Born in Fulton, Missouri, in 1959, the artist Nick Cave has been meticulously building a language, a vernacular, of symbolism, artifact, and ritual. Cave’s work began at the intersection of art and fashion with the creation of his Soundsuits: spectacular objects removed from race, class, and context, they are to be worn and performed in.
Cave created these armored vessels as a reaction to Rodney King’s beating in 1991. His performances and installations have since been exhibited around the world and his objects collected by the most prominent institutions and museums.
Much of Cave’s output isn’t just performance-based but are exercises in community collaboration, forums, expressing the talents and voices of real people. This summer, his most recent show, “The Let Go,” was performed several times each week at the Park Avenue Armory by the Mama Foundation for the Arts and the Sing Harlem Choir, in collaboration with the creative director Bob Faust.
Dancers were transformed into colorful beings in a magical and ritualistic performance of singing and dancing, while streamers several stories tall became mobile as the event transformed into an interactive party. We spoke with Cave at his home base of Chicago, Illinois, about his life’s work and practice.
Mark Benjamin: How are you doing today?
Nick Cave: I’m doing great. I’m moving to my studio in probably a couple of weeks, so it’s a bit hectic, as you can imagine.
MB: This is Chicago, right?
NC: Yeah. I’m moving into a smaller place that will allow everything
to operate on one floor. I’ve been in this building for maybe 15, 20 years. I started out solo in the studio and then it changed to me having a staff of about 10, which varies from 10 to 30, depending on each project. So, I’m taking over more space in the building, but it’s like, “We can only do that project on the first floor,” or, “We can work upstairs, we just need to move about three floors,” and I can’t take it anymore. I need everything on one floor, and just a different kind of experience. I want something a lot more cohesive, where transitions are easy. So, it’s good. I’m excited.
MB: That’s awesome. Yeah, I know how much changing a space can change everything.
NC: Oh yeah, totally. I’ve been looking for a building for about five years. I’ve found buildings that were the one and then the zoning couldn’t be changed, so it’s taken a while.
MB: Tell me about it. It’s the same thing in New York. It’s kinda crazy.
NC: It’s been magnificent to develop and to work within communities and find ways of being proactive in using art as vehicle for change. We’re living in a time where we can find ways of working that can inform as well as find common ground.
MB: Totally. I first came across your work when I was a teenager, at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. I’ll never forget it—it was a shiny pink suit with tambourine-like symbols on it. Then it became a square at the head, and it was 8ft tall. And I remember being terrified. That was my first reaction—just, “What is going on here?” Because it’s very imposing, especially for a kid. As I’ve gotten older, seeing your work has turned more into intrigue and curiosity, and also more celebration.
When I first saw [the suit], I never thought about any of the connotations of the creation of the Soundsuits. I just thought, “Wow, this is amazing. This is interesting. This is great.” Which I think is what you wanted to achieve. Because you’ve said that you want to flatten class and race, and all of these aspects disappear with the suits. You flatten as you go.
NC: Yeah, but at the same time I wanted to have that very daunting thought of un-peculiar sensibility to it. It’s scary, it’s frightening, it’s dark, yet there’s something that is other about it. That is not quite from this place. This world. And yet in a peculiar way, it also evokes some sort of strong belief or optimism. You can’t really define it. You know how sometimes we’re scared, but at the same time we’re drawn to something that’s seducing us? So it’s really lived in this un-peculiar kind of place that tends to arouse some sort of emotion.
MB: Totally. The only other time I’ve felt like that—frightened and intrigued at the same time—was probably those three minutes during Dumbo when those pink elephants are dancing. It’s frightening, but you can’t look away.
NC: Oh, yeah.
MB: I read somewhere that you started making these Soundsuits as a way of creating your own armor, a form of protection. Do you see them now becoming more a place to escape to than a form of resistance?
NC: Well, I’ve always seen it as both. Resistance can be about taking a positive kind of approach, and I sort of created “The Let Go” as a form of resistance. Creating this space, this cavity that allows us to come in and think about… I start to think about ways of letting go without being harmful. And it kept bringing me back to movement and dance. And to be able to selectively create this environment occupied by this moving curtain called Chase, and that curtain was designed with one side red, black, green, followed by blue, black. For me, it was the police chasing a minority. You would never know that. So there’s always this very dark, underlying message that is—
The let go
MB: Well, you might even celebrate it. My friends were running through those streamers.
NC: Well, that’s the whole idea. The amount of people who turn their backs on situations they’ve witnessed and then go out to dinner. So, it’s just all a bit fucked up in terms of how we position ourselves in the world. You know, we don’t want to say the truth, we would rather turn our backs on it as if it doesn’t exist or—
MB: And have a big party.
MB: I went to Park Avenue Armory and I saw, I experienced, your show “The Let Go”. And now I’m like, “Oh, damn. Got me.” But it makes sense, it’s like Félix González-Torres and the eating of the candy. [For Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA) (1991), the Cuban artist González-Torres assembled a 175lb pile of candy that visitors were invited to take a piece from, its depletion representing the diminishing weight of his late partner as he died from Aids.]
NC: Exactly. Yet, at the same time, there are still opportunities. We turn our backs against it. There are also these moments where we’re back to back. You’re holding up my back, I’m holding up your back. So there are ways we can almost enforce a particular way of thinking, a particular way of acting that informs and sheds light on [situations].
MB: Right. You were first inspired by Rodney King and his beating in 1991, right?
“I sit in silence every day. As a creative person, you’re the judge of the time you’re alone. And it’s gotten me clear. It’s gotten me to understand who I am. It has gotten me to face who I am. And I think if the world were to sit in silence every day for one hour, I think we would live in a different world”Nick Cave
MB: And 26 years later, we’re seeing it happen again and again, except it’s worse. It’s police shootings, it’s BBQ Becky, discrimination…
NC: Yeah, it’s happening again and I think right now… I’m just one person, you know? I’ve got a lot to do and yet I’ve got to settle down and stay very focused and allow each project to fully serve its purpose. Again, I’m doing all I can to bring [communities] together in these mass quantities and… Like with Park Armory, we worked with more than 100 social services that occupied the armories daily. I’m more into volume, and the alternative ways of helping this vast world via communities through this art experience.
NC: Because I find that unity and… those are my ambassadors. I can only present a project, but then I’m thinking, “OK, now who are my ambassadors who can also filter this information out into the world, into the communities and be proactive in that way?”
MB: That’s also something that interested me—your works are never really just you. Even the Soundsuits, somebody has to dance in them. They are just the vessel, your performances are very people-based. Without the people, there wouldn’t be art.
NC: Well, it needs the support of others in order for them to take action, or a project to come to life—
MB: Yeah. It’s interesting because, with an artist like Matthew Barney, his films are kind of the works, and then if there’s a prop from the film, some collector will scoop it up. But that’s not really important. Then, with yours, it’s the reverse—the performance is front and center.
NC: Exactly. It’s really about creating the setting for us now to do the work that is asked.
MB: And I wanted to ask you, in the future, when we’re all gone, and there’s some incarnation of the Met or something, and your work is standing there, and somebody’s sitting there, thinking, “I wonder what this was used for. What strange culture, what strange people?”, what kind of crazy things do you think might be going through their mind?
NC: Yeah. It’s interesting you say that, because I see what has led me to look at my work in terms of options. I would go to the Museum of Natural History and look at all these artifacts and art objects, which all served a purpose within a particular culture. So I’m like, “OK, this object was used in this particular ritual for this purpose.”
NC: So, I’m looking at the dualities of the ways of looking at objects, looking at environments, looking at relics and thinking, “Wow.” So it’s even more powerful now that I can understand [an object’s] role in society. And yet I’m also asked to view this with the utmost respect and… That’s when I started to think about my work differently. There was a time when I wouldn’t sell a Soundsuit unless it was performed, because I wanted that history there, I wanted them to be connected to something.
MB: Right, because even a collector doesn’t really own it. In a sense, they own the vessel, they don’t own the performance.
NC: Exactly. For me it’s just the recordings. It’s getting that to video, and all the data. Which will also be what’s left behind. In addition to the value is this vast library of video works and performance works. Lately I’ve been selling performance works, which is amazing because there are museums that will take care of each performance, and they will continue to perform the piece. So, that’s also very interesting.
MB: When you create a Soundsuit, are you thinking of the performance and the role the suit is going to have in the performance, or do you just create the suit and then find the performance to put it in?
NC: For the most part, it’s the latter. The work may be incorporated in the performance or it may not be. I find that I work in this very particular way, where I’m interested in making objects and then bringing them to a performance platform. And it may not be something that occurs right away, it could happen 5 to 10 years afterwards.
NC: So, I find working in this very fluid way allows enough sensibility to remain. It’s much more grounded and rooted in something that has more meaning.
MB: Right. You’re classically trained as a fashion designer, right?
MB: Maybe not classically, but fashion was your initial interest, right?
NC: No, not really. I studied dance and then I studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, then I went to Cranbrook for my master’s. But it was all [about] working in this trans-disciplinary way. I took a number of classes to understand the principles of the construction of a garment. But it’s never been that I was interested in fashion as a pathway, or dance as a pathway. These were the two critical discourses that influenced and brought my work to life.
Into the art world
MB: When you were growing up, did you know that you wanted to be an artist or imagine that you would ever have such a flourishing career as an artist?
NC: I never thought that I would have such a flourishing career. You can only imagine and hope for that. But it was not something I really thought about. I think it was brought to my attention when I was 12, when I was at high school—[I was told],
“You have this unique talent and you should consider pursuing that
as your undergraduate degree.” But, you know, at that age, you think, “OK, sure.”
NC: But I don’t think I really thought about where it could lead until
I was in college. And then I was exposed to living artists. These are the sorts of things that allowed me to look at that and go, “OK, you can have a successful career.” It wasn’t really until graduate school and probably toward the end of my graduate studies where I was like, “Oh.” It’s not like you leave this creative world of school with a manual of how to do it… That doesn’t exist.
MB: Yeah, tell me about it.
NC: And it really is just based on pure leaps of faith and just fear. Standing up to fear is how I was able to… and just gambling my ass off, too. The whole, “Shit, I need to buy food, but I’m gonna buy art supplies.” It was all a gamble and about falling on your face. Feeling that there’s nothing else, and I have to get back up and get back in the game.
There were moments where I… situations where… projects that fell apart, performances that fell apart in front of, like, 3,000 people. And I’d be hiding out for four months, just embarrassed and deflated. But for some reason, I was like, “I gotta get up and face the truth. I gotta get back in the game.” So that’s what I did. I just fought through it. I’m telling you, there were times when I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t… this isn’t working.” But there was something bigger— bigger than me.
And I tried corporate America. I was working in creative environments, but internally… I wasn’t happy. I thought, “I’ve got to figure this out.” But I’m one of the lucky ones. I was willing to risk it all to find out that it is possible. Oh my God, there were moments where I just had to make sacrifices, too. I had to let everything go that was in my life—relationships, people—in order to see if this was possible. I needed every part of my being to see if it was possible. I needed to become selfish to see if this was possible.
MB: Do you have any regrets?
NC: No. Internally, we all know what we need to do. And it’s really whether or not we can step up to fear. It’s tough, it’s hard, but we only have one life.
MB: I come from a similar thing. I tried the corporate thing, too, and I couldn’t do it, so I quit my job and started this magazine like a crazy person.
NC: You think it’s crazy, but it’s something that, internally, you kept at. The moment you understand why you’re doing it, and the influence that you can have through what you’re doing as a creative being, then it all makes sense. It’s like with the magazine, how do you create this magazine so that it has a purpose? Where it serves the community in some aspects? Because I think it’s all about service— like, how do we [offer a] service to the world?
MB: Yeah. I also wanted to ask you about Texas. I grew up in Houston, and you went to school in North Texas, right?
NC: Yeah, my first grad school. I went there because there was a professor I wanted to continue working with, Professor Spear.
MB: [Texas] is such a strange place. Growing up there and then moving to New York… I compare it to Plato’s cave—you get out and you’re like, “You know what, it’s not normal to have a separate pledge of allegiance to the state flag. It’s not normal to have rodeos and mega- churches, and ministers who fly helicopters.”
NC: While I was in school there, there was this junior high school that we occupied, so we each had this amazing studio. And I found that, out of all the grad students, I was always the only one there. At night, I was like, “Where the fuck is everybody?” And the rhythm in terms of how people moved and navigated was so slow, and at the weekends, nobody was around.
MB: Where were they?
NC: I don’t know… at the beach? I was like, “I gotta get out of here. I need a more intense rigor.” I need to be pushed, I need to be challenged. And I had to pack up and move on. It was really very strange.
MB: I still feel that when I go from New York to Texas. I can be there about three or four days, and it feels great, it’s easy, it’s cheap, everything’s bigger.
NC: Yeah, and then you’re like, “Gotta go.” I think we’re suppose to be living in the world as opposed to living in the country. And I think the moment we all get outside of these communities and neighborhoods in which we’ve been raised, and we operate in the world, our purpose is very different. We operate in a very different way. When I go home for Christmas, I have couple of brothers who still live in Missouri and they’re like, “So-and-so wants to see you.” And I’m like, “No. I can’t.” Because I’m just not… I don’t know what we have in common, I don’t know how to identify with friends I went to high school with who have chosen to stay in Columbia. I’m living in fear, emotionally. I’m sort of in hiding when I go home, because I can’t bear to see anyone.
MB: I can relate to that feeling, for sure. I graduated from high school in 2009, but it was a very homophobic environment and it was very… That still lingers, to the point where I’m a very different person if I go back now.
NC: I can’t even imagine a high-school reunion. I will never be able to do that. Not even college.
MB: No way. Somebody said to me, “Are you going to your reunion?” I was like, “Look, I will go to your high-school reunion, but I will not go to mine.”
NC: I know. But I’m a different person, now that I understand that there’s a world out there. I am so much more open—I see differently, I experience life differently, and that’s a beautiful thing.
MB: Conceivably, you could be creating anywhere over the world, but when the purpose changes, does your mission change?
NC: What’s been interesting in the past five years is that I’ve had the “studio-away-from-home studio”. So, if I’m on my way to Sydney in November to install “Until,” the project I did at MASS MoCA [Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art], I’m there for a month and a half, and find this is my new studio practice, that it’s my studio- away-from-home studio. Chicago’s my incubator—it allows me to experiment and test out ideas. It allows me to be clearer, get clearer. The way I work is that I’m pretty quiet until I’m ready to hit. But for the most part, I’m underground, producing and trying to come up with the next project and developing that, and then I present it to the world. It allows me to be protected, to not get distracted. Yes,
I could live in New York, but oh my God, if I was there, I don’t know whether I would be as clear as I am today.
NC: Because I would be so attracted to so many aspects of the arts that… Things need time to mature and to develop, for you to understand how they are to exist and function in the world. And if you do not give it [time], that becomes undeveloped.
MB: That makes a lot of sense, and I feel it all the time.
NC: I just never close the store—it took about 10 years for it to really take form. It takes time to really develop something, and once you understand that, that means your foundation is solid, you’re able to build whatever you want on top of that.
NC: So that’s the beauty of where I’m at now in my career. These opportunities are extraordinary, but I understand them because I’ve been on that path for so long. Falling and getting back up, and having a clear understanding of the pros and cons. Now I’m in this extraordinary place of creativity and way of working, and hopefully hosting the communities and providing other people platforms to stand on, and to see what’s possible. That’s the shit that’s important —creating these platforms for people to see what is possible, what their future could look like.
MB: I definitely saw that in “The Let Go” with Jorell Williams and the Sing Harlem Choir. It’s incredible. It was a very interesting piece for me, too, because… I’ll tell you a story. There’s an artist friend of mine, he’s of Japanese descent in New York, and we were at an after-party for an art show and he asked me, “When you look in a mirror, what do you see as your identity?”
And I was kinda floored because I’d never thought about it, and it never felt important because people… People only recently—when I moved to New York—have started asking me about my ethnic background, something they might not ask somebody who’s Caucasian or something like that. And I’m adopted, so I don’t really know. I never know what to tell them.
And one of my close friends eventually bought me one of those DNA tests, and I spat in a tube, I sent it away. Then I got the results, and I don’t care because it doesn’t really matter to me. It never really did. I’m North African and Italian, but I never really thought anything of it. So when I was watching “The Let Go,” this process of all of these components being brought out to all these normal people, dancers, and then being equipped with all of these…
NC: Yeah, their rite of passage.
MB: And becoming something that’s unrecognizable and unimportant in a way that… it’s other, but it doesn’t matter because it’s all other. And that was a transformative thing, and I thought of the title, “The Let Go”—is that one of the things you’re trying to highlight, that people should let go of these ideas of identity?
NC: Of self?
NC: Yeah, that was part of it, and also, I was raised in a single-parent family. My father died when I was 17 and wasn’t really that available when he was here. Luckily, I had great grandparents, grandfathers and uncles, who were extraordinary and who are extraordinary.
So the thing about “The Let Go” and working with these individuals, it was these testimonies that these kids were willing to share. And that this experience had given them permission to be who they need to be was just everything. So it was really about stripping down one’s identity and building oneself. And no defining that through any particular [thing], but just what is your self-hood, what is that made up of, and how do you prove that? So they were all left with this certificate through this rite of passage.
And empowerment. It was very much about that. And at the same time, with the choir, with these kids who have never… who didn’t even know that the armories existed… to be able to stand on that stage and to look around and think, “We’re performing here.”
NC: In a city, in a place that we didn’t know was available and possible.
MB: Right. It’s not a very accessible venue, necessarily.
NC: Yeah. So it was about all of the above, and what you were talking about as well—that we’re not defined by what we look like.
MB: It was pretty crazy for me to see that visually. You mentioned “Until” earlier—it started at MASS MoCA, right? In 2016?
MB: You’ve had such a long and historic career, and that show… I haven’t been yet, unfortunately. But from the pictures it looks very different and almost like stepping into your brain.
NC: “The Let Go” came before the Park Armory. [“Until”] was this immersive, kinetic installation, all those wind spinners spinning in that entire space by these little motives at the top. So it was this amazing journey in which you would find yourself moving through the spinner force, and then you would come up on this enormous, crystal, cloud-scape that you could then climb up to the top of and see above the object. That whole project came out of, I think it was Freddie Gray had just [died]. And I’m in the studio… you know, Trayvon, it goes on and on. So I’m in the studio and I’m thinking about all of this, and what popped into my mind was, “Is there racism in heaven?”
So that’s how MASS MoCA came about. Denise Markonish, curator of MASS MoCA, came to my studio in 2015, at the beginning of the year, and said, “We want to offer you gallery 5—we’ll be back in a year to see what you have decided to do.” And I hadn’t been thinking about it and then, all of a sudden, [Freddie’s death] triggered the project.
And so, through these horrific tragedies that we face daily, it was my next mission, my task, to deliver that project. I’m a messenger first, artist second. Once I came to terms with that, the art thing became very different for me. I’m not stressed ever. I don’t really think about it, because the work is not rooted there [in art]. Its formality is based there, but there’s a higher reason for the delivery.
MB: Maybe this is a bold question to ask, but if there’s something you’d want an audience to walk away with after experiencing any of your performances, what would it be?
NC: It’s really optimism and hope.
MB: I have a friend who’s a musician and he has these concerts—we did a profile on him in the last issue—and they’re a fun and crazy environment, and they’re really free. It’s like you can let go in them.
NC: I know what you mean.
MB: It’s real. There’s something, there’s a vibe that I… I don’t dance, I don’t usually get all rowdy, but there’s just some spiritual thing that allows you to just let go, you know?
NC: Yeah… Do you ever sit in silence?
Sitting in silence
MB: I wish I could. I’m horrible at it. My mind races like crazy.
NC: I sit in silence every day. And I’ve been sitting in silence for decades because, as a creative person, you’re the judge of the time you’re alone. And you’re just trying to make things, and you just need isolation to do that. And it’s gotten me clear. It’s gotten me to understand who I am. It has gotten me to face who I am. And I think if we were to sit in silence, if the world could sit in silence every day for one hour, I think we would live in a different world.
MB: That’s crazy. I think you’re right, it’s a great time for people to sit and reflect on—
NC: Exactly. That’s what’s gonna set you free. I can be working in the studio sometimes and then I’m bawling—just a disaster. But it’s just me trying to work through it and trying to bring understanding to why.
MB: Right. As opposed to repressing those feelings or—
NC: Or watching TV, with music on—
MB: Shopping. Retail shopping.
MB: What’s next on your mind? I don’t necessarily mean what show have you got coming up next, I hate asking people that, but what do you want to accomplish next?
NC: Isn’t that the most horrific thing—that there’s always this thing of, “What’s next?”
MB: I know what you mean.
NC: The next thing that’s on my mind is really… I really need to just take a break for once. I’ve got my show that opens in the fall at Jack Shainman, titled “If a Tree Falls”. It’s me looking at black-on-black crime. Hopefully you can make the opening.
MB: I’d love to.
NC: It opens in November, I think. I’m not sure of the exact date. And then I’ve got Times Square. I’m doing a video installation there on all the monitors, from December to February. I think it’s every night at 11.45.
MB: That’s so cool. How did that happen?
NC: Well, they used this program where it’s midnight—I’m not sure what it’s called—and they invite artists to do video work. It’s a new art initiative.
MB: That’s awesome. I can’t think of anything since Barbara Kruger.
NC: I remember being in Times Square when I was 35, 40, thinking, “If only I could have these monitors.” But that’s the amazing thing about life—it’s about dreaming. And for me that’s how everything is possible. We must keep dreaming. We must keep making projects that allow us to dream. For me, these projects that I’m doing right now, I’m able to take a collective group of people, I’m able to ask them, “Are you willing to walk through this journey with me?” And that is everything to me, that I am not making these journeys alone. It’s that I may have a concept or idea, but as you said before, I have always had a group of people, participants, who have always been part of my process—whether fabricators, dancers, musicians, or curators, they’ve always given me this amazing platform to dream.
MB: Do you dream?
NC: I don’t dream a lot. Not in that sense, but I dream. I do these projects where I can’t draw it, I have to make it. You have to trust that I can make it. If I say I can make it, I can make it. And I just need to be given the platform in order to play. That’s how I’m able to take this collective group and walk into this dream.
MB: That’s amazing. Where do you see the visual things that you’re going to create? The dream world, the landscapes you form? Is that something that happens when you’re sitting alone? Is that something that just strikes you?
NC: What I would like the future to look like is I would love to be able to create these projects, these dream projects, where they are permanent. All around the world, they would have permanent residencies. Like, “The Let Go” lives somewhere for ever, and it’s performed for ever. “Until” is somewhere else in the world and it’s there for ever. Because I think we need that. We need places to go where we can just surrender to the environment that we’re experiencing.
MB: I’m sure they will.
NC: That’s the first time I’ve ever said that. So that means I now have to put it out into the universe.
MB: Amazing. Is there any clue as to what we can expect to see in Times Square?
NC: No. I don’t know. Because when it opens will be the first time I’ve seen it. I’m nearly 60 and at that scale… so, I can’t even tell you what to expect. I know it will be immersive and it will be joyful, and scary, like it was when you first saw a [Soundsuit].
MB: Hey, if that’s the entrance plan, I’m glad.
NC: Yeah. So, it’s going to be all of that. But, again, it’s one of these projects, like with every other project within the past five years, where I can only speculate, I can only say, “Hopefully it feels like this or that.” But I don’t know because I will be walking into it just as you will be.
MB: That sounds perfect.
NC: We could all go together, how about that?
MB: That sounds great. I’ll sit on those stairs they have there in Times Square… I love going there at midnight. It’s the only time I can tolerate it. There’s something magical about it.
NC: Oh, yeah. You’re surrounded by information and just visuals. It’s an amazing feat to be consumed by consumerism and the insanity.
Nick Cave for Rain magazine.
Interview by Mark Benjamin. Photography by James Prinz. Portrait by Sandro.