In 1992, when Nick Cave made his first soundsuit, the ornate, full-body garments for which he is best known, it was his response to the beating of Rodney King by police officers. Cave has described this genesis as “an inflammatory response,” a conduit of rage and helplessness channeled into something both theoretically wearable and visually striking.
The first suit, with its prickly skin of twigs and branches, was a remedy both to racial profiling and bodily vulnerability — armor as protest. That the soundsuits’ relevance has sustained, 30 years on, represents both a triumph for the 63-year-old artist and unyielding nightmare. Cave has created nearly 500 examples.
A version from 2011, on view in “Forothermore,” an alternatingly beautiful and deeply mournful survey of Cave’s work at the Guggenheim, illustrates how the soundsuits evolved since, into nearly autonomous beings. A hulking exoskeleton of clipped twigs sheathed onto a metal armature, it appears human, but only just. Its shoulders slumped, the weight of its outsize head making it appear like a Maurice Sendak creature — a wild thing, terrifying and melancholic. It stands like a golem, an entity, in the Jewish tradition, sculpted from earth and animated as the protector of a persecuted community.
Cave has made several twig versions, but these are outliers; the soundsuits tend to be elaborately embellished, abandoning organic material for consumer products, laden with scaffoldings of lost toys or resplendent with beadwork, buttons and artificial flowers. Unlike that first suit, which aimed to camouflage a wearer like a piece of tactical gear, Cave’s soundsuits became as inconspicuous as a brass band at a monastery. They reach for magisterial levels of flamboyance, sprouting constellations of classroom globes or coated with shaggy, lurid hair, like a feral Muppet who’s gotten into a cache of Manic Panic.
The soundsuits are the most recognized part of Cave’s practice (he’s translated them into mosaics in the subway passages beneath Times Square and oversized jigsaw puzzles) and undoubtedly the draw here, but they’re also of a piece with his larger, abiding project, which centers on the Black American body and the ways in which it is devalued and brutalized. Curated by Naomi Beckwith, the survey is a condensed version that originated earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, in Cave’s hometown. Last January, the Guggenheim appointed Beckwith chief curator and deputy director, and she retrofitted the exhibition here.
As in Chicago, “Forothermore” is organized into three sections titled “What It Was,” “What It Is” and “What It Shall Be,” a rough past-present-future lens through which to digest Cave’s themes. (The exhibition judiciously avoids the word “Afrofuturism,” which as a curatorial conceit has lately been overextended; attempts to see into the future, as the last few years have demonstrated, haven’t panned out.)
This structure would probably have flowed naturally up the museum’s rotunda but that’s currently occupied by Alex Katz. Instead it is chopped up among 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 stymied). The sections focus on several of Cave’s bodies of work: his larger bas-reliefs; his cast bronze sculptures; and finally the soundsuits. Cave’s performance and video work, often revelatory, is largely absent, presumably because of space considerations. (There are three short films buried in the museum’s basement screening room worth viewing.)
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Still, recurrent motifs emerge: Cave’s magpie eye for shiny things, his recycler’s zeal, his affection for weird simulacra of the natural world. The work here is unified by twin horrors: the myriad psychological oppressions Black Americans have been made to endure — ugly caricatures and minstrel depictions grafted onto banal Americana like carnival games and spittoons, the reverberations of which are still felt — and the sea of castoff plastic junk that threatens to choke us. Like Kurt Schwitters, Cave delights in shimmering trash, but Cave’s rescued tchotchkes are meant to rhyme with the way life in this country is so readily discarded. There’s a graceful, ethical consideration about material acquisition, and a haunting evocation of the ways time folds in on itself — how nothing is ever really lost, not even creepy lawn ornaments, if they’re remembered.
The middle section largely turns on Cave’s cast bronze and found object sculptures, many of which deploy the artist’s own disembodied limbs festooned with intricate floral brocades. They’re confrontational, sometimes eloquently so, as in pieces in which arms and hands reach from walls in ambiguous gestures, outstretched and laden with towels, poses that suggest servility and conjure psychic dispossession, like a Robert Gober but with mercifully less body hair.
In other places, where a head rests upon 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 summon surrealism’s ability to make sense of calamity, but they pale in comparison to the daily surreality of being alive in this country, which outstrips art’s capacity to depict it. As in “Platform” (2018), an installation of grotesque bronze gramophones that sprout limbs, much of the experience of American life can be equated to opening one’s mouth to scream and finding no sound produced.
All fashion is, in the end, a kind of armor. And the soundsuits are, at their most essential, clothing. In their drape, precision and sense of drama, they evince the hand of the couturier (the twig suits in particular call to mind Alexander McQueen’s supremely exquisite razor clam dress). As much as Cave’s suits suggest figures from an indeterminate folklore, the ornamental headdresses following from the exuberant costumes made for J’Ouvert celebrations and Native ceremonial regalia, they also pull from the camp of drag, 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 fashion’s paradox, its simultaneous desire for concealment and acknowledgment, in ways that both anoint Black cultural history and illuminate its anxieties. “Hustle Coat” (2021), a trench coat concealing a tunic of striated costume jewelry and bootleg Rolexes, is a canny sight gag on the coat-flashing street hawker, but also the idea of “ghetto fabulousness,” style in the face of deprivation.
“Golem” in Hebrew can mean “incomplete.” Cave’s soundsuits are meant to be animated by the body, by which they produce the jangling, rustling 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 conservation), but they want to fulfill their purpose, which is to move and be loud.
Cave’s art turns on performance, communion through ritual and shared grief. In their absence, we’re left to imagine the heft of a suit made of hundreds of sock monkeys, and take on their word the potency of their talismanic powers.
Artists like to invoke the notion of joy now, a radical defiance in the face of so much conspiring against it. The exhibition’s wall text uses the word. But there’s little joy to be found. In their ability to obscure and refuse identity, the soundsuits propose a model for a utopic future, one where gender, race and sexual orientation are rendered irrelevant.
In the meantime, the soundsuits are tragic figures, girding themselves for violence, their bric-a-brac shells poised to absorb pain, which inevitably comes. The exertion required to wear their intense armatures makes them daunting, at least chiropractically unsound. They ask us to consider what kind of country we’re left with, if this is what it takes to merely survive in it.
Nick Cave: Forothermore
Through April 10, 2023, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-423 3500; guggenheim.org.