Nick Cave, "Golden Boy" (2014), mixed media including concrete garden ornament, vintage high chair, dildo, and holiday candles, 73 3/4 x 41 x 35 in (© Nick Cave) (photo by James Prinz Photography, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

Nick Cave, “Golden Boy” (2014), mixed media including concrete garden ornament, vintage high chair, dildo, and holiday candles, 73 3/4 x 41 x 35 in (© Nick Cave) (photo by James Prinz Photography, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

“I began thinking more about myself as an artist with a civic responsibility,” said artist Nick Cave to Mass MoCA curator Denise Markonish during a conversation last Friday evening at Jack Shainman Gallery. Realizing that he was bored with his past work, he decided he needed to find another means of challenging himself. “I didn’t want to hide behind the Soundsuits anymore.” Cave’s Soundsuits, which are woven bodysuits built out of materials ranging from fabric, buttons, and beads, to pieces of wood and metal, ceramic birds, and human hair, are his most well known body of work. While the art now on view in his exhibition Made by Whites for Whites at Jack Shainman Gallery’s 20th Street space (more work by Cave also fills the gallery’s 24th Street space) uses a similar selection of found materials, it does so to a much different end.

Someone examining Nick Cave’s “Sea Sick” (2014) when it was on view at Jack Shainman’s The School this past spring (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

“I was at a flea market,” Cave explained, as he described the new sculptures’ origins. “I just happened to find this container, which is in a piece downstairs titled ‘Sea Sick,’ and when I pulled the container off the shelf it read ‘spittoon.’” The container is shaped like a black man’s head. “I literally just flipped out,” Cave continued. “I was in a state of disbelief.” Each of the works in the exhibition features racist memorabilia like the spittoon head, encased in an assortment of entwined objects such as gilded flowers, electronic candles, and ceramic birds. “It’s always the object that provides me the impulse. I am always driven by — it’s always one thing that sort of sets it up. It has to have a pulse. It also has to have multiple reads, that I can sort of turn it upside-down.”

While the shocking memorabilia is at the center of the new work, the surrounding objects, many of which echo the materials used in the Soundsuits, also read on multiple levels, particularly the variety of kitschy ceramic statues. Markonish asked specifically about the ceramic birds. “I was thinking about my grandparents,” Cave recalled. “To me that object is sort of nostalgic in that way. That was what was considered art — it was that sort of object you couldn’t touch. At the same time, it’s completely what is not appropriate in art school.” The two laughed, joined by the audience. “I have no problems incorporating all of it and then sitting at the top of the fence and watching the arguments.”

Shifting from materials to process, Markonish asked Cave how his method of creating performances differs from his exhibition planning. “Making the work is one thing,” he responded. “But where the work is placed or housed or displayed or curated, I have to be part of that process. It’s important, the movement of how an exhibition is setup — that becomes my voice, in a sense.” As for his performances, which usually include a large number of dancers clothed in his fantastical Soundsuits, Cave called them “the most important part of my work, the unknown, where I am immersing myself in the trenches.”

But perhaps the two are not too far apart. As Markonish highlighted, Cave’s curatorial choices directly “produce the experience that the visitor is going to have,” much like in a performance. The orchestrated path of the visitor through the gallery, specifically laid out by Cave, adds a temporal quality to the otherwise still artworks. This careful curation of experience will play a big part in Cave’s future installation for Mass MoCA’s Building 5, which is the size of a football field. Markonish invited Cave to do the commission, and the two have been working together for the past year discussing and planning the piece. “It’s a very performative space,” Markonish said, “it’s like a processional. It’s very much about moving through it.” The Mass MoCA project presents a new set of challenges than Cave’s past performances and shows. “It’s an exhibition that is up for one year, and that makes me think about destination,” he said. “What does that mean for something to be up for a year? It’s very different from an exhibition in a gallery.”

Installation view, ‘Nick Cave: Made for Whites by Whites’ at Jack Shainman Gallery (photo by James Prinz, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

To end the evening, Markonish enticed Cave into giving the audience some kind of teaser for his MASS MoCA show, still years from fruition. “The exhibition opens up with you being in the belly of a Soundsuit. You’ll be moving through this journey. And then you will come to this cloud. And you will climb up this structure and be in the clouds. Then you come down and you will meander through the space and come to this sort of landscape, this entire beaded landscape, and that moves you to a video and then sends you upstairs to a waterfall.” Markonish laughed at this mention of a waterfall, knowing more details then either was willing to give away. Cave concluded: “It’s dark. It’s very seductive, but it’s dark.” “Seductive darkness” could be used to describe much of Cave’s work, especially the current exhibition. As Markonish had noted earlier, “Your work dazzles you first, and then you get the implications behind it.”

Nick Cave and Denise Markonish in conversation took place at Jack Shainman Gallery (513 W 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on September 5, 6pm. 

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Megan N. Liberty

Megan N. Liberty is the Art Books section editor at the Brooklyn Rail and co-founder of Book...

17 replies on “Nick Cave on the Artist’s Responsibility”

  1. “…when I pulled the container off the shelf it read ‘spittoon.’” The container is shaped like a back man’s head. “Black” man’s head is probably what’s meant.

  2. the total cowardice of being in the contemporary is sad.
    and sadly, it is not even lovely..

    if the dissolution of myths and taboos is a given without compromise, also the dignity of the person is lost in the mud shitty and self-referential, falsely creative and strictly contemporary.

    ugliness that is not even attractive.

    the ‘do not say’ , the ‘I suggest the unspeakable’, the ‘I walk along with the chaos’, the ‘I collect randomness’, and so on … no longer has the charge dadà and avant-garde of the ‘long century’.

    we are orphans, and we flaunted our orphanhood.
    it sounds like an allusion to the pneumatic vacuum of minds idiotic and presumptuous, where the nothingness cherished, ritualized expensively, also seriously, is deadly boring …

    and this is brought the more severe of our creative culture today: the deadly boredom, endless, without appeal.

    and therefore the responsibility of the artist, a theme dear to Jean Clair also:
    what to do?
    how not to fall into the nostalgic, into the rhetorical, how to escape an academy of thought without academic outcomes?

    I do not know.
    paying them less, the whole system, maybe that’s the way.

    1. Not sure where you’re going, where you came from or where you stand. Is that an intention, an academic mimicry, an anthropogenic posture change?
      I tire of myths and taboos held onto like nostalgia for ones herpes. I am bored of the lauded dada as if no one else now has the right to mock-on their culture because some white middle class brats did it in 1916. I am bored of the self inflicted boredom of bores. Art is not a game. It is life beyond boredom, nostalgia, myth and taboo. Can you not sense that there is nothing inside of a self referential analysis that cannot be said better by simply shutting your mouth and looking?

      1. talking as giving lessons: this is quite futuristic, like it or not.
        if you had read more carefully you could note that I have no nostalgia for the Dadaism.

        but you know too well the lesson, your own, and you talk about black and white, no shades.
        I need an interlocutor with some doubts more.

        thanks anyway for your kind contribution.

        I also have to say about the issue of responsibility, that the link between art and usefulness has always been an inextricable knot.

        and yet now as in the past, but perhaps more significantly now than in the past, a sense of worthlessness and vagueness goes hand in hand with the mainstream of contemporary art, and this happens inside a giant media operation that, triumphantly, promotes itself.

        certainly the artists involved in the art bandwagon have a part in all this, even if it happens in an unfavorable balance of forces.
        cowardly, from my point of view, because the lavish opening ceremonies which they partake (woe to be excluded!) that sound like jokes at a funeral, they prevent the recovery of a true poetic dimension, that of the limit, of doubt, of human helplessness.

        for this it takes a little bit of intellectual independence, while originality, alas, is often coupled with courage.

        I see assertiveness, highly stupid and aggressive.
        and little self irony, a little elegance of thought, little sincerity.

        every where reigns the ugly…
        and where do you want me to come? where do you want me to go? what intentions you want me to have?

        I live in these times, like you.
        faut faire avec ..

        1. I apologise for my last sentence. It sounds like a censure of you personally when on re-reading both of us I see I am talking about what you are talking about. I am with you in these times. Sorry. j’tais avec vin.
          Now to the barricades. Responsibility. Pull that word to pieces and deep down we have ‘the ability to respond’. Deeper still we have the proto-programming of a violent 2000 year old patriarchal culture intent on promoting the individual as a means to divide and rule, and that division is in stark contrast to our place on the ecosphere of earth, that is by far the most inextricable knot of art and usefullness. With the response and the ability determined by patriarchal models we are condemned to the sadness and loneliness of humanity divorced from it’s birthright of art and culture.

          Humanity outside of its self and continually re-fractured by a system that is essentially self subjugation cannot be re-united with itself until this self referential subjugation by which we subjugate others is expunged. (That last sentence reappears in the form I meant it). In looking and seeing free of the patriarchal programming to respond within strictly determined abilities, we will notice that our own internal humanity is much more reliable and faithful than your despair conveys.

          In this sense responsibility is untangling oneself from burdens imposed by others or reposed on others and realising ones own humanity, in the commonality of all existence, can be expressed as an act of love for others and all things without having to reference oneself or even gaze upon oneself as if ‘outside’ is somehow natural.

        2. Apologies for my aggression. It sounds like I am attacking you but in fact on re-reading both our writings I see that I am actually with you in the intentions of your piece. J’tais avec vin.

          But, I think it unfair to ascribe to Nick Cave the anti-qualities you bemoan re art and responsibility. Cave works in time scales that suggest to me a deep understanding of the insular destructions of culture that he is trying to gently attack and bring us round to taking responsibility for.

          This issue of responsibility and usefulness you raise is unavoidably contemporary. We, in this time, can do naught against it since we are here now, not there then. What we can ‘do against’ is responsibility. The problem though, lies elsewhere than out there. It lies within us. Both the ability and the response are proscribed by patriarchal systems of thought that invoke and enforce the individual because that confuses us into thinking that our self referentialism is a metaphor for the whole even as it’s couched in terms that always belong to the patriarchal elder (Academy, Mainstream, Individualism as Contemporaneous). Basically we suffer the Divide and Rule of not understanding the other because we lack empathy in trying to maintain individualism on behalf of the system. In essence ‘we’ are always outside of ourselves in an attempt to understand the inner, which is to misunderstand what ‘we’ is.

          Perpetual self-referencing using terms of otherness is to live an oxymoronic dissonance. Defeat the patriarchal delusion and you will automatically be creating art that talks to everyone and everything, because you cannot talk only of yourself as if it does not also belong with the other. You cannot expect everyone and everything to listen and see but that is impossible whilst most everyone and everything is still ‘under the spell’ of patriarchalism, but at least ones own freedom is no longer a monologue in an empty room. At least you, or we, are in a position to be affected by the empathy of the other and therefor be in a position to actually hear and see what art actually does to us and does through us.

          1. no apologies, really thank you.

            is that I am sick of seeing wrecks indigestible everywhere I meet the ‘contemporary genius’,
            I lament the insipience, the lack of flavor.

            and look that here I am not questioning the coherence of the artist, but rather the inability to appear ‘striking’ in his sincere intuition without resorting to bad taste.
            to the expression ‘bad taste’ I entrust all of the obscene excesses of contemporary expressive language adopted to ‘force the viewer’s attention’ and ‘cross the wall between what exists and what does not exist’, as if to say ‘I exist to please the taste of the pop ‘.

            this attitude is a ‘choice’ of the artist, not an imposition of the system.

            piss me off precisely the situation like ‘tribes’ which I observe in the mainstream.
            conformism, camouflage, parasitism, false iconoclastic attitude as ‘gauche caviar’,
            aleatory insults to the system you belong to, because if you scream the more maybe the system will pay you.

            system which is curiously benevolent and all-inclusive with regard to the translation of discontent in art: the exercise of constitutional rights is ensured…by normalization.

            and after all, why would the artist must necessarily assume the role of ‘reporter sociologist’ to ‘interpret the common sentiment’… (fuck off even the Guru!)

            we have to imagine, and we need images … …
            if possible anachronistic,
            decfrabile even without the indispensable help of the brilliant curator of the event,
            the crab louse of the art.

            these remarks do not want to deal with the political component of the art.
            we well know it exists.

            what I want to focus on is ‘the futility of the ugly’ of which you can see everywhere use and abuse, I see the ‘ease of ugly’ (as well the idiotic ‘executive difficulties’ of some monstrous representations) and the equally easy acceptance that the ‘system’ reserve to it.

            this is another sensitive point: the connection between ‘ugliness’ and ‘society of the spectacle’.
            but this chapter needs some books to address it.

          2. What is ugly, any more than what is beautiful? It’s a distraction.
            Art is the communication of reality manifest in experience and empathy. Ugly and beautiful are mere titular affectations.

          3. very well, thank you Simon.
            mission accomplished.

            I have to tell that I am an artist and which my intervention on Hyperallergic is part of my exhibition project that will be presented next November at a gallery in Los Angeles.

            I can not give you more details about the gallery and even my identity, because I am not allowed to carry out advertising activities.

            however, I have to ask your permission to use our exchange of views, but not before having you briefly explained the work project and the use of our chat.

            the exhibition consists of two interactive installations, accompanied by twelve photographs placed in the comments of twelve exchanges of views on the same topic developed by us.
            the experiment wants to discern so to speak, among the ‘intellectuals urgencies’ today, observing the timing and the manner in which this urgency emerges.

            (by the way, your will be the second of twelve, because the theme of ‘what is beautiful-what is ugly’ intervenes in the third bar into your replies.
            you were only beaten by a guy from NY, a student of biology, I think, who raised the issue in his first reply.
            if you hear about the statistics, the question about the beautiful and the ugly is raised somewhere between the fifth and sixth exchange of views during a discussion of tenor of our own.)

            I can only add the title of the exhibition which focuses the topic:

            “Beautiful and ugly: for us are the same. But if you meet them, you will see for yourself the difference



            the theme ‘ever-green’ of beauty and ugliness has much interested me in the last few years,

            the attempt of my work is to highlight the primordial origin of these two opposing concepts (without which you can not argue anything …) and determine if the two instances are born or detectable in opposing things / objects / features / external events and materials,

            or if the sentiment of ‘good’ or ‘ugly’, hide a pure matrix psychological subjective / collective / intangible that we can define ‘quotient of the soul’ (laically) or ‘spirit of the times’.

            ps: I must however confess to you, that when I see the walking of a ‘beautiful’ girl on the street, you gotta believe me, I do not need the curator of Guggenheim and not even David Zwirner in order to detect her traits: I feel it, with all my senses .

            I hope you do not mind the project and I hope you want to join my initiative, since your considerations seem to me very well expressed and meaningful.

            many thanks


            ps1: what do you think? for being a robot I’m good enough, is not it?

          4. you should not, nor should Nick, I presume.
            it was not a lack of respect,
            trusting that, after all, far worse is the perception of being out-of-use..
            I ask indulgence
            play helps to think (sometimes..)

            thank you Simon
            ps: there will be no exhibition like that, at least not on my part, thankfully.

          5. So you’re not a robot. You’re just using google translate from Italian?
            Yeah sure go for it re exhibition. Please send us an image of it when it’s up.

    2. I’ve gone through the gauntlet fashionista emporium turnstile for nearly 40 years and have come to the conclusion that the future of art is outside the GMAIC, the gallery museum academic industrial complex and will be anti-capitalist. The transactional nature of art as commerce is diametrically opposed to the objectives and processes of aesthetics and enlightenment. The criteria for “selection” has become popular sales potential to the ruling class, 1% clientele. There is no funding for art outside the purchases of the 1%. The sustainable way forward on planet Earth is sans the greed filter 1%. There is not one active policy of any government on Earth run by the 1% that is not diametrically opposed to common sense sustainability found through shared resources and direct democracy participation by the 100%. Their autocracy and selfish control of all Earth resources, human, flora, fauna and geologic, is an expressway to ecocide. The processes of capitalism (pyramid scheme) within a full planet where there are no untapped resources nor unlimited space for waste disposal, are a dead end past it’s time. The GMAIC is also a dead end past it’s time. When everyone wakes up to this fact, we can begin to build an artful, sustainable society sans greedy postmodern gremlins mucking up everything. There are lots of us that have started this process already and I say, good riddance cretin 1%. Enjoy your phoney crap while it lasts!

      1. uhm ..
        occupy-wall street-art …

        thanks comrade, I really appreciate.
        even if the art to which I alluded is significantly more extrapyramidal,
        much less social and a little more sociable.

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