“I think of myself as an artist with a conscience.” – Robert Ayers in conversation with Nick Cave.
I can’t think of another artist who occupies quite the same position as Nick Cave. Some parts sculptor, some parts couturier, some (large) part performance artist, an obsessive collector of domestic detritus and – it transpires from our conversation here – an artist with a profound social commitment who will change the world if he gets the chance. His unique invention, and the work for which he continues to be best known, is the soundsuit: a wearable sculpture or highly ornate costume, depending on how you look at it. I’ve followed his career since his first show at Jack Shainman in 2006, and it has been a genuine treat to see the shifts in direction that his work has taken since then.
Earlier this month a splendid museum show called “Meet me at the Center of the Earth” (that originated at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco back in March of 2009) of over sixty of his soundsuits and a number of his embroidery tondos opened at the Seattle Art Museum. It will be there through June 5. (In passing I should also recommend the catalog to the show. Published by YBCA, it is beautifully produced, includes several scholarly essays and some beautiful photographs, and deals with a much broader range of Mr Cave’s work than the show itself.)
Nick, it seems to me that your work is rather like surrealist collage for the twenty-first century.
Yes, I think it’s definitely about the physical act of building something and discovering what it is. It’s a conscious response to an environment of abundant surplus: the stuff we disregard as insignificant. Because we have so much stuff. The abundance of stuff around us is insane. I would love to be able to go into twenty different homes and build a soundsuit out of what’s in each person’s house that they want to get rid of. And leave it there – “Here. It’s yours!” Maybe this is something I should do. Can you imagine?
So where do you get the materials and objects that you work with?
Flea markets, mostly. I have always been interested in second-hand things. I think it comes out of the hand-me-down regimen of being raised in a family of seven boys born one year apart. I was second oldest. It was a question of “How do I establish my identity with something that was handed down to me? I’ve got to change that object somehow.” That was the beginning of this game: to find ways to claim it. And for me the main way was by adding something to it.
I’m intrigued by the shape of some of the sound suits. They’re part Ku Klux Klan uniform, part missile, part condom. These are all enormously political references …
And destructive …
Do you think of yourself as a political artist?
I think of myself as an artist with a conscience, yes.
Some of your recent sculptures seem more explicitly political. Why weren’t they included here? …
Well they were never considered because they weren’t done when this show was conceived. What I was doing there (and I’m doing the same thing in the studio right now) is starting to reveal what’s behind the work. I’m very interested in getting under the surface of things …
Can you explain what you mean by “an artist with a conscience”?
From the very beginning I realized that I was an artist with a conscience. I knew straight away that I needed to be an artist with some form of civic responsibilities.
You think that artists have responsibilities?
Oh yes, I think we do. I want to use my work as a vehicle for change. Lately I’ve been going around the country taking forty soundsuits to various cities. I’m in each city for a month. I create a performance lab and the performance is built by the people in that city. I could bring the performance with me and do it and pack up and leave, but that’s not what my work is about. It’s about bringing my work to a city, and looking about to see who is there, and discovering how I can interface with a group of people that don’t necessarily interface among themselves. These performance labs around the country have been amazing. There’s a moment at the beginning when we all gather in a circle and we all introduce ourselves. It’s extraordinary what happens by the end of that evening. It just opens up, and you begin to understand again the role of art and the purpose of it in terms of what’s important. We build a performance experience and that makes people feel like they matter.
People want to feel like they matter. They want to be validated, and if I can contribute to that, that’s the most purposeful thing that I can do with my life. That’s the most meaningful thing to me in my work. More important than museum shows like this, though this is meaningful too because it allows us to dream: it gets us back to the place where we dream, the dream state. Kids just flip out up in here. I read this one statement that a kid wrote in a workshop in Scottsdale, Arizona: he drew his favorite soundsuit and wrote, “This work makes me feel not afraid,” and I thought, “Wow! That’s it!”
Was there anything in your art education that contributed to how you work?
It’s what I was forbidden in grad school, for the most part! It’s what they would have called low craft! And yet when I was a kid, these sort of materials were the most precious things in my grandmother’s house. So there’s that nostalgic component for me, and I’m not going to let it be forbidden in my way of living. I’m finding a way to use this material and to elevate it, and to force people to recognize its nuance. It’s a question of renegotiating and repositioning. Which is what we do every day, always trying to figure out a new way of managing our time or engaging in the world. It’s how we exist.
Those are the sort of things that I’m interested in. How can I bring you back to a moment of innocence? And then what do you do with that flashback?
You’re very careful to allow people their own personal response, aren’t you?
Definitely. It’s the only way I can work. I think it comes from not sketching, not drawing anything. I can’t see things that way. What provokes the work is purely finding something like a Raggedy Ann rug and then feeling an extraordinary desire to build around that. And allowing whatever comes out of that to happen, and trusting the emotional response.