Nick Cave, born in 1959, is best known for his wearable fabric sculptures, Soundsuits, which evoke a ritual elegance, and defy every definition of static. Cave currently resides in Chicago and is director of the graduate fashion program at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
BULLETT: The first time I saw your Soundsuits, it felt like they were going to come alive. Do you believe in magic?
NICK CAVE: I’m not sure if I do or not, but I am interested in the deeper parallels between a shaman and a… god. I’m interested in using work as empowerment. I don’t think of myself as an artist first. I think of myself as a messenger. I’m here to deliver this [piece]. Once that’s done, what’s the next assignment? My power doesn’t lie within the art. It lies within the delivery.
As a messenger, do you feel like you’re speaking to a specific community?
I think I’m speaking to a universal community, a community that’s able to receive the work. I think that goes back to the surface—the surface is what I use to choose to build the work. To be able to go to the work and make reference to something is a way I can pull you into it, so I have to be a magician to a certain degree. What are the seductive elements upon which one can draw?
Your work reminds me of some of the cities that you’ve spent time in, specifically Detroit, if you could visualize them through objects and art and movement.
I’m interested in functioning, building my work, and positioning myself within the world and looking at that world as a canvas. How does my work play out in Berlin? How does my work play out in Tokyo? What’s going on around the world within culture can inform the work as well. I don’t look at anything, I don’t sketch anything. I can’t see it. I can’t see it in a literal sense, but emotionally, I can get a sense of how it feels. That’s really how I’ve always worked. It’s just allowing materials and the impulse of something to dictate my movement.
Do you feel like your background and having your hand in all these different mediums allows you to express yourself differently?
Well, I think what it provides me with is an extension in terms of performance space. It allows me to look at the very disciplines that are accessible. The problem with a lot of artists is that they think that in order to be a painter, you have to paint. If you want to work in clay, that’s the only thing you can work in. But maybe the idea would be stronger if it were metal. I never let a discipline dictate how an idea should be developed. It’s really about the idea and then finding the means necessary.
What was it like at your show in Seattle, having everything come to life?
You know, it’s always like this at the beginning. I walk into a space and have this severe anxiety because I’m like, Oh my god, I cannot fill this whole damn museum. But then I sort of settle down, and it’s all become this extraordinary moment in time. I’m interested in the attendance of the exhibition: Did attendance increase? Did the sales of the product increase? Where were the kids? How many school groups came through? What were the educational components tied to the exhibition? I really want it to be an educational connection.
Do you feel like different cities react differently to your “invasions”?
They don’t necessarily take to it differently. I think that what I’m finding is that they all are very curious about this intersection with art in the public sphere. That’s what becomes interesting for me. I think everybody is curious about the work and how it invades neighborhoods that would never really receive art. What can I do to bring art into the world, into these communities that still feel inhibited, not quite comfortable going to a museum? I’m really looking at this as a performance lab where I get to remove myself and be an observer.
It must be a pretty powerful and exciting thing to come across when you’re not expecting it.
Yeah. What I’ve been doing lately are these performance labs around the country. The last one I did was in Savannah at Savannah College of Art and Design, where I bring 40 fountains into the city and then I do a one- to three-month residency and employ the community to build the performance piece. That’s really what my interest is at the end of the day: How can I use my work as a vehicle for change? So these performances, I’m telling you, are extraordinary. I create an open call where I come in with two assistants, and then we do one day where people can come in and try out to be involved with the performance piece. Then we collect, let’s say, a group of 40 individuals who do dance, theater, music, spoken word… Depends on the structure of the piece. We just start working together for weeks. There are moments where we get together in this circle and we have these testimonies, and I’m telling you, it validates and makes me understand the purpose of art. It’s emotionally extraordinary. This is what everybody wants: to matter, to have a purpose. If I can contribute in any way whatsoever to that bringing kind of experience and acceptance into the world, that’s huge.
So in a way, you’re kind of this shaman of happiness, bringing people art and light when they don’t expect it.
Yeah, and just giving people permission to express it. People just want permission to be able to express themselves.