Last Friday, leaving the Park Avenue Armory, on a humid evening with irregular but welcome soft drops of rain falling, a large enthusiastic crowd spilled out of an art performance transfixed, elated even, by what they had seen and heard. I was no exception and found myself in the unusual position of now being a serious fan of two artists both with the name of Nick Cave. The first, and currently best known, is the Australian rock musician who has lived in England for most of his life. But the new Nick Cave, or at least relatively new to me, is an African American who operatives deftly in the precarious space between fashion, dance, performance and contemporary sculpture. His performances on Friday abruptly made sense of his practice which up until then I had only witnessed in the precious preserve of the white cube space. These unanimated, only vaguely human shaped sculptures called sound suits are made of voluminous layers of fabric using pedestrian, cheap theatrical materials which could remind you, if you are feeling uncharitable, of an outrageously gay version of childhood TV shows like the Banana Splits.
Nick Cave the musician has been around and admired for a very long time. His early music owed something to the punk movement; but was distinctly outside of that genre with a darker, discordant strategy and purpose, it did not help either that that the band could tune and play their instruments. But Cave went through a metamorphosis like a Caterpillar turning overnight into a perfectly formed Butterfly around the time of the album “A Boatman Calls” answering the question, how does a rock star age gracefully? Although it is a cliché to describe an album a “break up” one, this is apparently the case and the outcome is measured and sad but also richly melodic and accessible; scooping up influences from gospel, minimalism, blues and the baroque, it has a spare beauty. For almost a year we would listen to it last thing at night, falling asleep and allowing its bitter-sweetness to occupy the paths and labyrinths of our dreams. On stage he is something else and it feels sometimes that he is playing to an audience that wants to prove their devotion by insisting on the older loud, metal songs and he obliges occasionally with slick moves that would have made Elvis raise an eyebrow, raising the sexual temperature and summoning a ferocious, demonic, dark energy into the concert hall. In his cool trademark tight black suit and white shirt, he is thin and gaunt, but with that wild animal energy, slicked own black hair around a pale narrow face he could pass as a villain in a 1920’s horror movie.
Nick Cave the visual artist pulled off something magical in the Armory. Guests were greeted with the sculptural Sound Suit costumes in the ornate rooms, some elaborately decorated by Tiffany, where they were positioned on industrial hand trucks. In fact it was technically two performances; the “Let Go” which is envisaged as a communal dance performance hinted at by the large Mylar curtains that moved restlessly at first around the cavernous Armory, cutting circuitously through the space and challenging the normal demarcation between audience and performers, an immediate crowd pleaser. It was not lost me and others that the space was formally the site of army drills and weapon storage and so to retake it as a camp discothèque was more than a little satisfying. On the other hand I am not always convinced of this movement of artist as community activist and director of soiree’s, which has been in the air for a while, artists making Thai meals and hip ephemeral gatherings, it feels wrong to me a little too exclusive, too self-serving, for “art insiders” a group already absurdly over privileged.
The main performance called “Up Right” itself started with the entry of a young gospel choir, dressed down for the street or subway (but of course embodying the voices of angels) with the sole backing of an electric piano vigorously played throughout, it wasn’t long before the hairs on my arms were standing up. One baritone voice emerged and led the choir in a slow, haunting, luxurious passage that seemed never to end, invoking the spirit of Africa, pure music that cannot be taught or learned, passed down over the centuries from the dark heart of that continent, across the sea’s to this new land of slavery, cotton picking and right to this moment where it mesmerized and brought some to tears.
After this about a dozen dancers, mainly but not exclusively African-American, appeared in track suits and undressed to shorts and tea shirts where they were attended to by assistants who had arrived with the costumes on the industrial hand trucks. The next fifteen minutes or so was made up of the gentle mournfulness of the baritone voice filling the space and the dancers being carefully dressed in these costumes. Caves interest is making is the ancient historical process of giving dignity through such adornment, reminding us that was common to almost every society in every corner of the world in some form or other, long, long before Columbus.
Once dressed they moved around the floor and another gorgeous voice emerged, this time a young African-American woman who lead the choir as it raised to a crescendo and the dancers in their sound suits moved around the floor, some engaging with the audience, and then left the way they came, this time transformed, to a standing ovation. After the show the suits were back where they had started, lifeless and demur and the audience was left to decide whether to partake in the disco that started up as the second performance started or to walk around these sculptures which have such a tactile quality that the guards were constantly having to remind us not to touch them.
What to take away from this? It is said that Cave was deeply affected by the high profile cases of brutality and injustice towards African American’s and that there is a deep political vein running through his work. The vocalization of this anger is of course critical but it also seems to me that disaffection is sometimes better expressed indirectly and in a way that showcases the extraordinary talent and artistic excellence in this community, if that was at least part of the intent, it was done brilliantly.