The center of the earth is a spacious, glowing place. It's inhabited by larger-than-life humanoids entirely covered with fluorescent green human hair, or with your granny’s doilies, or with tiny birds — or with all of the above plus Mexican gods’ eyes, kitchen hot pads, and spangles.
At least that’s how the planet's core looks in “Nick Cave: Meet me at the Center of the Earth,” a special exhibition that opened March 10 at the Seattle Art Museum downtown.
Cave, whose background is in the fabric arts, fashion design, and dance, creates giant “soundsuits” in forms that have reminded different viewers of Mardi Gras costumes, suits of armor, African and Native American ceremonial masquerade robes, extreme haute couture, and Liberace’s outfits. Further free-associations float to mind, including Big Bird, the Wookiee Chewbacca in "Star Wars," the space-invader paraphernalia worn by R. Hamilton Wright in a long-ago Empty Space production that featured breastplates made of lidded toilet seats, and the Pope.
But nothing quite compares with Cave’s creations. Whether they’re classified as sculptures, or as extravagant forms of wearable art, the veiled and robed presences in the exhibition make you happy just to stand there and look at them.
At the entrance to the exhibition space, a Guardian Bear rears up on its hind legs, a winsome giant made entirely of thrift-shop sweaters (among which I may have recognized two of my own from the Seventies). The sweaters were not deconstructed first so that they could be fitted and dovetailed into smooth patchwork by a master quilter. These were slapped together whole, this way and that (a sleeve dangles here, a knit cuff is a sock for a hind foot there) as if by the bear itself.
Is this Art, or Craft? Is it Great or just Gorgeous? Never mind. There's a convenient “Burial Mound” right behind the bear, made of afghans rolled into colorful tubes in a tangle, so I bury any nagging questions in a nice woolly pile and go looking for the soundsuits.
In the stripped-clean galleries stand tall figures separated by stately intervals. Most of the figures are quiet riots of color and miscellaneous bric-a-brac. The head of a man with a tiger face is surrounded by a swarm of birds that the poor Tiger-Tantalus' jaws can’t reach. Another soundsuit is stitched together from dozens of knit hats and bags. Another is made of Beanie Babies. Several are suits that are buttoned up — and buttoned down, and buttoned sideways — so that the surface of the fabric is not only covered with buttons; it is buttons.
I caught myself humming the title song from “Hair”: Cave's figures are cloaked in everything that’s “gleaming knotted polka-dotted, twisted beaded braided, powdered flowered and confetti’d, bangled tangled spangled and spaghetti’d.”
Yet their clear, strong lines keep the figures from appearing merely cluttered. They loom with dignity, their height magnified by great basketlike heads, or domed miters like the ones bishops wear, or tall armatures resting on their shoulders. They seem the grand universal embodiments of human elation and knickknacks.
Some of the artist’s comments on his work suggest that the ground of its being is a simple sort of exuberant joy. A video linked to the exhibition Web page presents Cave asking, rhetorically, “What makes people happy? What makes them step outside their day-to-day experience and be light within a moment?”
At the exhibition preview Cave’s reflections were more cerebral. When someone’s gender, race, and class are masked, he said, others must look at that someone “with new eyes.” At a masquerade, for example, “we have to decide about each figure we meet whether to run from it or hug it.”
Or hit it. Cave started making his first soundsuit, he said, when sitting in a park and musing on the 1991 police beating of Rodney King. His creation began when he picked up a twig, and that first small gesture led to the making of a massive robe of twigs that would have hidden King’s identity as a black male. Cave said that when he finally put the suit on, the twigs rubbed together with clicking, crackling noises — and so the term “soundsuit” was born. “Movement is a method of protest,” said the artist. “Without movement there is no sound, but movement activates.”
About his use of throwaway and thrift-store items Cave said that his art is “responding to the abundance of surplus that’s in existence, and transforming it.” And in blending different aesthetic forms ranging from dance to sculpture to wearable fabric art, he reflects the world today in which “people must take jobs very different from the occupations they trained for. How do we help things move forward? With new hybrids.”
Yet despite the artist's ready commentaries on his work, a minimum of explanation is posted in the galleries. Cave's announced preference is for people to make their own sense of what they see — or to let non-sense reign and simply enjoy the journey.
Like the African masquerade regalia in SAM’s collection, Cave’s work transcends the category of “art objects.” Ceremonial art is not meant to be possessed, or restricted to static display. It is meant to come to life in the community, as shown in the African collection's videos of robed, masked figures moving in traditional rituals. Similarly, Cave wants his soundsuits to be worn and danced in so that their materials will swish and rustle and click, and the community will hear.
The artist has loaned several soundsuits to the museum so that dancers from Cornish College for the Arts and Spectrum Dance Theater can wear them during several upcoming performances in Seattle’s public spaces. Cave calls his soundsuit performances “invasions” of everyday city life. The times and locations of some invasions will be surprises, but SAM will list others as they are schey March to the Center of the Earth will happen the evening of May 5, when the public is invited to dress in masquerade and parade along with dancers in soundsuits from Pioneer Square’s Occidental Park to SAM downtown.
Watching dancers bring the soundsuits to swishing, rustling life will likely be the most fun of SAM’s festivities. However, movement and sound dispel some of the mystery that Cave's creations can possess when they stay still. Figures rollicking like circus clowns tell us they are human beings in costume, and what costumes are "for" is letting people feel liberated in public through disguise. A soundsuit in motion occupies a strictly physical space defined by the gestures of the person wearing it, which are limited and human no matter how uninhibited.
Motionless soundsuits are more moving to me. Poised in the pristine light of the galleries, they aren’t “for” anything. In their godlike stillness they look back at us from a space of quiet power and delight. What are they dreaming? What do they hear when we're moving beneath their silent collective gaze? Why can't we be this splendiferously still in spirit?
If you go: "Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth,” March 10-June 5, Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave. Open 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. Admission: $25 adults; $12 seniors & military; $9 students and teens 13-17; free for children 12 and under. Free days: First Thursdays for all; First Fridays for seniors; Second Fridays for teens (13-19).