Monday, April 16, 2012

Nick Cave's Shamanic Soundsuits

If I had an extra $60,000 or so sitting around right now, I think I might invest it in a Nick Cave Soundsuit.

Now, this is not the lovelorn southern gothic bluesman, but a remarkable African-American artist who trained as a dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater while simultaneously studying art and fashion at the Kansas City Art Institute. One day in the early '90s, he was sitting in a Chicago park, depressed by the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and how it low made him feel as a black man.

Staring down at some twigs on the ground, he thought, those sticks look devalued and disregarded — just like I'm feeling right now. He gathered them up, took them home, cut them into three-inch lengths, and wired them to a garment.

At first, he thought of the result more as a sculpture than a costume, but then he realized he could wear it. When he began to move and jump around in it, he was amazed by the "fabulous rustling sound" it made, and also by the way its weight made him want to stand unusually erect, which reminded him of dance.

Since then, he has made hundreds of wearable mixed-media sculptures fashioned out of loose bits and pieces of sticks, toys, trash, buttons, crochet, sequins, beading, and most strikingly, dyed human hair, a conjunction of art and dance, craft and fashion that brings to mind African tribal dress, Roman Catholic clergy vestments, science fiction characters, the drag revolution of the '70s and the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans.

The Soundsuits rustle and rattle and click as the wearer moves, each with its own voice. Those who wear them sometimes report that they feel transformed, free of self — as though a portal has opened within them, and in some way they have become a sort of shamanic messenger from beyond. Cave says, "I believe that the familiar must move towards the fantastic. I want to evoke feelings that are unnamed, that aren't realized except in dreams."

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