Something Fun Has Been Here

March 14, 2011

Among some of my artist friends the Seattle Art Museum has a reputation for not taking chances, only showing mainstream artists, and generally being a bit stuffy, but the new Nick Cave exhibit, Meet Me at the Center of the Earth, boldly proves otherwise. As some of you may remember, I provided a preview of this work a few months back when reviewing the Picasso collection.

Chicago artist, Nick Cave, works across mediums and his “soundsuits” are a grand exploration of the crossing points between sculpture and fashion. They defy everything about the traditional, black suit that was first introduced by the British and still remains dominant today. Last Wednesday, I was among a fortunate few who got into the SAM to preview the exhibit before its official opening on March 10, which will run until June 5.

Courtesy of the SAM

These wild and playful creations are completely handcrafted from found objects and all of them are wearable. Nick Cave has been at flea markets and secondhand shops since he was a child. As one of seven children with a single parent mother, there usually wasn’t enough money for new toys or clothing. From a young age, Nick learned to make do and be creative with what was available.

The scavenged materials that make up the soundsuits range from embroidered, beaded, and sequined fabrics to streamers, Indian medallions, pipe cleaners, and even beanie babies. His work takes objects that were once loved or popular, but have since been discarded or even laughed at and creates something entirely new. In creating this something “new,” there is definitely a sense of the collective. While the final composition was determined by Nick Cave, each item he has layered and patch worked to bring it to fruition was made in another place at another time by another person’s hand.

The exhibit’s title is inspired by a place no one has ever been: the center of the earth. As the setting for several works of fiction, including “Alice in Wonderland” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” this place calls to mind an altered state of reality where nothing is as we know it and what we encounter is beyond anything we could have imagined.

At the entrance you are welcomed to this world of the extraordinary and fantastic by a friendly bear made of colorful, striped sweaters. Beside him you meet strangely shaped creatures reminiscent of the Adam’s Family’s “Cousin It,” which are covered in neon hair from head to toe. In this same room you see a less jovial, ivory figure, which incorporates a Victorian funerary wreath and has some subtle, but extravagant, pearl beading on his behind. Aside from the suits, you also see a wall hanging made out of collaged black and sequined fabrics that calls to mind sparkling, celestial constellations.

The next room overwhelms. I can’t quite describe the experience of being in a space with over a dozen of these suits, but if you aren’t already in an altered state (recommended), it brings you there. Each one is made up of unique objects and different elements of shape and texture. There is a tiger’s head completely surrounded by porcelain birds he’d probably love to snack on. Another precarious figure is balancing an incredible number of colorful, spinning tops. Meanwhile a suit made up entirely of abandoned, crocheted handbags creates a blob like silhouette. Some of the suits have framing and dangling items suggestive of a Brazilian Carnival dancer. Others feature a tall, rounded shape and make you think of a bishop’s hood, a symbol of power extending up from the wearer’s head towards God and the heavens.

Courtesy of the SAM

To see the suits in action, an entire room of the exhibit is dedicated to music and video segments of these magical figures dancing, swaying, jiggling, kicking, and even jumping on pogo sticks. The hair suits make the biggest impression and it’s hard not to wish you could put one on and experiment with different movements too. Fortunately, video is not the only way you can see the suits as the wearable works of art they are intended to be. The SAM is also collaborating with Spectrum Dance Theatre and the Cornish College of the Arts in a series of “invasions,” which will be spontaneous performances around the Puget Sound where dancers and actors will bring the suits to life. For hints on when and where the next performance will take place, visit the SAM’s Twitter or Facebook pages.

In the second half of the exhibit, you see a series of suits made of twigs. These are actually the original soundsuits and where Nick Cave began when he started developing his concept and crafting his work. In contrast to the bright colors and extravagance in the suits seen earlier in the exhibit, these are dark brown and make you think of something in the wild like a bear or a Bigfoot. They are also inspired by darker content.

Nick made his first suit in response to the Rodney King scandal and the riots that followed, which impacted him tremendously. He couldn’t understand why someone would be compelled to beat a man to a pulp. There was a word the police called King over and over again: ogre. While reflecting on the incident, Nick gathered twigs at a park to create his own ogre. When he discovered that his sculpture was wearable, he put it on and started to move around in it. The rustling of the twigs made sounds that intrigued him and thus the “soundsuit” was born.

The final rooms of the exhibit feature another series of suits covered in thousands of vintage buttons in white, ivory, and opal colors. These bring to mind a moonscape and one has an abacus facemask and looks a great deal like an astronaut. The final suit of the collection seems to be inspired by a primary school classroom with multi-colored elements including pipe cleaners and origami chains similar to the ones my fellow classmates used to make out of gum wrappers.

The soundsuits make noise in big ways, both acoustically and visually across surfaces and textures and with the sparkle of sequins. However, as a whole this spirited frolic through a genre defying art form leaves a lot for visitors to interpret on their own. With sparse wall text on the art or the artist and absolutely no labeling or titles for the works, each piece is left open to various readings in terms of deciphering symbols and meaning. The visitor is asked numerous questions. What is beauty? What is ugly? How is art different from fashion? And what makes something popular and desired one moment and ludicrous and discarded the next?

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