Whitehot Magazine

Nick Cave: No Small Feat

Nick Cave, The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee, installation photo by John Schweikert

By KURT MCVEY, Nov. 2017 

Nick Cave, the singular multi-media artist, not the musician, is sitting in his car somewhere in Chicago waiting to meet one of his fabricators. The thought organically bubbles up somewhere that one’s personal car might be one of the few safe spaces left for a modern human individual and therefore a great place to conduct a contemplative, trans-city phone interview. This seemingly harmless conversational amuse-bouche is squashed before it fully materializes however, and is replaced by a sort of mutual, nihilistic chuckle, itself a recognition of two vastly different perspectives on racial privilege. We agree, over a follow-up sigh, that for African American citizens especially, at any stage of their life or career, this is of course not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  

This is Nick Cave’s subtle magic though; this ability to subtly tease out oft-contentious socio-political disparities while making sure that everyone still feels invited to the party. And for Nick Cave (b. 1959), “party” can and should be taken literally. After a quarter-century spent creating gorgeously festive, richly textured, vibrant works, especially his inimitable “Soundsuits” (a highly personal [transcendent] artistic reaction to the Rodney King beating), Cave seems to be taking this ability or gift to open people up, whether creatively, politically or spiritually (often all of the above) directly to the people, of all places. 

Nick Cave, The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee, installation photo by John Schweikert

“I know that I’m an artist with a civic responsibility, so I need to be out there on the front lines as much as I can-out in the field, collaborating, bringing communities into the institution,” says Mr. Cave with a confident, breezy acquiescence. “We still have large populations that still do not frequent the museum or the gallery and feel that it isn’t a place for them. So I’m doing what I feel like I have to do.”  

On Nov. 10th, Cave opened an extensive survey of his practice at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee. Highlights from Nick Cave: Feat. include a massive projection of Cave’s Soundsuit-centric art film, Blot (2012), several psychedelic textile installations including Architectural Forest (2011) and Button Walls (2013) and a crowd-pleasing selection of ten marvelous Soundsuits made between 2011 and 2017.

Cave is proud of Feat, to be sure, and Frist Center curator Katie Delmez deserves praise for fostering a greater appreciation for Cave’s dexterity in various mediums, while constructing a clear narrative that illustrates just how beautifully the work’s past and present timeliness operates in playful juxtaposition to its timelessness. This isn’t to say that Cave, like many artists, hasn’t been turning up the heat politically over the years.

“Prior to the Rodney King incident, I was just an artist like everyone else,” says Cave. “What I was talking about in terms of my interest in point of view had nothing to do with anything political, to the degree that it does today. I think that particular incident literally changed my whole perspective. I realized that I am lucky to have art as a space to just pour my emotions into. That has been my savior.”

The Frist is a more than worthy vessel to house the fruits of these emotions, but now that the show is up (do see it!), Cave is turning his attention to Nashville’s increasingly hip (see: authentic) matrix of local artists, musicians, poets, filmmakers and dancers to slide onto his art world mixtape, so to speak. Cave will also be reaching out to the city’s vast public school system, dozens of social service programs and a wide variety of community organizations in order to bring them together for a sure-to-be emotionally gratifying two-part performance symposium on April 6, 2018 at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center. This is Nick Cave: Feat. Nashville.

Nick Cave, The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee, installation photo by John Schweikert

“Everybody wants to be heard,” says Cave. “For me to be sitting next to a homeless family, to talk about their situation while a spoken word artist is present, incorporating data into his or her piece-we become the voices for these individuals.”

Feat., in both cases, plays on a built in duel meaning. The first: Becoming a successful artist is no small “feat,” for instance, and often requires, if not raw talent, an insane work ethic and a heavy dose of blind luck. That being said, a little encouragement and general patronage can go a long way. The second meaning: The frequently used abbreviation to denote a “featured” performance.

Feat., hypothetically speaking, could serve as a nation-wide model or series for other “big” artists to create local change across industries, especially in states and cities still tethered to outdated economic models or those experiencing the erosion of their historical, cultural bedrock. Is it wrong to suggest that Feat. could be tastefully franchised out to other, likeminded artists, perhaps chosen by Cave himself, to turn the great wheel a bit faster?

There’s lots of amazing galleries and museums popping up in these small communities,” says Cave in reference to cities that don’t necessarily carry the preface major metropolitan. “But that’s the beauty of it. We can host a project. We can do community outreach work. I can establish a platform for amazing talent to build work and be presented.” 

Nick Cave: Feat. Nashville will continue the artist’s fascination with boots on the ground community activation, which he once dubbed, “collective dreaming.” A good example would be Cave’s 2015 collaboration with his alma mater, Cranbrook Art Museum in Michigan, Nick Cave: Hear Hear. For one related, albeit major outdoor performance (Nick Cave: Heard. Detroit), Cave solicited the help of the Detroit School of Arts, the Maggie Allesee Department of Theater and Dance at Wayne State University, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and the Michigan DNR Outdoor Adventure Center. The performance went down at Milliken State Park in downtown Detroit and involved over 60 performers and dozens more behind the scenes. Cave continues to ask himself and other artists: “How can you wrap your arms around every aspect of it?”

Nick Cave, The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee, installation photo by John Schweikert

The MO seems to be: Set the example with the exhibition and let the community feed off of it, use it as a hub for inspiration and let the community feed back into it. This isn’t an entirely new paradigm, but with the social media resources of today, the civic impact can be enormous. It helps that Cave is pushing everything through a socially conscious, intersectional filter, while acting as a dynamic cultural liaison or relay point. He’s also a lot of fun.

Both Detroit and Nashville, though vastly different cities, are dealing with difficult questions regarding gentrification, corporatization, and misplaced resources. This isn’t the exact place for a manifesto regarding the Artist’s responsibility to leave the echo chamber, disseminate progressive values and make an appeal towards empathy in “red” leaning, non-coastal states, but it might be fair to say that there is a newfound sense of urgency, especially among artists, to get people on the right side of history.  

Nick Cave, The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee, installation photo by John Schweikert

In June 2018, Cave will be staging a freewheeling, dance-based town hall at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in a project he’s calling The Let Go, which should be another fascinating hybrid experiment in local politics, art, dance, performance and activism. It’s also another model that could travel rather swiftly from venue to venue and adapt accordingly. For now, however, it’s Nashville’s turn to suit up. Cave’s boots promise to hit the dirt in earnest come early January after the holidays.

“What I’ve been finding is that there are so many talented people who just can’t get a break,” says Cave, who is excited, not just for the young creatives who will surely be playing to a packed out Symphony Center come April, but their families, peers, or teachers who may not even be familiar with what they do, let alone how well they do it. “I don’t know the city well. I don’t know the people well. So I come in wide open to possibilities, difficulties or modes of repression. [And] how do I create an avenue where we can take these circumstances, develop them and bring them to life?” WM


Kurt McVey


Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.


photo by Monet Lucki


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