Rodney King did not appear in the window at Nordstrom last week, but he was there. Behind the glass were three dancers in Technicolor raffia suits, the raffia strands flying wildly as the performers threw themselves toward the windows and shook like mad. This seemed like a thrill that can't be contained—or a level of containment leading to insanity. The crowd on the street just giggled. As the raffia beasts walked back to the museum, there was ignoring and light bemusement, and the handing out of flyers (by a tag team from Seattle Art Museum) explaining that these outfits are Soundsuits by a visual artist named Nick Cave (not the Australian musician), who is showing 46 more of them at the museum.
Nick Cave's art is a craftastic celebration—a thrill that can't be contained. "I want people of every age, race, and interest to be transported for a few minutes with me, to another place at the center of the earth," Cave opined to his catalog interviewer. The show is called Meet Me at the Center of the Earth. But the center of the earth is also the hottest part. A place where you would hurt.
The choreography at Nordstrom, by Donald Byrd of Spectrum Dance Theater, seemed to be pointing to this Manichaean nature—to the fact that there is an important dark side to Cave's work, without which its light side would not be so shining. Let's take that near-blinding light side first. The suits themselves are comets of couture, made of finely sewn-together sequins, buttons, and sparkly beads; discarded blankets, fabrics, hats, rugs, and bags in every visible color; topped off with wreaths and painted toys and fake flowers and birds. Cave wants them to inspire leaps of imagination—imagining the other world these beings live in—that might change things here. "This exhibition is not about me being an artist, but about being a humanitarian," he says. "The arts are our salvation—the only thing that allows us to heal and also helps us dream about what will make the world a better place."
Pamela McClusky, SAM African art curator, organized this stop on the exhibition's national tour. Her catalog essay is an enchanted made-up story about a spontaneous gathering on Marginal Way (Marginal Way, see). Regular folks meet up with Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Keith Haring, Josephine Baker and her leopard, and the West African people of Benin—and everybody creates a giant Soundsuit, a mini-world of wonder. Everybody dances as the sun goes down on the essay.
But the darkness rises, too. Cave, who was born in Fulton, Missouri, and raised in Central Missouri by his mother along with his six brothers, created his first Soundsuit out of twigs. It was 1992, and he was sitting on a bench feeling demeaned by the beating of Rodney King. He identified with some discarded twigs at his feet, and decided to cover himself in a suit made entirely of them. It rustled when he moved; he called it a Soundsuit. It covered his face and body, erasing his race, gender, and class all at once. It was a shield and a statement. Cave still makes twig suits; three new ones are on display at SAM. They're like formal, fashion-conscious versions of artist Kim Jones's Mudman costume, created from sticks and mud in 1976 as a response to experiences Jones suffered in the Vietnam War. (Cave is director of the graduate fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.)
After the original twig suits, Cave followed with a torrent of suits in materials he scavenges from all over the world. Every one is made to be worn (the craftsmanship is ingenious), and Cave and the assistants do the sewing themselves. Dozens of suits stand silently in theatrical and runway-esque configurations under the bright lights and against the white walls and pedestals at SAM. The room at the center of the show has been turned into a movie theater, with new videos of the artist (an Alvin Ailey–trained dancer) and other dancers performing in the suits; the videos range from disco to haunting, demonstrating the breadth of emotion the suits can bring across—unlike what happened during the first "invasion" at Nordstrom, where with fully visible faces and inside a retail zone, the performers merely resembled clowns or Burners. One hopes future "invasions" will be more complex.
Cave decided to substitute these new videos for one that showed at other venues—of portraits of mass-produced racist black butler figurines with individualizing marks of wear and tear. SAM's version of the exhibition also adds 10 brand-new suits, one with an abacus for a face, others that look like fuzzy aliens/insects, and the twig suits that hark back. Mostly gone are the earlier fully sequined suits that look like gowns worn by an oilman's wife in the 1980s—with pointed tops where the Pope meets the Ku Klux Klan. The most disturbing suit is one SAM actually owns; it's a fencing mask with a flaming face of copper wire, a thick pelt of dark human hair on the upper back, and the rest of the body bulgy with fabric humps. McClusky says she wasn't sure whether to hug it or run from it when it first arrived at the museum.
This is the first time SAM has devoted 14,000 square feet to a contemporary artist, and it's in the space last occupied by the Picasso exhibition. One hopes that some of the power and popularity of Meet Me at the Center of the Earth is channeled toward examining its darker influences and implications. Unknown visitors appearing in clumps on streets might bring to mind, for instance, not only the circus but also street takeovers around the world. The recent events in Wisconsin and Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are easily contrasted with the short-lasting, merely symbolic nature of most American protests, and just as many Americans want to see real change, so Cave wants his art to do more than please. Cave describes his experience of walking down the street and realizing that nobody knows he's an artist just by looking at him. He turns it around to apply to our relationships to ourselves, too: "I love it that people don't know what is inside of them," he says. And that's the material he really wants to sculpt.