Nick Cave lives up to his hype. The artist’s sprawling installation/intervention at the Cincinnati Art Museum, “Meet Me at the Center of the Earth” covers all three floors with some thirty-six of Cave’s iconic “Soundsuits,” ten oversized glossy color photos, nine videos, two tondos, and three bears/beavers made from repurposed sweaters (oh my!) The monumental nature of Cave’s figures can be dizzying and—although named for the noise they make when worn—are a feast to behold. Cave dazzles the eye while revealing his craft, and the self-proclaimed “humanitarian using art to create change” investigates, celebrates, and critiques the institution’s collection with each of his visibly labor-intensive, over the top figures.
Most special exhibitions at the CAM are typically set up in either of the two changing exhibition halls, (one of which currently houses seven of Cave’s videos, including four projections and three flat screens) but Cave’s work might never have fit within even that largest of the Museum’s temporary spaces. Several of the projection soundtracks overlap at times, coordinating with their projected image, and the sounds are presumably Cave himself wearing the various suits seen throughout “Center of the Earth” while dancing, bouncing, rubbing against the walls of a white corner, and other various noise experimentations with his materials.
The works within the video room remind viewers that although these figures are so visually compelling, they were created to be worn and heard. The question of how anyone might possibly be able to see out of most of Cave’s Soundsuits is evident. Besides the masked-face neon raffia full-bodied suits Cave employs for street performances that involve several performers interacting with the public, the thought of having to move around in most of these creations would be more than intimidating, and that responsibility must weigh heavily on its wearer.
But Cave’s installations don’t need to be taken out of the museum. Just as performances can add dimensions of meaning to artworks, so too can thoughtful placement within a traditional museum setting. As I wandered through each gallery, looking for Cave’s figures, my mind kept returning to Fred Wilson’s seminal exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore (MdHS), “Mining the Museum.” Both artists investigate the museum as preservers of our cultural heritage, and both create a metanarrative about museums and display. Whereas Wilson juxtaposes found objects to change their meanings, Cave takes this intervention one step further with his original Soundsuits (also made from found objects,) which, when juxtaposed, create another layer of critique of the surrounding collection.
In Cave’s case he employs woven materials (sweaters, embroidered fabric, baskets, rugs, purses, hats, twine, raffia) and shiny objects (mirrors, sequins, garlands of beads, toys, sewing pins, ceramic birds, & sprigs of metal flowers), whereas Wilson used the collection of the MdHS itself, arranged in careful juxtaposition.
Cave likewise engages the Art Museum’s collection. In the American Art gallery on the second floor, one of Cave’s bears—in this case, a polar bear made from creamy yellow woolen sweaters, with realistic lighter brown patches on the bear’s legs in snowflake sweater details—is midstride as a chartreuse-colored hair-suited rider sits backwards upon the polar bear’s hindquarters. The figure is despondent—perhaps even dead—bent over with a gaping hole of black and red sweater material exposed at the head.
Nearest the bear and her rider rests Randolph Rogers’ “The Last Arrow” (1879-80), a cast bronze sculpture of two male American Indian warriors and their rearing horse at the moment of defeat. But why would Cave depict a polar bear—and why riding backward? Well, if you’re a LOST fan like me, you might remember that polar bears were brought to the Island for their keen memories and adaptability—qualities any colonized indigenous culture likely needs to endure. Cave’s wounded rider sits backward, like a Lakota heyoka: a trickster (often depicted backwards) who exposes truths through contradiction and satire. One could argue that Cave’s rider is this “sacred clown” feigning defeat like the two men in Roger’s “Arrow,” to demonstrate the disparity between the mythology and the actuality of American colonial settlement.
As solemn as his work is in certain galleries, Cave (like Wilson before him) can be equally lighthearted. Galleries of decorative arts showcase Cave’s skin-tight crocheted, embroidered full-body suits with ornamental oversized metal flowers and statues of birds, arranged upon metal shoulder-mounted armatures. As blatant as Cave’s work is, his flower Soundsuit in particular looks like it’s wearing camouflage, trying to blend within the gallery’s flower wallpapered space and playing off of the room’s aesthetics.
On the second floor, Jacob Lawrence’s colorful egg tempera painting on hardboard, “Fruits & Vegetables,” (1959) which features women and children in a marketplace, flanks another of Cave’s brightly-colored hair suits—this one in cheerful primary colors—visually paralleling the work of Lawrence, who often painted the colors for his large narrative series unmixed so that they wouldn’t vary from one panel to the next. Lawrence’s piece appears to have been moved from its previous gallery, to the end of one the CAM’s several other American Art galleries, and its new central position adds an emphasis, which previously it wasn’t given.
In yet another example of Cave’s thoughtful placement, two of the artist’s enormous tondos are installed at the top of both stairways leading from the Great Hall, and their shape echoes the archway that frames Jan & Catarina van Hemessen’s Sixteenth Century “Altarpiece with Scenes from the Old and New Testament.”
In my personal favorite example of Cave’s Soundsuits engaging the CAM’s collection, the artist’s figure in the Asian Arts gallery—composed of what must be thousands of pearly white and gold buttons comprising the Soundsuit of another open-headed figure (this one with a side-lying basket comprising most of the headpiece)—faces a spare white linen Hanbok (a traditional Korean women’s costume) at the other end of the gallery. This is perhaps Cave at his most quiet and reserved, but the shirt and pants (not socks or stockings like most of Cave’s Soundsuits are outfitted with,) gleam like the iridescent scales on a fish, and still dazzle in Cave’s most idiosyncratic way.
As with so much of his work, Cave reveals his materials: the basket’s handle and highest end are the only surfaces not covered completely in buttons, drawing the viewer’s eye to the object from which it was crafted. The draping of the shirt allows one to observe that these buttons, unlike those held on by plastic tags in other galleries, look to be all hand-sewn, and—echoing the image and sentiment of the Hanbok—this Soundsuit looks like it was created for a sacred event.
In another of Cave’s satirical installations, the artist placed his square abacus-faced Soundsuit in the Mary Johnston Gallery that holds many Cubists works. The button-suited figure faces one corner of the room, where George Rouault’s “The Wounded Clown” (1939) and “The Clown” (ca. 1918-1922) rest. While it is likely apparent why a square-faced figure would be housed within a cubist exhibition, Cave’s facing his figure toward the aforementioned pieces does not seem to be coincidental. Like Cave’s Soundsuits, Rouault’s sad clowns were stand-ins for the human experience:
Speaking about the first time he came upon a nomadic clown in 1905, sitting in a corner “mending his sparkling and gaudy costume,” French artist Rouault said that he saw, “quite clearly that the ‘Clown’ was me, was us, nearly all of us… This rich and glittering costume, it is given to us by life itself; we are all more or less clowns.” One could say then that Cave’s Soundsuits are likewise the glittery costumes of the universal human condition: sparkly & gaudy yet undeniably human.
Perhaps Cave’s most powerful indictment of the CAM’s collection resides in the Renaissance & Baroque gallery on the second floor. Facing Giovanni da Bologna’s “Rape of the Sabines” (ca. 1600) and surrounded by other icons of the art historical canon like Bernardo Mei’s “Alexander the Great and the Fates,” (1667) with its original ornate and gold gilded frame, this particular Soundsuit is unlike any of the others in “Center of the Earth.
Like a Vodoun priest, Cave’s massive figure draws on the masquerade culture of the African diaspora, and its feels specifically religious in origin. The headpiece consists of whipstitched snake-like tendrils arranged in a conical cage-like construction at the top—much like that of the chartreuse heyoka or even the abacus-faced clown—with hulking shoulders, and an outstretched left arm. The ends of each hand and most of the legs are covered in a fringe of raw rope that is dipped in either black or red paint, and this particular Soundsuit menaces with a hand raised in accusation at the rococo spoils of the Seventeenth century art amongst which it stands. In my opinion, it is a clear reproach on behalf of those, whose cultures were decimated during the height of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Whether or not you read the subtler lines of institutional critique that Cave weaves throughout the Museum’s galleries, “Meet Me at the Center of the Earth” is an inspiring exhibition. Cave’s process is evident: he reveals the banality of his materials and exposes his methods of construction in open and accessible ways. While visually compelling, many can also be appreciated for their performance capabilities, and this is perhaps why Cave has received so much press: he allows his viewers numerous entry points for understanding his work. Although skepticism of artists who receive as much media attention as Cave is good, if engagement with issues of environmentalism, accessibility, identity, and institutional critique are a part of Cave’s greater artistic goals, consider me converted.
 O’Donovan, Leo J. “Unmasked: Georges Rouault at Boston College,” Commonweal: October 10, 2008. pp. 19.