An Interview with Artist Nick Cave – Feat. Opens 2/23 at Akron Art Museum

Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2013, mixed media, including vintage bunny, safety pin craft baskets, hot pads, fabric, metal and mannequin. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, © Nick Cave, Photo: James Prinz Photography

Tomorrow (Saturday, February 23) the new exhibition Nick Cave: Feat. opens at Akron Art Museum – showcasing some of the artist’s most iconic bodies of work, including his signature soundsuits. These dazzling sculptural costumes are made of thousands of found objects, buttons, old toys, and other everyday items, but their visual brilliance conceals a darker message. Cave made his first soundsuit in response to the beating of Rodney King in 1992 – constructed with thousands of twigs, the suit made noise when he moved in it (thus, soundsuit), but it also concealed him – provided protection by covering his race, gender, class, and sexuality. In addition to a MFA in fiber arts from Cranbrook Academy, Cave was also a member of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre – therefore, perhaps not surprisingly he uses the soundsuits in performances, some very large in scale with dozens of participants. Luckily the exhibition features film of his performances, so you can see the suits in action. In addition, the show includes some truly exciting new work.

 I asked Cave what it was like to bring this show to a new venue (previous incarnations were shown in Nashville and Orlando) – and what was involved in approaching a new space.

NICK CAVE: When we first came here to look at this space there was this wall down the middle, about halfway along the room – and I was like, can y’all take that out? And it opened up the space, and they were like oh my god all the things we can do in here going forward! So it involves trying to find out: what’s the best way to get the work into the space with room around it – so it feels wide open, so you can come up to the work, but also step back. That’s kind of what you need sometimes, you need space to allow your physical self to meet it halfway.


CAN: Do you think that being a dancer influences those decisions – are you thinking about how viewers’ bodies move in the space?

NC: Absolutely. Flow. All of it is really really critical – the order of things and the placement – the movement – it’s very cohesive all the way through – there are no weak links – so you’re allowed to have this sort of immersive engagement with the work.

Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2012, mixed media, including beaded and sequined garments, fabric, metal and mannequin. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, © Nick Cave, Photo: James Prinz Photography

That leads to my next question actually – so as a viewer I’m engaging these pieces in a very different way than when they are moving – they still can do some work as a static visual object, right?

NC: Exactly, so we can come up to any of these works and we can in our minds imagine what they might look like moving. It’s that space of dreaming – how does that space continue to remain relevant? We have to continue to dream. To dream is optimism.

I have to ask – what is it like to wear a soundsuit – what does it feel like when you’re inside?

NC: Well, just to get to that point it’s a lot of preparation. As I talk with performers through the process it’s really about a transformation – it’s about surrender, so if you don’t know what that is it’s going to be very difficult. So we go through a number of exercises – right now I would say we would just sit on the floor together and we would talk about this piece (gestures to a soundsuit), I would say well what do you think? How do you feel when you are present with this piece? And then – then I would allow you to get in, but don’t move, just sort of again, how do you open yourself up to the acceptance of your identity being no longer relevant. And what do you then become through that process?

In my past life I was an actress and in acting school we did mask work – and this sounds very similar – when you put on that mask you become one of two things, you either become free – or you become confused, and frightened…

NC: Oh yes, exactly. And there have been times when I have had take people out and it’s terrible because they cannot accept it – the transformation. So you know, it’s a lot of work. I give them permission to do the work: what do you become? You know, you and I could put this same piece on and you’re going to come at it very differently than I’m going to come to it. That’s the magic of it all. I’m always learning about the world. And it’s important to remain open for more information to come in – we have to remain open every day.

Nick Cave, Wall Relief, 2013, mixed media, including ceramic birds, metal flowers, afghans, strung crystals, and gramophone. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, © Nick Cave, Photo: James Prinz Photography

When I look at these pieces, I am just struck by the amount of time, the hours and hours it must take to create them. And I know that you work with an incredible team of assistants. And I understand that now you have a new studio, a new space in Chicago…in Irving Park?

NC: Yes! “Facility.” You know, it took three years to find it. I was about to close on like three buildings prior, and I was at a point where I was literally just done looking, like I just can’t go through it anymore. And I happened to be driving down the street one day, and I saw this building and I just pulled the car over and dialed and called and said is this vacant? Can I see it? On the outside it’s very modest – you would never think – it’s just three store fronts but when you go in it’s just one big open wide space, 23,000 square feet. And that’s what I needed – to me it was more about finding a space that allows you to think in another way – to have the literal space to dream.

But it’s also about a responsibility – I’m an artist with a civic responsibility and what does that mean? Part of my practice has become this intervention with the community. How do we bring culture into Irving Park communities, see who is here, how can we find ways to fold them into our vision?


The last time you showed your work here was in 2010, and I remember learning about how your work, while incredibly seductive it had a darker message – about gun violence. About Rodney King, and how the suits are like wearing protective armor that conceals race, gender, and class. Then in 2014 we lost Tamir. And our community here in North East Ohio is still healing, still grappling with this issue every day. The urgency of your message, if anything, it is even more urgent now than it was then… do you see any hope on the horizon?

NC: Well yes you see hope because it’s really about the effect [of the work]. That you know, it’s waking up everyone’s consciousness. I think that’s the factor here. You know we cannot be sleepy! We’ve got to stay awake, and we’ve got to take a position and we’ve got find ways to come together in a communal way to work collectively as one.


We gotta get ready for 2020. ‘Cause honey, it’s not gonna be cute. So we’ve got to get ready for just that as a nation. Cause they’re going to pull out every stop – it’s going to be a mess. We gotta be ready to fight.




The public will get its first look at Nick Cave: Feat. at a special celebration and members’ preview on Saturday, February 23, 2019 from 11am to 2 pm. Museum members can explore the exhibition for free with a guided tour or on their own. Admission for non-members is $10 and registration is required – click here to reserve your spot. Nick Cave will be back in Akron in May for a performance, the details of which are to be announced, so stay tuned.



The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.