Nick Cave at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center in Savannah, Georgia
by Arden Cone
Ten of Nick Cave’s works, on view through April 23rd, 2017 at the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center (Savannah, GA), fall into a simple truism: communication is compulsory—dire, even—for anything animate, anything conscious, and anything responsive. As works of art, Nick Cave’s soundsuits are these three things.
The life-size body suits, which are made of strewn-together objects such as beads, buttons, rugs, afgans, and children’s toys, are performance objects named for the sounds they make when worn upon a moving body. In the Telfair’s third-floor gallery, they enshroud lifeless mannequins, but they pulse with kinetic energy, ready jump into a dancelike routine at any moment.
At the front of the gallery is the most ambitious of Cave’s works on view, a large, flowing piece comprised of seven suits, each connected with a continuous train of fabric. The entire work of art is a single piece of cloth with mother of pearl buttons adorning every inch of the thin-skinned membrane. The material pulls taught over their expressionless, tuba-like faces, resembling a drumhead turned on its side.
Though the soundsuits lack ears, they seem conscious of their capacity for sound, dying to be heard. But they endure motionless silence instead, and the gallery is rife with unreached potential. Ambient noise emanates from the back room, where the artist's two performance videos roll. The footage, projected against the museum's white walls, shows soundsuits at play, rattling strange metallic noises as they bend and turn. Meanwhile, six suits in physical form, stand motionless in the museum, hushed.
But there are countless ways of speaking, so the paralyzed performers adapt to their condition. The soundsuits flood my field of vision with rapturous noise, holding up the room with the largeness of their presence. My eyes are drawn around the gallery and up to the walls, where two large, circular works, at least as large in diameter as the soundsuits themselves, hang in their beaded, sequined splendor.
In a small passageway between two spacious galleries, a segment of PBS’s art21 plays on loop, rolling footage of the artist in his studio and the soundsuits in performance. It explains the background of the curious art objects, a story that dates back to the 1992 police beating of Rodney King. Cave responded to society’s heightened racial tensions by designing the first of many soundsuits, a form that has occupied him ever since.
The earliest was a body of armor constructed from twigs, a disguise that hid defining features such as race and gender. Not only are twigs vulnerable, subject to snap under brute force, but they are also often discarded, crushed, and overlooked—just as King had been. The poignant metaphor has expanded to become a large body of work, the ultimate combination of Cave’s interests in visual art and dance.
While the exhibition’s simplified wall text, interactive diversions, and PBS video assume a short attention span from the viewer, they are permissible distractions that make the exhibition much more accessible to the public. The museum’s mission, after all, is to provide art for everyone, and that is what the soundsuits are. As complex works of art, they reveal themselves in layers, but at their core, they just want the world to hear their voices.
When the works are in action, dancers inhabit, animate, and activate them. The suits try their voices, at which point their artfulness blooms into full creative form. This is their destiny. As I walk through the gallery, as I look at the static works of art, I see them speak. There is no need to hear at that moment, for their voices echo through my eyes.