Nick Cave’s Object Permanence

It’s a beautiful late-spring Saturday in Kinderhook, New York, and sculptor and performance artist Nick Cave is standing on the lawn of what used to be Martin Van Buren High School and is now a brand-new exhibition space, The School, operated by Cave’s gallerist, Jack Shainman. Cave wears a black t-shirt and a pair of Nike Air sneakers; his heavily muscled arms are crossed. He’s watching the rehearsal of a 25-minute performance piece incorporating more than a dozen of his signature Soundsuits, human-sized wearable sculptures. When the real performance begins a few hours later for a sizable audience of press, guests of the gallery, and members of the Kinderhook community, it will serve to inaugurate both The School itself and a sizable exhibition of Cave’s work inside.

The newly-renovated School, which at present features a combination of sunny, white-walled gallery spaces and rawer, gutted ones, seems made for Cave’s work. Long corridors allow for the Soundsuits to be experienced sequentially; a corner turned downstairs reveals a massive installation of them, along with other sculptural works, situated in the center of what was once a gymnasium. Upstairs, in and around the old principal’s office, is newer work, a preview of what Cave will exhibit in a large solo show at Shainman’s New York gallery in September.

Much of it is inspired by found objects with propagandistic racist histories: most notably, a bust of a black face, with exaggerated features and a hinged head, that had been sold as a spittoon. It is prominently featured in Cave’s new piece Sea Sick. Next door, a cabinet on the floor houses a variety of similarly inflammatory objects. “I’m not really interested in offending anyone,” Cave explains, “as opposed to bringing you on a journey and creating an experience. And through this experience, we can then start to dissect and talk about the deeper context that’s sublime or hidden within the work.” Cave is increasingly interested in recontextualizing these objects in order to cast a new light on their place in American history: turning his viewers into students.

ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: To me, it makes a lot of sense to see your work in a decommissioned educational space—you perform and exhibit a lot at colleges, and you teach. When you first came here, what about the space spoke to you?

NICK CAVE: I’ve been up here maybe about six times as the space has been developing, and it really wasn’t until maybe the first of January when Jack [Shainman] asked me if I would be interested in doing an installation in the space, and then also premiering a little bit of the work that will be shown this fall in New York City. So I thought about it and then I told them it would be fine. And then the more I came here and started to walk through the space and was thinking about layouts and creating these vignettes, these moments of splendor, let’s say. As people move through the space, how do you also use art as a directional device, in terms of how a space may flow, and how does an audience move through a space, and what do they encounter as they are wandering through a space? That was important, to create —as they move through the space—these moments that continue to sort of heighten one’s senses. It’s really about providing that kind of insight, that vision, turning that corner and seeing that space.

SYMONDS: Were there any features of the building in specific that you wanted to explore or exploit?

CAVE: The principal’s office was a really wonderful opportunity to create—I wanted to put a central piece there that really could  support the space, again looking at the architecture. Then I was interested in these raw spaces, there’s two sculptures in a couple of the raw spaces—to reflect on what was here before. Those spaces were like the ruins of what is now being regentrified and redesigned in terms of a different kind of sparseness. So it was really nice to land a sculpture within those areas, to reflect. It was nice bringing contemporary meaning, sculptural form, with the historic aspect of the building.

SYMONDS: Which is something that gets explored within the pieces themselves, too.

CAVE: Mm-hmm!

SYMONDS: Now that you’ve been doing the Soundsuits for over two decades, speaking of history, do you feel there’s a personal history to the medium at this point, that they have a narrative of their own?

CAVE: I think the medium, in this particular body of work, is always in flux. Yesterday, I just thought of a new Soundsuit structure. I created a brand-new structure for Frieze that has never been seen before. So it’s always evolving; it’s always rooted within the history of dance, the history of performance, costume, couture. So it remains relevant, but it’s also about me expanding and seeing what continues to be an evolution. The materials continue to evolve. It’s still based around a consciousness; it’s still looking at the use of excess surplus, the recycling, the renegotiation of an object. And whether or not it’s rooted solely in black history, it is, but yet it still has the ability to be organic.

SYMONDS: To expand in multiple directions.

CAVE: Totally. I’m always writing new ideas down, but I’m also in this sort of transitional space moment, too. This fall, my show is not going to be Soundsuits at all, in the gallery. So I’m excited about that new direction and that body of work, as well.

SYMONDS: Are you doing more of the big sculptural pieces, like the one in the lobby of the school in this show?

CAVE: It’s going to be that; it’s also going to be what was up in those rooms.

SYMONDS: That kind of cabinet of curiosities.

CAVE: Yes.

SYMONDS: Has that been shown before?

CAVE: That’s new for the fall. All those rooms that were facing the front of the building, that’s all the new work that’s going to be in New York. Half of it. The other half we’re still producing in Chicago. But it’s still sort of influenced and inspired by a found object.

SYMONDS: I wanted to ask a little about the black history objects—how do you see their place in the contemporary art market?

CAVE: I think that exhibition is going to be quite spectacular, because what we’ve done is we’ve been traveling around the U.S. looking for—it started out when I found this bust of this black figure, face, and then I read the description, and it said “spittoon.” And it just took me—I just flipped out, girl, I was like, What?!

SYMONDS: This was at a flea market? Where?

CAVE: This was upstate New York.

SYMONDS: Wow. You weren’t in, like, Alabama.

CAVE: Oh, no, no. The most oppressive, obscure, demoralizing objects have mostly been found on the east part of the U.S. We’ve been flying to Seattle and shopping our way back, all over the country. So on the wall in the exhibition will also be a black-and-white photo of the image, where it was found, the year it was made, any information we can find that can then support it as it’s now being reintroduced and re-elevated into a different way of reviewing and responding. So it’s this call and response. And then as you leave the gallery, there will be newspaper that will be a take-away that will talk about the objects. There will be two essays written. And then there will be a map in the center that will have the data, where everything was located. It’s really about looking at the role of propaganda within an object, and then racial consumerism through history. It really starts to be and talk about a topic that I have not really heard much about from that sort of perspective.

SYMONDS: Again, makes sense to do that in a school.

CAVE: Yeah, and also, in New York, I want to set up a different type of reading, a different presentation that is an educational sort of experience.

SYMONDS: How does it feel, when you’re searching for these objects, to be deliberately looking for something so deeply problematic?

CAVE: Well, they’re always out there! Maybe the salt shakers, or what have you. But it’s really looking for those objects that are the extreme. I don’t know where they’re at, I’m just out and about. And it just happens that it shows up.

SYMONDS: Are you having conversations with the people who are selling these pieces about their histories? Do they tend to be pretty knowledgeable about the circumstances behind what they’re selling?

CAVE: Totally.

SYMONDS: So there’s an awareness there? They’re productive conversations?

CAVE: Totally. They’re very productive.

SYMONDS: But you feel like the sense of history you see in the flea markets isn’t something you’re finding outside that world?

CAVE: I think when we creep on the flea markets and the antique malls, again, it’s always that these objects are signifiers. They’re there. And whether or not one dismisses it, it’s there. But for me, I’m not interested in the ones that we dismiss. I’m more interested in the ones that are really heavy in terms of the despairing quality and the message behind it. I’m interested in the message behind them all, but again, I’m sort of collecting, again, these objects that are very extreme. I can’t believe that they’re there.

SYMONDS: That someone spent time creating that in the first place.

CAVE: I have a stool, an amazing mahogany stool, that’s a black man holding up the seat. It was a piano stool. I’m just like, What? So it’s just not just any—it’s not just a Mammy ashtray that becomes these collectibles. It’s really at a different level.

SYMONDS: How do you feel about these pieces in the context of primarily white collectors in the market? Do you have any problem with a white collector buying your spittoon piece and displaying it in their home to their white friends?

CAVE: Absolutely not. Because again, I am providing—my artist’s statement is all there, the newspaper is there, and it’s me heightening and renegotiating the role of this object and forcing it to take on a different type of presence and respect, in a sense. I don’t really care who collects my work, black, white, red, yellow. You have to also be consciously aware of, what does this mean in your home? And how are you supporting this work and the message behind the work?

SYMONDS: When you find objects, and I’m sure you must have millions of things that are in flux at any given time when you’re working on pieces—that effect of combination, is that just intuitive? Do you just know which objects are meant to land in which order?

CAVE: It’s very intuitive, the way that I approach my work. I only buy something that has a pulse. I may not know how I’m going to use it, but I know it has a pulse and it has multiple readings—if I shift it one way or another, it can be read this way or it can be read that way, but both readings are critical and very much ground the work. So that’s really how I negotiate whether or not I’m going to purchase something. I may not know what I’m going to do with it—I had that rug for maybe six months. But the rug, I just knew by looking at that rug that the center was the placement of something amazing. And then this radiation or ray of light around it is what’s going to elevate. So it’s these sort of things. It’s looking at an object, the impulse, the pulse, the implications of what’s available within an object, is really critical.

SYMONDS: To come back to the Soundsuits—you’ve said in statements that one of their purposes is to hide race, class, gender, all these visible signifiers. But obviously you’re a dancer, you work out, you’re very in tune with your body, and the Soundsuits very clearly emphasize movement. How do you see those two things interacting—the movement of the body versus the body being hidden?

CAVE: The body becomes the carrier for the work. It’s not really about the physical body; it really becomes the apparatus that carries and moves the work. I don’t really consider the body as much; I look at it as a tool. It’s really about a level of expression; using the body to heighten an expression or to build a character.

SYMONDS: I wondered whether you see the suits themselves as characters, and whether the dancer wearing one at any given time has any effect on how the suit should be received.

CAVE: Yeah! When I’m working with performers, it is a process that everyone has to go through. I really don’t allow you to wear it, first. I allow you to look at it, touch it, imagine what it would feel like on. And then, because it’s a transformation that one has to be willing to deliver. Once you transition in, then it’s all about conviction and how you become one with the object. If there’s restricted movement on your left side, how does that become full in terms of that motion? It’s really not about dance, it’s more about movement, and movement becomes more of an expression, for me. And I really want to dismiss and remove the wearer; therefore, it becomes one. So we’re becoming a collective whole and creating this sort of complex and universal sort of experience.

SYMONDS: Hearing you say that while the drummers [outside, rehearsing] come together…

CAVE: I know, I’m like, girl! They get it! Isn’t it crazy? Even this, here—I’ve never met any of these people, and just to come together with a group of people, I mean! Some of these guys haven’t met each other, some of them came on the train from New York, and they’re now, right now, creating a score. And then they’re going to work with the dancers, who are coming from three different schools in the area. Again, it’s, how can I create work that becomes a collective whole by the work being the central magnet that draws everyone together?

SYMONDS: Even just in the last 15 minutes, hearing them all starting in different places and come together—it’s really cool.

CAVE: It speaks about, how do we really want to negotiate how we move through the world? Do we want to continue to be in these isolated pockets, or are there ways in which we can somehow come to the center and interface and overlap and integrate and be more full?

SYMONDS: That’s about as much as you can ask from art, right?

CAVE: Yeah, period. Life.