After the police beating of Rodney King in 1991, Nick Cave found himself walking outside looking for twigs. What he would ultimately do with them, he didn’t know yet. But something about King’s story compelled him to collect and build from this discarded material. Through careful drilling, he wove them together into a large, humanoid sculpture. Only when it was done did he realize that he could wear it.
“And then the moment that I wore it and moved, it made sound,” Cave recalls. “All of a sudden I heard something and I was like, ‘Oh.’ That led me to think about roles of protests. In order to be heard, you’ve got to speak louder.”
The Soundsuit was the first of many, and they catapulted Cave onto the international art scene as a multi-modal artist like none other. For his most expansive show ever, Forothermore, he has taken over his hometown of Chicago. He’s running a projection on the Merchandise Mart, what was once the largest building in the world. His kaleidoscopic wallpaper has covered the closed Apple Store on Michigan Ave. And he has filled the top floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago with decades of his work, ranging from Soundsuits to rusty wall reliefs to his latest bronze sculptures.
Forothermore is a portmanteau of “forevermore” and the “other.” “It’s really talking about those that are not forgotten. So, at the end of the day, when I think about this work, this work is in honor of George Floyd, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Brianna Taylor. I mean, we could just go on and on,” Cave says. “And so this is really my acknowledging those lives that have been lost to gun violence, police brutality. In their honor, it’s for us to understand [their] impact. We may not think that we are affected by that, but we all are certainly affected by it.”
You might consider the entire exhibit as an architectural soundsuit: a safe space Cave has carefully designed to challenge and disorient you, while bolstering your psyche with tole flowers and sequins. (He even removed several significant pieces from the exhibition to better choreograph visitors’ experience and allow pieces to breathe.) As he says in a video at the beginning of the exhibit, before you walk through a dizzying space of thousands of spinning mobiles, his Work “sits on the fence of beauty and ugly . . . beauty is what gives my work the strength to overcome the darkness.”
The meaning of Soundsuits has been unpacked many times by art critics and Cave himself, but each explanation—even his own—always plateaus at 90% of what you feel when looking at them. When worn by dancers, they are a protective, second skin, anchored by the experience of being profiled as a Black man in America, but offering anyone the sensation of erasing their identity and seeing who is left inside.
“Your identity, your gender, your class is completely erased, because you’re completely consumed and adorned by something other,” says Cave. “What does that all mean, and how do you surrender into this space that is unfamiliar?”
No two people move the same way in a suit, Cave explains. The suits are a shield and a celebration. Their sound is also protest, an agitation, or a squeal of pain. “I’m interested in, how do you understand the potential within that object?” Cave says, perhaps because to see the potential of a soundsuit is to recognize the potential in yourself.
On display, however, these suits are something different: imposing, alien-like creatures that guard over Cave’s installation like sentinels. They demand your gaze but don’t look back. They are built, like most of Cave’s art, from found materials. One resembles a giant dust brush made from sock monkey parts. The next has the head of a plastic Easter bunny, exploding out with plastic beads, then culminating in a carefully crocheted pair of leggings that look like a doily crossed with a flamenco dress.
“What I’m doing is forcing you to [reconcile how] you come to something that’s different. How do you open yourself up to something other?” Cave says.
Cave tells me that many of the objects he chooses for his work are picked in response to the tragedy in his life, while he often discovers their meaning later. “A moment something happens that emotionally triggers me, is the moment that I’m grappling, trying to find the material language to bring understanding in that moment,” Cave says. “It’s like being a teenager and you can’t quite communicate what you’re feeling.”
Cave’s pinchant for found objects comes from his upbringing. “I come from, like, six brothers who are one year apart, and I had hand-me-downs,” Cave says with a laugh. “At that stage, I was cutting and rebuilding. So, it was always like, did I know how to sew and construct? Hell no. But I was like, ‘I’m going to just go in and figure it out. I can do this.”’”
As he became an artist and began taking residencies—before Soundsuits were a gleam in his eye—that improvisational nature served him well. “I would just grab my backpack and just jump on a plane. I would send no materials, nothing. I literally just grab my backpack and just go. I could be gone for like six months. I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to make when I get there. I’m going and I’m just going to figure it out.’ So, I’ve always been this artist that’s been curious about, who am I and what does this medium mean to me? And how am I going to approach clay? How am I going to approach wood?” Cave says. “I’ve always just jumped in. And for me, I think the most important thing is finding the means necessary to support the idea. Not everything can be in wood. Not everything can be in fiber. Not everything can be in clay. I’m interested in, what’s going to best to illustrate what it is that I want to say?”
In Cave’s hands, strands of toy beads amass to grand scale wall reliefs, and garage sale ceramic dogs stare you in the eye like they have more right to be in this museum than any visitor does. His work, often through material alone, forces you to ascribe value to something you’ve forgotten—something society has forgotten. Even the black body itself becomes such a material for Cave. “The body is the instrument that allows us all to do what we do,” Cave says. “And so, for me, I’ve always looked at that as this apparatus to build on, in whatever that may mean.”
That idea plays out in Soundsuits, but Cave’s concern with the body is tied deeply into his work; As an art student at the Kansas City Art Institute, Cave studied under famous dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. Cave says he was left, not just with an understanding of dance, but a fundamental awareness of movement and gesture.
“You strip away what you know about the fundamentals of dance and you start to think more about the physicality of my action with these limitations and restrictions,” Cave says. “And yet I’ve got to project within those limitations.”
Years ago, Cave began buying carved wooden heads depicting people of color. I’m not referring to the caricatured Jim Crow era figures that fill many of Cave’s works—like Sea Sick (2014), where Cave places a screaming Black head, which was made to serve as a spittoon, amidst romantic nautical paintings of boats at sea that could be his own slave ships. I’m referring to more representative wood carvings. In one untitled piece from 2018, Cave lays dozens of heads on a table, dismembered. A wooden hawk could be Americana itself as it picks and crows at these heads, seemingly unsatisfied.
Cave considers the heads to be “an offering,” a word with as much complication as his Soundsuits. “This is all I can offer at this moment in this given time,” says Cave, gesturing deep from his own chest as he speaks to emphasize the words, to blur the lines between his own physical body, and the Black body as treated in America, and his self-ascribed role as a messenger.
All Nick Cave is giving us is everything that he is.