“I began thinking more about myself as an artist with a civic responsibility,” said artist Nick Cave to Mass MoCA curator Denise Markonish during a conversation at Jack Shainman Gallery. Realizing that he was bored with his past work, he decided he needed to find another means of challenging himself. “I didn’t want to hide behind the Soundsuits anymore.” Cave’s Soundsuits, which are woven bodysuits built out of materials ranging from fabric, buttons, and beads, to pieces of wood and metal, ceramic birds, and human hair, are his most well known body of work. While the art now on view in his exhibition Made by Whites for Whites at Jack Shainman Gallery’s 20th Street space (more work by Cave also fills the gallery’s 24th Street space) uses a similar selection of found materials, it does so to a much different end.
“I was at a flea market,” Cave explained, as he described the new sculptures’ origins. “I just happened to find this container, which is in a piece downstairs titled ‘Sea Sick,’ and when I pulled the container off the shelf it read ‘spittoon.’” The container is shaped like a black man’s head. “I literally just flipped out,” Cave continued. “I was in a state of disbelief.” Each of the works in the exhibition features racist memorabilia like the spittoon head, encased in an assortment of entwined objects such as gilded flowers, electronic candles, and ceramic birds. “It’s always the object that provides me the impulse. I am always driven by — it’s always one thing that sort of sets it up. It has to have a pulse. It also has to have multiple reads, that I can sort of turn it upside-down.”
While the shocking memorabilia is at the center of the new work, the surrounding objects, many of which echo the materials used in the Soundsuits, also read on multiple levels, particularly the variety of kitschy ceramic statues. Markonish asked specifically about the ceramic birds. “I was thinking about my grandparents,” Cave recalled. “To me that object is sort of nostalgic in that way. That was what was considered art — it was that sort of object you couldn’t touch. At the same time, it’s completely what is not appropriate in art school.” The two laughed, joined by the audience. “I have no problems incorporating all of it and then sitting at the top of the fence and watching the arguments.”
Shifting from materials to process, Markonish asked Cave how his method of creating performances differs from his exhibition planning. “Making the work is one thing,” he responded. “But where the work is placed or housed or displayed or curated, I have to be part of that process. It’s important, the movement of how an exhibition is setup — that becomes my voice, in a sense.” As for his performances, which usually include a large number of dancers clothed in his fantastical Soundsuits, Cave called them “the most important part of my work, the unknown, where I am immersing myself in the trenches.”
But perhaps the two are not too far apart. As Markonish highlighted, Cave’s curatorial choices directly “produce the experience that the visitor is going to have,” much like in a performance. The orchestrated path of the visitor through the gallery, specifically laid out by Cave, adds a temporal quality to the otherwise still artworks. This careful curation of experience will play a big part in Cave’s future installation for Mass MoCA’s Building 5, which is the size of a football field. Markonish invited Cave to do the commission, and the two have been working together for the past year discussing and planning the piece. “It’s a very performative space,” Markonish said, “it’s like a processional. It’s very much about moving through it.” The Mass MoCA project presents a new set of challenges than Cave’s past performances and shows. “It’s an exhibition that is up for one year, and that makes me think about destination,” he said. “What does that mean for something to be up for a year? It’s very different from an exhibition in a gallery.”
To end the evening, Markonish enticed Cave into giving the audience some kind of teaser for his MASS MoCA show, still years from fruition. “The exhibition opens up with you being in the belly of a Soundsuit. You’ll be moving through this journey. And then you will come to this cloud. And you will climb up this structure and be in the clouds. Then you come down and you will meander through the space and come to this sort of landscape, this entire beaded landscape, and that moves you to a video and then sends you upstairs to a waterfall.” Markonish laughed at this mention of a waterfall, knowing more details then either was willing to give away. Cave concluded: “It’s dark. It’s very seductive, but it’s dark.” “Seductive darkness” could be used to describe much of Cave’s work, especially the current exhibition. As Markonish had noted earlier, “Your work dazzles you first, and then you get the implications behind it.”