In 1992, when Nick Cave made his first sound suit, the ornate bodysuit for which he is best known, it was his response to the police beating of Rodney King. Cave has described this genesis as “an inflammatory reaction,” a conduit of rage and helplessness channeled into something both theoretically portable and visually striking.
The first suit, with its prickly skin of twigs and branches, was a remedy for both racial profiling and bodily vulnerability – armor as protest. That the sound suits have remained relevant 30 years later represents both a triumph for the 63-year-old artist and an unshakable nightmare. Cave has created nearly 500 examples.
A version from 2011, can be seen in “Moreover,” an alternately beautiful and deeply sad overview of Cave’s work at the Guggenheim, illustrates how the sound suits later developed into almost autonomous beings. A giant exoskeleton of shorn twigs draped over a metal armature, it appears human, but only just. Its shoulders slumped, the weight of its large head making it look like a Maurice Sendak creature—a wild thing, terrifying and melancholy. It stands as a golem, an entity, in the Jewish tradition, sculpted from the earth and animated as the protector of a persecuted society.
Cave has made several twig versions, but these are outliers; the sound suits tend to be elaborately embellished, leaving organic material for consumer products, littered with the scaffolding of lost toys, or resplendent with pearl trim, buttons and artificial flowers. Unlike the first suit, which was intended to camouflage a wearer as a piece of tactical gear, Cave’s sound suits became as conspicuous as a brass band in a monastery. They reach for magisterial levels of flamboyance, burgeoning constellations of class balls or encrusted with tousled, creepy hair like a feral Muppet caught in a stash of Manic Panic.
The sound suits are the most recognized part of Cave’s practice (he has translated them into mosaics inn the underground passages under Times Square and oversized puzzles) and undoubtedly the draw here, but they are also of a piece with his larger, enduring project, which centers on the black American body and the ways in which it is devalued and brutalized. Curated by Naomi Beckwith, the study is a compressed version that appeared earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, in Cave’s hometown. Last January, the Guggenheim appointed Beckwith as chief curator and deputy director, and she retrofitted the exhibition here.
Like Chicago, “Forothermore” is organized into three sections titled “What It Was,” “What It Is” and “What It Shall Be,” a stark past-present-future lens through which to digest Cave’s themes. (The exhibition rightly avoids the word “Afrofuturism”, which as a curatorial term has recently been overextended; attempts to look into the future, as the last few years have shown, have not succeeded.)
This structure would probably have flowed naturally up the museum’s rotunda, but it is currently occupied by Alex Katz. Instead, it is cut up between three floors of its tower galleries, loosely chronological. (“What It Was” includes work from 1999 to 2015, a time frame that overlaps with the subsequent two sections, so anyone hoping for a linear reading of Cave’s development will be thwarted). The episodes focus on several of Cave’s works: his larger bas-reliefs; his cast bronzes and sculptures; and finally the sound fits. Cave’s performance and video work, often revealing, is largely absent, presumably for reasons of space. (There are three short films buried in the museum’s basement that are worth watching.)
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Still, recurring motifs emerge: Cave’s eye for shiny things, his recycler’s zeal, his affection for strange simulacra of the natural world. The work here is united by twin horrors: the myriad psychological oppressions black Americans have been subjected to – ugly caricatures and minstrel depictions grafted onto banal Americana like carnival games and spats whose reverberations are still felt – and the sea of discarded plastic junk that threatens to suffocate us. Like Kurt Schwitters, Cave delights in glittering trash, but Cave’s salvaged tchotchkes are meant to rhyme with the way life in this country is so easily discarded. There is a graceful, ethical consideration of material acquisition and an enchanting evocation of the way time folds in on itself—how nothing is ever lost, not even creepy lawn ornaments if they are remembered.
The middle section revolves largely around Cave’s cast bronze and found object sculptures, many of which employ the artist’s own disembodied limbs decorated with intricate floral brocades. They are confrontational, sometimes eloquent, as in pieces where arms and hands reach out from walls in ambiguous gestures, stretched and filled with towels, poses that suggest slavery and conjure psychic dispossession, like a Robert Gober but with mercilessly less body hair.
Elsewhere, where a head rests on an American flag assembled from spent shotgun shells or a stack of kitschy flag-print shirts, the effect is obvious and flat. They seem to want to invoke Surrealism’s ability to understand disaster, but they pale in comparison to the everyday surreality of being alive in this land, which surpasses the ability of art to depict it. As in “Platform” (2018), an installation of grotesque bronze gramophones sprouting limbs, much of the experience of American life can be equated with opening one’s mouth to scream and finding no sound produced.
All fashion is ultimately a kind of armor. And the sound suits are, when they are most essential, clothes. In their draping, precision and sense of drama, they show the courtier’s hand (the sprig suits in particular are reminiscent of Alexander McQueen’s supremely exquisite scraper clam dress). As much as Cave’s costumes suggest figures from an indeterminate folklore, the decorative headdresses that follow from the flamboyant costumes made for J’Ouvert parties and native ceremonial regalia, they also draw from the drag camp, the baroque stage costumes of funk acts like George Clinton and Earth, Wind and Fire, and the haute too-muchness of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler.
Cave, who ran an eponymous fashion line in the 1990s, convincingly exploits the paradox of fashion, its simultaneous desire for concealment and recognition, in ways that both anoint black cultural history and illuminate its concerns. “Hustle Coat” (2021), a trench coat that hides a tunic of striped costume jewelry and boot Rolexes, is a fun take on the coat-flashing street vendor, but also the idea of ”ghetto fabulousness,” style in the face of deprivation.
“Golem” in Hebrew can mean “incomplete.” Cave’s soundsuits are designed to be animated by the body, producing the tinkling, rattling and clattering that gives them their name. Looking at them lined up in a neat row, politely static, can be frustratingly anticlimactic. They represent an astonishing level of craftsmanship (and preservation), but they want to fulfill their purpose, which is to move and be loud.
Cave’s art turns on performance, community through rituals and shared grief. In their absence, we are left to imagine the weight of a suit made of hundreds of sock monkeys and take their talismanic powers at their word.
Artists like to invoke the concept of joy now, a radical defiance in the face of so much conspiracy against it. The exhibition’s wall text invokes the word. But there is some joy to be found. In their ability to blur and reject identity, the sound suits suggest a model for a utopian future where gender, race and sexual orientation are rendered irrelevant.
Meanwhile, the Soundsuits are tragic figures girding themselves for violence, their clumsy shells ready to absorb pain that inevitably comes. The exertion required to wear their intense fixtures makes them terrifying, at least chiropracticly unhealthy. They ask us to consider what kind of country we are left with if that is what it takes to simply survive in it.
Nick Cave: By the way
Through April 10, 2023 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-423 3500; guggenheim.org.