The Fabric Workshop and Museum
Through mid-February, 2012
By Eva Piatek
Fun, crafty, mystical, and extravagant are words that can only begin to describe the current exhibition created by The Fabric Workshop’s most recent artist-in-residence, Nick Cave. Not to be confused with the singer, this Chicago-based artist has shown his work in prominent galleries and museums across the country while also serving as Professor and Chairman of the Fashion Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His latest exhibition, Let’s C, opened with a live performance on December 16, 2011, which showcased the floor-to-ceiling installation of dangling ornamented bamboo beads that the artist worked on in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop Museum studio staff and apprentices.
Included in the exhibition are Cave’s iconic Soundsuits, for which he is best known. Whether you call them sculptures, clothing, or a hybrid of the two, these brightly colored and exuberant pieces are made from a hodgepodge of found materials ranging from glittering sequins, plastic beads, feathers, crocheted doilies, human hair, bits of sweaters and rugs, and even beanie babies. Through this material mash-up, Cave transforms some of society’s most overlooked objects: private items one typically stows away in the attic or craft box now resurface in the public sphere of the gallery space. In a similar manner, the Soundsuits transform the people who wear them, since they also function as costumes. As stated by Cave in the press release, a “transformative moment” occurs when any given person wears these works, giving up a part of his or her own selfhood to transition into another being. He explains to his viewers that, “since it’s so dominating, this form, you are no longer who you are.” Here, I can’t help but think of the mantra, “the clothes make the man,” which Cave plays on to suggest that not only do these kinds of possessions often define us, but they can also transform us by creating new personas.
I felt the Soundsuits’ dominating presence immediately upon entering the second floor of the museum where they are displayed. The Soundsuits are certainly loud in more ways than one: they clank and rustle when worn by dancers, and their vibrant and clashing colors, in conjunction with their towering height at approximately 9 feet each, contribute to a truly synesthetic experience where color and texture can be heard loud and clear. Their noisy nature is juxtaposed with their frozen, silent stance as sculptures, giving rise to a somewhat disorienting experience.
Each garment is precisely stitched or fabricated for bodily fit, as demonstrated by the mannequins whose legs peek out underneath them. Appropriately, the legs are decked out in brilliantly colored and patterned stockings, making the costumes even busier than they already are. Some, however, are simpler in appearance, like those titled Mating Season, which consist solely of flowing human hair. Another is made entirely of twigs, and others are wildly playful and showy, reminiscent of something one would encounter at a carnival or a Mardi Gras celebration. There is a video projection in the back of the room, titled Drive-By, which showcases these towering creatures in motion, as worn by Cave and other performers. As they thrash around on-screen, human hair flowing in all directions, they take on a more exotic appearance, like creatures right out of Where the Wild Things Are.
Walking into the second floor also felt like entering a fashion show, since the Soundsuits are arranged on a long, slightly raised dais resembling a catwalk that the viewer can circle around. This display is appropriate given Cave’s background in teaching fashion, but perhaps it operates on another level too. Are these beings to be glorified as ideal forms of the human body, analogous to the way real models are treated in contemporary culture, or do they exaggerate the fact that designers now frequently co-opt ethnographic patterns and styles? Because they resemble African ceremonial costumes, perhaps they draw attention to the tribal element of fashion, which now operates as a social ritual we can all participate in. We might not possess the typical model’s thin body and expensive clothing, but we have at some point in our lives possessed some of the objects Cave pieces together, like stuffed animals and throw rugs. Perhaps these Soundsuits also address our ability to relate to one another. By masking gender, race, ethnicity, and class, they invite us to look at each other beyond the immediately recognizable to search for deeper and more meaningful ways to find commonality.
An opening night performance took place on the eighth floor, where Cave had been working with assistants on his residency project, Architectural Forest, comprised of painted bamboo curtains hanging from the ceiling to dangle just above the neon vinyl floor. Similar to his Soundsuits, Architectural Forest is made of materials capable of producing sound and has a fun yet mysterious aspect. The unique patterns produced by the clamorous interaction of colors in the bamboo strands change depending on what angle they are viewed from, similar to how Moiré patterns are created by overlapping materials with repetitive lines. It becomes a game to identify these shifts in pattern, which move in and out of focus as the viewer circles around them. Cave calls the Architectural Forest “an invitation to go where the wild things could be,” where mystical forms move in and out of the architecture. The colors and forms are enticing, yet forbidden. Visitors are not supposed to touch the piece, which heightens the sense of mystery.
The Architectural Forest provided the setting for Cave’s performance, which was also projected for viewers on the museum’s first floor. Incorporating dance, various genres of music, and the ambient sounds generated by the installation itself, the performance was a multisensory experience. The dancers circled around the forest dressed in Soundsuits that consisted of either hair or ribbon shreds resembling pom-poms. As the performers danced around the bamboo forest the materials themselves came to life, transforming the people inside them into otherworldly creatures. It was as though a scene from Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock came into the gallery, as the performers engaged in a similar high-energy musical romp, although they did not actually sing or perform any music themselves. Without actually breaking the fourth wall, they infiltrated the aisles separating the seats placed on both ends of the installation. I happened to be sitting at the end of an aisle, where I felt them brush past me on more than one occasion. I was entranced by the lively harmony of movements created by the dancers and the way the costumes “danced” on their bodies. The end of this whimsical performance left me in a state of wonder at how such a seemingly random conglomeration of colors, materials, sounds, music, and movements could symphonize so well together and transform the gallery into a space inhabited by the supernatural.
Literally stringing together the discarded objects of our consumer culture and repurposing them into brilliant costumes, Cave’s Soundsuits allude to the duality of human nature. Their loudness, whether visual or audible, suggests a metaphor for the need to stand out and be heard in society. On the other hand, their capability of transforming and hiding whoever wears them might also say something about the desire to hide from weighty societal constraints, which can be just as loud and overwhelming. The Architectural Forest seems to function on a similar level, extending the idea of shelter by depicting a whole new environment capable of transcending reality, leaving viewers dazzled by Cave’s chimerical creations.
Born, raised, and still here in Philadelphia, Eva Piatek is a jack of all trades but is currently pursuing her MA in Art History at Tyler School of Art. She enjoys dabbling in the city’s art scene, has had a few curatorial gigs here and there, and hopes to maybe open her own gallery someday.