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A Joy Ride with Nick Cave

Issue 04 Exclusive Interview

by Jacqueline Houton

11 September 2019

Nick Cave, Augment, produced by Now + There. Installation view, Boston Center for the Arts’ Cyclorama, 2019. Photo by James Prinz. Courtesy of Nick Cave and Jack Shainman Gallery.

A red-nosed reindeer and a T. rex skeleton. A vampire and Uncle Sam. A spider and a birthday cake. Artist Nick Cave hand-sewed these and a thousand other inflatable lawn ornaments into colorful chimeras for “Augment,” a multifaceted project presented by the nonprofit curatorial agency Now + There. He stitched these nylon monsters in his Chicago studio, but didn’t see them lumber to life until they were inflated by electric fans and installed at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Cyclorama, where the August opening of the free exhibition drew nearly a thousand visitors. “Going forward, my work is always going to be about happiness,” he told the crowd—though he added only minutes later, “Within all my work, there’s always a dark side to it.”

That dichotomy is certainly at play in “Augment,” as well as in the works for which Cave is best known: his otherworldly Soundsuits, spectacular wearable sculptures that conceal the race, gender, and class of the person inside. He crafted the first one in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, reimagining adornment as a kind of armor—or as some strange and beautiful evolutionary adaptation. Built from beads and buttons, twigs and hair, ceramic tchotchkes and other flea market finds, they can weigh as much as fifty pounds but are made to move, living up to their name as they swish, rustle, and rattle in live performances and video works.

The ICA hosted an exhibit of those signature works in 2014, and Cave returned to the Bay State in 2016-2017 for “Until,” an immersive installation at Mass MoCA that aimed to put the viewer inside an immense Soundsuit. His largest installation yet, it featured millions of beads and miles of crystals, but here too, there was darkness beneath the bling. Black-face lawn jockey figures smiled in a ceramic garden; images of guns twirled amid shimmering wind spinners. Responding to the deaths of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and all too many other black Americans, “Until” took its title from the phrase “guilty until proven innocent” and riffed on the question “Is there racism in heaven?”

“Until” wasn’t only an installation; it also became a backdrop for performances by dancers, musicians, and poets. Cave had similar ambitions for “Augment,” hoping to create a shared civic space and a catalyst for collaboration. To that end, the BCA exhibition opened with performances by indefatigable bucket drummer David Bowdre and local dance troupe Public Displays of Motion (not to mention impromptu performances by some of the tots in attendance, who boogied between and beneath the crazy quilts of creatures). And on September 14, a community “Joy Parade” will carry the sculptures from the South End to their final destination in Upham’s Corner. Featuring marching bands, dancers, and myriad other performers and creators, the three-mile procession will end in a block party at 555 Columbia Road, a long-vacant building slated to be the future site of a new library branch. In the meantime, though, the former bank has been covered in collages, the result of workshops hosted by artists from the Design Studio for Social Intervention, who asked Upham’s Corner residents to respond to the question “What brings you joy?” Their work now hangs from banners in the neighborhood and wraps around the façade of the building, where Cave’s inflatables spill out through the windows. It’ll all be on view through April 2020 and visible to the public 24 hours a day. We spoke to Cave about “Augment” and its many moving parts.

Nick Cave, Augment, produced by Now + There. Detail view, Boston Center for the Arts’ Cyclorama, 2019. Photo by James Prinz. Courtesy of Nick Cave and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Jacqueline Houton: For starters, can you tell me a bit about the genesis of this project? Where did “Augment” begin? 

Nick Cave: For the last decade my work has really been very much focused on looking at gun violence within our culture. I sort of came to this conclusion with that work, and I wanted to then go forward with the work being about happiness—or what we think that is. So then I was sort of questioning, what does that mean? What does that look like? It led me to think about the holidays. We go into the holidays with great intentions, and yet for a lot of people it becomes this destruction. It just falls apart. But how do we still find ways to find the positive, to hold it together? So “Augment” came out of that. I decided to look at all the holiday inflatables as a source material. I wanted to take all of those, cut them up, and sew them all back together. “Augment” is sort of taking parts and pieces of something and making it greater. And so then I just made these outrageous, insane inflatables that are just crazy, exciting, and fun and interesting and disturbing and colorful.

JH: I’m very curious about those materials, because in the past, your work has often involved assemblage of many small elements, like buttons or beads or twigs or crystals. With “Augment,” there’s assemblage at work as well, but at a different scale, with these inflatable lawn ornaments that can be quite large but are also light. What was it like working with those materials? And where do they come from? 

NC: My first thought was, I’m going to just collect these the same way I do at the flea markets. But then I thought, ugh, they could be covered in mold—I was like, not a good idea [laughs]. So basically I found resources online where I could get them, anywhere from Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, you name it. I got them all. It was amazing to sew them. I sewed them all myself because it’s so complicated in terms of the construction that I really could not possibly tell my assistants how to do it. I had to physically do it. But it was really amazing because I would take A and just grab, say, Q, and I had to accept these two strange forms coming together. That’s what was so liberating. . . . It was really built on just impulse and acceptance of opposites—this clash of a Fourth of July firework, what looks like a missile, that could be colliding into the center of an enormous heart. How do we look at that? How do we read that? There’s discomfort in that image, but at the same time there’s this sort of whimsical lightness to it.

JH: I know that movement and performance have played a key role in your practice, and they’re an important part of “Augment,” which will move from the South End to its next venue in Upham’s Corner through a community parade in September. It’s really interesting how this act of transporting the work becomes an integral part of the work and physically links these neighborhoods. Can you tell me a bit about the thinking behind the parade? 

NC: When we were thinking about the role of community and outreach, it was really looking at two areas, one that’s thriving and one that’s sort of not thriving. And we wanted to think about how one can impact the other. . . . I’ve always been interested in ways that communities can inform one another through forms of collaboration. This parade, this procession, I can look at it as another form of protest in this positive way. A protest of unity, protest of intersection.

Nick Cave, Augment, produced by Now + There. Mural installation, 555 Columbia Road in Uphams Corner, 2019. Photo by James Prinz. Courtesy of Nick Cave and Jack Shainman Gallery.

JH: The building wrap at 555 Columbia Road was also all about collaboration. Can you tell me a bit about that? 

NC: We worked with a number of local artists who created about fifteen workshops working with young people building collages. These collages were then augmented into this building wrap, and the original collages are exhibited in a storefront on the street and on the banners that line the entire neighborhood. . . . For these young people doing all these collages, to recognize the importance of their work, to be able to see their work on the facade of this building wrap, to see it on the banners—that’s sort of an amazing moment for a ten-year-old to look up and go, “Oh my God, that’s my drawing.”

JH: I know those drawings were inspired by the question “What brings you joy?” and that this question has been central to the project. And when I was reading the advance materials on “Augment,” a line that jumped out at me was about “reflecting on the difference between happiness and joy.” What does that difference mean to you?

NC: I think joy is the making of something; happiness is the result of it. So for me to make this work was so amazing. It was just so interesting, challenging, and hard, but it really allowed me to be free in this unrestricted way that I have never really worked before. And then to come here and see it was sort of like awe, the result of this amazing experience. For me it’s really the process. The process brings me the joy, and through process is the result, which allows me to deliver it to the community at large.

JH: Bostonians got to see your work five years ago when the ICA hosted an exhibit of your Soundsuits. And then a couple of years ago some got to see “Until,” your immersive installation at Mass MoCA. Are there any through lines that you see between those works and this project, or is there a sort of progression between them?

NC: I think it’s a progression. When I look at this work, it’s just the medium that’s changed. The way in which I look at color, the way in which I construct, is very much the same. I think with all my work, and particularly the Soundsuits, I’ve always been interested in this extreme sort of adornment, extreme elements of embellishment and color. And yet underneath all of that has always been this dark side and the question: how do we, through all of these disparities, still find optimism and hope?

JH: “Augment” is a public art project, and this is our public art issue. Do you have any thoughts on the role of public art at this moment? 

NC: I think public art is important because it gives everyone access to artwork. We still have communities that don’t frequent museums and feel that they’re not accessible. So I think public art allows artists to get work out into the public realm where we have access to it walking home from work, getting off the school bus, or looking out the windows in a passing car. The availability is there. It’s free for you to be a part of it and immerse yourself in it.

Nick Cave, Augment, produced by Now + There. Installation view, Boston Center for the Arts’ Cyclorama, 2019. Photo by James Prinz. Courtesy of Nick Cave and Jack Shainman Gallery.