Art

The Distracting Whimsy of Nick Cave’s Sculptural Field

The decorative alchemy that should transform these objects into a stronger form of messaging falls flat.

Nick Cave, “Until,” installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Nick Cave is making another major star turn after the success of his Soundsuits project, which swept across the art world and beyond. Cave, who has a background in both dance and fashion design, captured the market at the polyglot intersection of mutant, scavenged costuming, racial disharmony, dance, and performance art. The sculptural precision of his towering suits, along with the various social and political themes he mines, redefined the secular and more solemn aspects of looking at race relations in America. He began building the suits in 1992 in response to the beating of Rodney King, an iconic (and profoundly violent) moment that ultimately led to the riots in Los Angeles. The suits, wild as they are, posited the idea of anonymity and costumed neutrality as a counterweight to the dangerous realities of life in the United States for, among others, African Americans. It bears mentioning, too, that along the way he (via his work) clarified the amusing and recurring confusion about just which Nick Cave he is. (He is, of course, the artist, not the musician, who himself has long occupied his own rather mutated and trippy  terrain.)

Nick Cave, “Until,” installation view

Until, the title of this massive new installation, refers to the phase “innocent until proven guilty” — or, as Cave sees it, “guilty until proven innocent.” Upon entering the large gallery space of Building 5, the viewer is greeted with a tableau of shimmering lawn ornaments strung from the ceiling, with a delicate path winding through the sculptural field. The ornaments are in many shapes, including teardrops, stars, guns, and flat mirrored circles. The overall effect is like walking through an enormous wind chime. In the center of the gallery is what can only be described as a nest or secret garden that hangs from the rafters of the old building. You can climb a sturdy yellow ladder to view a varied cacophony of objects — ceramic birds, badminton racquets, pigs, flowers — all cosseted together with netting. It’s not until you come upon the strategically placed black-faced lawn jockeys that you begin to realize that something is amiss — something perhaps having to do with the aforementioned gun-shaped wind chimes.

Nick Cave, “Until,” detail

Cave, who developed the work in response to the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown — and, no doubt, what seems like an endless litany of deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of police — only indirectly alludes to the violence. Certainly the lawn jockeys are signifiers of larger vexing problems having to do with race relations in America, yet the gesture doesn’t resonate as a fully reasoned response; rather, it is lost among the gossamer of netting, strung beads, and collection of kitschy items. The decorative alchemy that should transform these objects into a stronger form of messaging falls flat. To be fair, Cave has said that, in part, he sees the work as a set design, a theatrical backdrop for a host of performances that will extend the discussion. Yet taken alone, it doesn’t feel particularly pointed or subversive.

Farther into the gallery space, beads and netting are suspended from the ceiling. There is a rainbow, a smiley face, a peace sign —the kind of optimistic decoration one might expect to find in a child’s bedroom. The installation ascends the back wall of the space and leads into a corridor with a wallpapered piece that Cave made in collaboration with designer Bob Faust. Off the corridor, in a back gallery, is a video installation centered on a raised sort of lifeguard’s chair. The projections slowly circle the room, changing as they go: a demonic bird, water moving across the floor, an eye gazing out. Upstairs, stacked industrial fans whir, blowing strips of fabric or plastic out toward the viewer. The word “flow” is visible on the strips. An entire window frame is mounted on the wall with a small circular hole in the glass. During the installation of the exhibition, a hawk flew into the gallery through the window (it survived). This strikes an ominous note, giving the feeling that, at any moment, something unexpected and menacing could happen, which is an all-too-familiar reality for many Americans.

Nick Cave, “Until,” installation view

Though Cave has said that the impetus for this work was the deaths of men (boys, really) like Martin, little of the brutality of that killing, and little of the ugliness of a man like George Zimmerman, is present here. Instead, there is a level of whimsy and spectacle that, while diverting, bears little resemblance to the borderline feral conditions that exist in our country. Perhaps Cave views Until as a counterweight to that ugliness, an alternate reality that at times may be uncomfortable, but never joltingly so. Cave’s optimism is refreshing and important, and the work he makes is imbued with a strain of possibility that is admirable. Yet it seems that while creating this theatrical backdrop, he forgot that the ultimate reason for building a stage is because you have something important to say.

Until continues at MASS MoCA (87 Marshall St, North Adams) until September 2017.

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