Nick Cave @ Mass MoCA

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Chicago-based artist Nick Cave is concocting an installation for the football field-sized Building 5 at Mass MoCA that will take visitors on a magical journey through a glittery wonderland.

But as the viewers are being dazzled, they’ll also be faced with some hard truths.

Part of Cave’s presentation concerns itself with the spectacle and wonder inherent in a forest of whirligigs, a landscape of kitschy gewgaws, a mountain of pony beads, and the clouds of heaven that contain what Cave calls a “forbidden garden.” But at the core of the installation is the ugly history of racism, and it’s something that’s impossible to ignore.

“If you think you’re going to be chanting, ‘This is so pretty,’ I don’t think so,” Cave said. “There’s more in this work than just what’s on the surface.”

Cave’s biggest claim to art-world fame has come in the form of his Soundsuits, which are colorful, wearable fabric sculptures. The Soundsuits, which take advantage of his background in dance and performance as well as fashion, were initially made in response to seeing the footage of Rodney King’s beating. Cave’s first such work was crafted from twigs he noticed on the ground in a park where he sat while processing the news.

“For him, it was kind of like a suit of armor,” explained Denise Markonish, the show’s curator, “like what do I have to do to protect myself and hide myself and erase identity and give myself, or anybody inside this, power.”

The Soundsuits evolved, and Cave started making them with beads and fur and, soon enough, found objects. Some were used for performance and video; others were designed strictly as sculpture to be displayed.

Markonish asked to be introduced to Cave in 2011 after seeing a work of his at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. It was a more sculptural work featuring the placement of lawn jockeys, far different from the Soundsuits.

“I was blown away,” Markonish said, “because the Soundsuits started with that early message, but they also became these celebratory things, and I was like, wow, this is really taking the mask off and using the cast-iron lawn jockey and all of these objects.”

Two years later, Markonish caught Cave’s performance in Grand Central Terminal, Heard NY, which featured his Soundsuits again, but this time fashioned as sculptural horses that came alive for a performance. It was after this that Markonish told Cave she wanted him to create a work for the huge gallery at Mass MoCA — and that she wanted him to fill it without one single Soundsuit.

“He paused, and he said thank you,” Markonish said.

Cave said he had been exploring ways to shift his work, and Markonish’s offer gave him that opportunity. Markonish pledged that he wouldn’t hear from her for a year, and that he could use that time to get to work.

Part of the job, Cave said, required coming to terms with the huge space he was meant to fill.

“When I stood in Mass MoCA, I went there when they were changing out shows in Gallery 5, so the space was completely empty,” Cave said. “I literally walked to the center of the space and laid down to accept what was about to happen and become one with it. I just wanted to know how I’m feeling in this vast, massive space. It was calming, which was great.”

Even after making peace with the space, it took Cave time to develop what would actually go in it.

“I did not have any sort of ideas for quite some time, and then I think the turning point was all of the gun violence that was happening, particularly around black men,” he said. “I really started to find that I was focusing on the unarmed black men that were being shot in America. It just became so disturbing, time after time after time. All lives matter, but in this case black lives mattered.”

It was on this track that he eventually had his eureka moment.

For a time, he had made work based on his thoughts but without ever quite finding the unifier that he sought, the one that would marry his concerns with his process and aesthetic.

Then, “something just came to mind,” Cave said. “I asked myself: ‘Is there racism in heaven?’ That really was the pivotal moment of clarity that put me in the position for this project.”

That heaven as initially conceived by Cave will burst into dynamic fruition in Mass MoCA, spurred on by Markonish’s encouragement but also by previous elements in his work that double in personal and cultural significance.

“Over the years, he’s been collecting racist memorabilia,” Markonish said. “We’re all shocked that these exist. Some of them, like lawn jockeys, are still produced. For him, it’s like, ‘What can I do to take these out of circulation?’ His show at Jack’s … was extraordinarily powerful using a lot of these objects.”

Acquiring such objects is part of Cave’s creative process. One might even consider it a performance aspect, inspired by his own nostalgia and by his grandparents’ love of the mass-produced ceramic objects that they considered, and Cave grew up thinking, were as much art as anything in a museum.

These kinds of innocent objects are included in his work alongside the racist objects, and the placement speaks to the idea that black Americans historically have been objectified, turned into decorative gewgaws for white Americans in the form of racist figurines, which are also a focus of his secondhand purchasing.

Cave’s obsession with secondhand shopping often sees him flying to another state, renting a cargo van, and antiquing his way back home.

“In that process, I’m being exposed to all of these racial consumer products that have been produced,” he said. “At the same time, I’m looking at these amazing ceramic birds, so things become transparent, they become muddy. It is all there all together. It’s this crazy mash-up.”

The point at which Cave has to process his findings presents a helpful challenge to his making of art. It demands he face the objectionable items head-on and figure out what to do with the reality of their existence, how they will find new context in his art.

“I also have to come to terms with these objects, like the lawn jockey, their heinous, repressive history,” he said. “Yet I’ve got to embrace that, and work through that and empower that, and move forward.”

As Cave points out, the political is personal when it comes to race, both with the history of bigotry in America as well as the more recent gun violence that can’t help but be part of his daily thought process.

“I’m this African American man who’s terrified at night leaving the studio if I’m working a residence somewhere,” Cave said, “walking home at 1 o’clock in the morning, maybe three blocks away, but what’s going on in my brain is unfortunate. I’m thinking about myself as a black male out here on the street trying to get from Point A to Point B and what can happen in that space. I’m just exhausted and I want to go home, but all of a sudden, I have to gain a sense of self and be alert and very much aware of my surroundings.”

But while anger and fear are aspects of Cave’s reaction to this situation, when it comes to his art, his solution is to not let those emotions dominate what happens with his own approach. Coming together is his primary goal.

“I want this project to be a form of diplomacy, and I want to be a change agent, a cultural activist,” he explained. “What’s nice for me is that I’m taking this collective group of individuals on this journey with me. We’re walking into this dream together and developing it and fostering it and making it together. When it’s done, it will be this shared experience, which is so much better than solo.”

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