Nick Cave: The Let Go. Park Avenue Armory. Photo: James Ewing
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, June, 2018
The historic Park Avenue Armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is known for commissioning boundary-blurring works of art that take full advantage of its cavernous, warm, and well-trodden hardwood space. Like the world’s largest project room, it’s no place for a conventional wall show. Artist Nick Cave, for his part, practices a form of performative sculpture in which, whether inhabited or not, his objects are all about activation, movement, texture, energy, and engagement. As a physical, auditory, and visual matter, Cave’s treatment of the room in his new installation “The Let Go” is predictably splendid. What is perhaps more surprising is its profound emotional, and at times even spiritual, impact.
First of all yes, there are Soundsuits. Several are on display in the Armory’s historic parlor rooms, arrayed throughout the wood-paneled, elaborately wainscotted, fireplace-and-mantle social spaces. They are ready to be mingled with, like guests at a posh 19th-century cocktail party. Devoid of occupants in a way that does render them more sculptural, the Soundsuits themselves nevertheless hold court with their fascinating, regal wildness. Even without knowing about their functionality, the pieces radiate a sense of impending excitement, as though waiting for their turn on the stage. And when it comes, it’s epic.
The main space is dark and empty. One hundred and eighty feet of speed rail stretches in waves across the ceiling, far above in distant shadow. Along this motorized track, several tsunami-size curtains of metallic rainbow-inflected mylar strips stretch from the rafters to the floorboards. They whoosh and swish and rustle as they snake along the curving tracks. They separate and convene and gather speed and make a breeze as they pass. It’s called “chase” and it’s true, the impulse is to follow the rainbow as it washes away and tumbles back.
The energy of being in the space, the childlike wonderment of the aesthetic sugarbomb, is contagious. And the high-concept silliness the experience elicits from even the most sophisticated or skeptical viewer will be familiar to fans of Cave’s work. Being in that room really is a little bit like being inside one of his suits, which are also deliberately constructed from colorful, noisy, tactile materials that come to life when the wearer starts to dance. There is no point in trying to remain still in the face of this exuberant multisensory onslaught. Oh yeah, there’s a DJ booth too, so good luck not grooving.
In fact the artist describes the piece as a “dance-based town hall,” a primarily social construct in which its title “The Let Go” refers not only to dropping inhibitions and pretenses that are barriers to joy, but also to confront and move on from the pain of the frustrations, anger, worry, and oppression that humans face in life, especially during this fraught political time. Even if you go alone, you will soon find that you are participating in something, as a series of performances of Cave’s devising are augmented by an open invitation to the public to create their own groups during the installation’s weekend hours (dance, yoga, poetry, talks, meditations, hula-hooping, whatever is clever). Music is being mixed live on site by Cave’s guest DJs: Noise Cans (June 23), Sabine Blaizin (June 24), Sammy Jo (June 30) and Tedd Patterson (July 1).
Weekday evenings however, are reserved for stagings of Cave’s iconic “Up Right” performances, in which dancers wear the suits and do their thing up close and personal with a fairly intimate audience. In this case, that thing is an absolutely breathtaking collaboration with choreographer Francesca Harper, baritone Jorell Williams, and Vy Higginsen’s Sing Harlem Choir. The show begins with a slow, methodical ritual of dressing the dancers in the Soundsuits’ multiple components, while the music and movement behind and around them builds to an explosive, gospel-inflected crescendo over the course of 90 spellbinding minutes. And then they start to move. The effect is like being backstage at a shamanic festival. The climax when it comes is transformative. When it’s over, the curtains come back to life like a titan’s private disco, and you are encouraged to stay and dance your full, joyful little heart out. WM
Up Right Performances: Wednesday–Friday at 8:00pm through Friday, June 29, with the installation on view through Sunday, July 1.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.
She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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