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Nick Cave Brings Art, Fashion, Sculpture to Life With Colorful ‘Soundsuits’

April 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Chicago artist Nick Cave says he has always been fascinated with items cast off by other people. The Missouri native and his team assemble thrift-store finds into life-size creations that are part sculpture, part costume, which he calls "Soundsuits." When you see one, Cave wants you to wonder, "What am I encountering?"
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, an artist who takes the sights and sounds of his work out into the streets.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: It wasn’t your typical Texas stampede through the streets of Dallas recently. These horses, actually students at the University of North Texas, are the creations of Chicago artist Nick Cave. Cave calls them “Soundsuits,” for obvious reasons, part sculpture, part costume, reflecting his desire to meld art, dance and fashion.

NICK CAVE, artist: We tend to want to sort of categorize or put something in its place in order for it to make sense. Here, I don’t think that it — my work can really be put into any particular category. So you’re forced to sort of ask yourself the question, what is it? What am I encountering at this very moment?

JEFFREY BROWN: You like when people look at these things and say, what is that?

NICK CAVE: Well, you know, yeah. What am I sort of engaged in?

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JEFFREY BROWN: Nick Cave’s creations have been exhibited all over the world, sometimes set in place as traditional sculpture, sometimes fully alive and in motion, out of museums and into the streets, surprising and provoking passersby.

NICK CAVE: I’m always sort of looking for projects that I can sort of put out into the world, into the public sphere, and to somehow cause an effect. I want to be able to create projects that sort of are going to make people think and think in this sort of magical, sort of fantastical way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nick Cave was raised by a single mother in central Missouri, part of a large family of very modest means. He says that may have actually helped spark his early interest in clothing and fabric.

NICK CAVE: Growing up with, you know, seven siblings, all boys, one year apart, when my brother’s, you know, clothing was handed down to me, I needed to somehow re — sort of alter, change it to where I thought that it was my own.

What is the message here you’re wanting to say in the garment?

JEFFREY BROWN: He went on to study art in Kansas City and dance, including a stint with an Alvin Ailey training program. He’s now a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, teaching fashion, sculpture and performance art.

As to the Soundsuits, they came into being first as a response to what Cave saw as injustices in cases of racial profiling, the demeaning of people based on how they look.

NICK CAVE: And then I started thinking about the role of identity, being racial profiled, feeling devalued, less than, dismissed. And then I happened to be in the park this one particular day, and looked down at the ground and there was a twig. And I just thought, well, that’s discarded, and it’s sort of insignificant. And so I just started then gathering the twigs, and before I knew it, I was, had built a sculpture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, the suits are highly detailed and elaborate affairs, fabricated by a team of assistants at Cave’s studio on Chicago’s South Side.

NICK CAVE: All of this, all of these beaded flowers, anything that you see matters, all this gets cut up, put into a sculptural sort of form.

JEFFREY BROWN: Most of Cave’s creations are constructed from castoffs. He has a storage room packed with objects picked up at flea markets and thrift stores that are then repurposed.

NICK CAVE: This is a piece that then fits on the shoulders up, and so it’s made of noisemakers, globes, toys. This is what my head feels like most of the time, just ideas and it’s just kind of like just bursting.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: The finished products end up museums, but also in schools.

NICK CAVE: How does that feel?

STUDENT: It feels good.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cave regularly works with high school students like these at Stevenson High in the Chicago suburbs. Cave provides the Soundsuits. The students create the choreography.

What was it like when you first put on the Soundsuits?

STUDENT: Out-of-body experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: How’s that?

STUDENT: Well, you put on this costume and you become this thing, this like animal almost.

JEFFREY BROWN: I can’t even see who this person is, and that’s probably good. Well, that’s good. I don’t want to see. Part of this is sort of losing your identity, right?

STUDENT: Exactly.

STUDENT: A little bit, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, who are you?

STUDENT: My name’s Hannah.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so who are when you put on a Soundsuit.

WOMAN: A whole different creature. It’s like a swamp monster, Easter egg thing.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: For Cave, the art comes precisely from this interaction of personalities, the Soundsuit on the one hand and the human who inhabits it.

NICK CAVE: I look at it as just an open canvas. I feel like I’m just going — it’s like I’m going into that school. The entire school is just like a big white piece of canvas, and I’m just going in to make a project happen through the sort of collaboration and the support of the student body.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fresh off the Dallas stampede, Nick Cave’s next major exhibition of Soundsuits will be in Lille, France, this fall.