UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 13 Winter 20 Library
Matthew McLendon & Nick Cave | Image by Liza Pittard
Studio Art

“I Have Your Back” - Important Lessons from Nick Cave

Internationally-acclaimed artist Nick Cave is used to having a captive audience. From his wildly original Soundsuits, which took the art world by storm in the 1990s, to his large-scale multimedia installations, Cave is one of the most versatile and celebrated artists working today. On an early December afternoon last year, Cave sat before another full house at the Albert and Shirley Small Collections Library to talk to students, faculty, and community members. The event served as a preview for Cave’s Spring residency in UVA's Studio Art Department. It featured a short film about the artist and his work, as well as a highly entertaining and informative conversation moderated by J. Sanford Miller Family Director of The Fralin Museum of Art, Matthew McLendon.  

Nick Cave: Spot On installation photos in the Ruffin Gallery

Cave, who trained at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and is renowned for his visual and performing arts work across mediums including sculpture, installation, video, textiles, sound, and performance, is known for addressing themes such as race, gender, and class. He talked with McLendon about the iconic Soundsuits that first announced, not only his arrival to the art world, but also provides a perfect capture of both his boundless versatility as an artist and a social commentator. First created by Cave in the wake of the Rodney King shooting, Soundsuits are ornately-designed full-body costumes that combine sculpture, fashion, and performance, and they utilize a variety of fabrics and textures to create a uniquely kinetic experience for the viewer.  

With this groundbreaking new medium of his decades in his rearview mirror, Cave told McLendon, and the crowd gathered that he is focusing on a quite literal bigger picture that highlights not just the body itself, but also the meaning of how bodies exist in and move through space. “It is me thinking as an artist about how I can use the work to bring about important conversations, about me creating these spaces that provoke a sense of optimism,” he said. Cave took his penchant for thinking big to a whole new level when Denise Markonish, a curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), asked him to create work for their Gallery Five, which is the size, McLendon told the audience, of a small football field. Racism, and more specifically, the Michael Brown shooting, was the catalyst for the project, which featured an enormous crystal cloudscape that included 16,000 wind spinners, more than ten miles of crystals, 24 chandeliers, 17 lawn jockeys, and one crocodile. This work, more than any other, Cave said, has allowed him a new view into his artistic identity. “This project helped me understand my purpose – why I do what I do.” Cave made his transition from “Soundsuit” complete when he stipulated that there would be no sounds involved, “I really wanted to put you in the belly of the Soundsuits, so what you see here is me sort of opening myself wide open and explaining to you what concerns me most.  

Nick Cave’s Spring residency at UVA was a visit to Grounds during which he lead an interdisciplinary workshop for students. Cave offered UVA students a window into what they might expect from his residency, explaining his teaching philosophy by saying, “I tell them that my expectations are extremely high, but the most important thing that they should know is that I have their back. So, in spite of some devastating critiques, they need to know that I am there for them. My goal, in the end, is to teach them how to trust themselves, because once the rug is pulled out from you and you are out in the world, you better know how to make decisions.”

“We designed a collaborative lab-style workshop for an incredible group of disciplined, diverse artists, based on the prompt of "20/20" read front to back, back to front or upside down. A wide-open idea stimulator that would force deep collaboration from all in each maker group. I can only imagine how these projects may have manifested if were still able to convene together. Surely, we would be in for enlightenment. And, as a complement to the workshop, I presented several of my own films that could never have come to be without collaboration with other artists, performers, designers, sound technicians, and filmmakers. In this space, I am dropping off a cultural stimulus of sorts—for these students, but for all of you as well.” — Nick Cave

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