfed and transformed altogether. Some look like burqas patched together from crocheted rugs, others like long tongues of human hair dyed electric yellow and blue. Cave has made Soundsuits from faux fur, woven rattan, clustered yarn dolls and metal toys projecting from long rods to form a nimbus of haywire antennas. A number of them are topped by something like giant tuba heads — funnels making a silent cry, like the mouth in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Munch’s painting, with its bellow of anguish, is an apt point of reference for Cave’s work. He made his first Soundsuit in response to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. At the time, he had just moved to Chicago and taken a job teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he now heads the graduate fashion program. “That incident was so traumatic for me. It flipped everything upside down,” he says. “But art has been my savior. I was able somehow to translate those emotions.” The endless video loop of the King beating drove Cave to thoughts about humiliation and response, silence and outrage. Having long worked with found materials, he started to realize how the most humble stuff — the fallen tree twigs and sticks he saw everywhere on the ground — could be woven into a symbolic body armor. By cutting the sticks into three-inch lengths and wiring them to a handmade undergarment, he produced a kind of Abominable Snowman silhouette on which thousands of the sticks hung loosely like bristling fur. It seemed like a defensive image, “a kind of outerwear to protect my spirit,” he says. But it had an aggressive feel too, projecting “the power within the black male, that intimidation and scariness.”

Better still, when he tried it on and moved around, he discovered it made noise — a whirring clatter. “I started to think about the role of protest,” he recalls. “In order to be heard, you’ve got to speak louder. I thought about the body as an alarm system that could go off any second.”

Since then, Cave has produced over 500 Soundsuits, incorporating everything from dyed feathers and sequins to plastic bags and pipe cleaners — much of the material scavenged from thrift stores and flea markets. Almost all of them were made to be worn during some kind of performance: a circle dance in a plaza, a movement piece in a gallery, an outdoor parade. For a new work called Heard, Cave is pairing 60 people in 30 horsey Soundsuits to gallop around at the University of North Texas, and later outside the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, with scores of percussionists chasing after them.

Over the past decade, the Soundsuits have also been entering museums and galleries as art objects in their own right. Last fall, Cave had two Manhattan gallery shows simultaneously. Three years ago, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco launched a traveling exhibition of more than 40 suits called “Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth.” Now at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the exhibition moves in May to the Boise Art Museum. In October he will open a big show in Lille, France, featuring some 50 Soundsuits as well as wall and video works.

Cave was born in Fulton, Mo., one of six boys. His father, a factory worker, died of cancer when Cave was 17; his mother worked as a secretary at the University of Missouri. As a kid, he entertained himself with a world of his own devising. “I was always a gatherer,” he says, “collecting and assembling things, making shrines. I would make stuff for my mom all the time. She was my critic and also my supporter. With five brothers, I had hand-me-downs, so I’d try to reinvent my clothes.”

In 1982 he graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute, having also trained as a dancer in Alvin Ailey programs in Kansas City, Mo., and New York City. “I knew I was going to be a studio artist, so I looked at dance the way I looked at other disciplines — as something I could dabble in. But I felt it was incredibly important to the future of my work.” (Cave hopes at some point in the future to produce ensembles of Soundsuits — 90 or more — for use in collaborations with dance companies.)

The Art Institute was also where Cave learned to sew. Though he doesn’t think of the Soundsuits as fashion per se, his knowledge of the field — not just silhouettes but questions of structure, of how clothing is made — informs his work as an artist. “Japanese designers like Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo flip structure upside down and transform the body to a point where it becomes abstract,” he says. “And of course, you think of Alexander McQueen and Missoni in terms of pattern and color. But then I might also look at Haitian voodoo flags.”

The idea of the human body transformed is an ancient fascination at the heart of all cultures, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to McQueen attaching antlers to the shoulders of a woman’s gown. Cave reaches deep into that same strange psychological territory — the same pools of anxiety, desire and extravagant possibility. “What can I do to get our minds back to that dream state?” he asks. “We don’t tend to dream anymore as a society. Right now, we’re just trying to survive.”