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Nick Cave's "Soundsuits"

By Art21. Artist Nick Cave discusses the experiences that force him to confront his identity as a black man—including being racially profiled by police—and how they fuel his impulse to create. Cave explains that in these moments he gets quiet and avoids lashing out in rage. “And if I do, lashing out for me is creating this,” he says in reference to his intricately constructed Soundsuits. “The Soundsuits hide gender, race, class and they force you to look at the work without judgment.” The exhibition “Here Hear,” which included a large-scale community performance, was installed at Detroit’s Cranbrook Art Museum in 2015. The museum is associated with the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where Nick Cave attended graduate school in the 1980s and was the only minority student at the time.

Nick Cave creates "Soundsuits"—surreally majestic objects blending fashion and sculpture—that originated as metaphorical suits of armor in response to the Rodney King beatings and have evolved into vehicles for empowerment. Fully concealing the body, the “Soundsuits” serve as an alien second skin that obscures race, gender, and class, allowing viewers to look without bias towards the wearer’s identity. Cave regularly performs in the sculptures himself, dancing either before the public or for the camera, activating their full potential as costume, musical instrument, and living icon. The artist also works with choreographers, dancers, and amateur performers to produce lavish community celebrations in untraditional venues for art. Cave’s sculptures also include non-figurative assemblages, intricate accumulations of found objects that project out from the wall, and installations enveloping entire rooms.

Learn more about the artist at: https://art21.org/artist/nick-cave/

CREDITS: Producer: Ian Forster & Nick Ravich. Consulting Producer: Wesley Miller. Interview: Stanley Nelson. Editor: Morgan Riles. Camera: Jamin Townsley. Sound: Richard K. Pooler. Artwork Courtesy: Nick Cave. Special Thanks: Cranbrook Art Museum, Robert Faust, William Gill & Laura Mott. "Extended Play" is supported, in part, by 21c Museum Hotel, and by individual contributors.

Additional resources:
Nick Cave Soundsuit Invasion in Westwood Village, Los Angeles (courtesy Fowler Museum at UCLA)

Nick Cave’s Soundsuit Invasion No. 1 in LA, courtesy Fowler Museum at UCLA

Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

Cranbrook Academy of Art is where I did my graduate studies. It was a bit shocking, I think, at the beginning, because I was the only minority there. This is in 1988. I just considered myself another artist out there amongst my peers. And I think it was difficult because it was the first time that I was confronted with my identity as a black male. My mother told me when I was, like, eight years old, the complexity of what I would have to deal with. So knowing made me think, "I've got to build a thick skin." "I've got to be able to operate in a world…" [LAUGHS] "...that could work against me as opposed to for me." What do I do with that? I have been racially profiled. I'm walking home with my portfolio from teaching. I am pulled...surrounded by undercover cops saying, "Lie down on the floor"-- because the convenience store was robbed down the street. That has been my reality. Get it together up here. Psychologically, I have to really get it together. And I just have to get quiet-- to put it in perspective and to, sort of, not sort of lash out into rage. And if I do, lashing out for me is creating this. All of that becomes the impulse to create. I don't ever see the "Soundsuits" as fun. They really are coming from a very dark place. The "Soundsuits" hide gender, race, class. And they force you to look at the work without judgment. You know, we tend to want to categorize everything. We tend to want to find its place. How do we, sort of, be one on one with something that is unfamiliar?