State of the Arts: The Art and Armor of Nick Cave's Sound Suits

Mar 1, 2019

Nick Cave's artwork is larger than life, deeply personal and decades in the making. Now at the Akron Art Museum you can see his signature sound suits made from thousands of household objects. On this week's State of the Arts, take a step into Nick Cave's world.

Nick Cave's work in FEAT is overflowing with everyday objects like buttons, beads and vintage toys stacked and sewn into spectacular suits of armor as tall as basketball hoops.

"It's just amazing," Grace Hudson said with a smile as she walked around Cave's sound suits. "It's different. He uses so many different mediums and objects from buttons to dolls to whatever." 

The artist even uses kitsch ceramic animals that are more at home at your grandmother’s house than in an art museum.

Building his sound suits
Nick Cave describes his process as, "One person’s junk is another person’s treasure."

But in Cave's hands that "junk" melds into something beautiful and powerful. His sound suits are a mixture of visual art, fashion and dance. And they're aptly named. This artwork is designed to be worn and moved in, creating specific sounds for each suit. 

Playing on loop throughout the exhibition is a wave like tone that could easily be taken for a rolling ocean. It's anything but. 

"So this is a performer that’s inside of a synthetic raffia suit," Cave said as we're standing in front of a mesmerizing video of a performer wearing one of his sound suits. 

The raffia fibers, which are used to make hats, baskets and mats, are sewn onto the frame of the sound suit. The performer moves up and down swinging the strands rhythmically, creating that mesmerizing sound.

Nick Cave's sound suits are constructed from thousands of pieces of found objects.
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU

Larger than life
Mounted on mannequins in the museum’s main gallery, the wearable sculptures are made of layer upon layer of objects the Chicago-based artist sources from thrift shops and flea markets.

"I have a tendency of jumping on a plane and going to Washington State, one-way ticket, renting a cargo van and then shopping all the way back to Chicago."

Each sound suit is different. One is embellished with world globes and old spinning tops, while another has ropes of repurposed sweaters sewn into what Cave calls "sweater bones" dotted with repurposed sock monkeys. It looks like the Swamp Thing mixed with stuffed animals from your childhood.

Another sound suit uses a base of sewn-together doilies surrounded by a cage of Easter baskets. A plush Easter Bunny is sitting at the top.

"This really becomes the sort of central crown, the central object that provokes, that drives the spirit," Cave said.

Armoring himself
Behind each layer and pattern lies deep emotion and vulnerability for the artist, who is African American. Cave said he made his first sound suit in 1992 after four white police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King.

"It was really me trying to understand that situation as a young black man and trying to also shield and protect my inner self."

The artist made an initial series of the work, but had to take a decade-long hiatus to process his emotions and work on other projects.

"What brought me back to it was just that it was a part of a body of work that wasn’t resolved."

Cave uses objects found at thrift stores and flea markets to create suits of armor.
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU

But does he feel that same need to armor himself today? Cave said unforunately he does and points to several high profile deaths of black people across the country in recent years.

"There’s been Freddie Gray, there’s been (Eric) Garner, there’s been Sandra Bland, there’s been Trayvon Martin."

For him, the sound suits are "still an armor." 

But for others, Cave thinks his sound suits may trigger different emotions. Perhaps they'll see a vintage toy or textile pattern that reminds them of something from the past.

"It's these sort of moments of nostalgia, memory that we can tap into and find ways to communicate and have broad dialogue around."

More than just sound suits
The FEAT exhibit features Cave's other works, including a wall of buttons running the length of one wall. From afar it looks like deep space. 

There's also a found-object sculpture built atop a vintage chaise longue. At the center rests a ceramic dog with eyes that seem to follow you throughout the room. 

Cave's 'Architectural Forest' holds dozens of hidden pictures that change depending on the viewer's perspective.
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU

A unique piece tucked away in an exhibit full of the fantastical is Cave's Hustle Coat, a trench coat sculpture that is not a sound suit. A black coat hangs draped over a frame of gold chains and shiny watches. It's meant to signify the "side hustle" jobs many Americans have in addition to regular employment. 

But the grandest work of all is Cave's Architectural Forest installation. Hundreds of bamboo strands hang down from the ceiling, each distinctly colored and patterned. Walk around the piece 12 times and you'll see 12 different images through the bamboo strands. 

Cave plans to hold a community dialogue and sound suit performance in Akron in early May. 

FEAT is on display at the Akron Art Museum through June 2.