Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2009. Mixed media, 97 x 26 x 20 inches (246.4 x 66 x 50.8 cm). Gift of Steve Corkin and Dan Maddalena. Photo by James Prinz Photography. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Nick Cave
I first met Nick Cave in 2019 when he came to Boston to work on Augment, a public art project that centered joy. I was thinking a lot about joy and wonder when I first looked at this Soundsuit in person as part of Beyond Infinity: Contemporary Art after Kusama at the ICA, a few weeks after the unveiling of Augment. Many months have passed since I was prompted to think about joy through art. The increased media attention to anti-Black violence these past few weeks, coupled with the four-year anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando this month and the recent murders of two Black trans women, Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, makes joy sound like a radical proposition. As a queer, brown, second-generation immigrant from Mexico, grief and rage motivate a large part of my commitment to movements against systemic violence that targets Black and Indigenous people, people of color more generally, and queer and trans people. But these feelings are exhausting. I carry the weight of this collective moment and of my individual exhaustion as I think again about joy and wonder through Cave’s work.
Cave created his first Soundsuit out of twigs in 1991 after the beating of Rodney King, out of an impulse to protect the Black body—his body—from the violence of white supremacy. Cave’s Soundsuits have since evolved beyond their original function as physical armor by becoming more elaborate. When I first looked at this sculpture, I was drawn to the abundance of textures and colors that comprise its surface. I was also struck by its unconventional silhouette—while preserving a recognizable human form, the work is distorted by a chandelier crown. Its silhouette reminded me of spacesuits and personal protective equipment, which are technologies of survival. Even if Cave’s Soundsuits have become more exuberant than their prototype, the impulse to protect—from physical and perceptual violence—remains. Yet this sculpture also invites us to imagine a world free of anti-Black violence.
The wild silhouette and sensorial richness of this Soundsuit ground me in the possibility of wonder and joy. This sculpture is composed of a body of flowers with a nest of roosting birds as a head, an exaggerated entanglement of the human figure with non-human life. In a sense, this Soundsuit makes a wondrous spectacle of the fact that all things are connected. This sculpture pushes us to see beyond the structures and systems of anti-Blackness and capitalism that facilitate the devaluation of life, especially Black trans life, to revel in the possibility of worlds and futures where life is valued without qualifications. Cave reminds us through this Soundsuit that hope and joy, like grief and rage, are integral to the hard, messy work of bringing about a world where it will not be a radical gesture to state that Black lives matter.
Juan Omar Rodriguez joined the ICA last December as a Fellow in the curatorial department. He received an M.A. in Art History and Museum Studies from Tufts last spring.
Friday Art Notes are personal reflections on works of art shown or in the permanent collection of the ICA, written by ICA staff, volunteers, and supporters. Read more