Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 18, 2020
Denise Markonish, ed. Nick Cave: Until Exh. cat. North Adams, MA and New York: MASS MoCA in association with DelMonico Books-Prestel, 2017. 200 pp.; 133 color ills. Cloth $49.95 (9783791356051)
MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, October 15, 2016–September 4, 2017; Tramway, Glasgow, August 3–November 11, 2019; Carriageworks, Sydney, November 23–March 3, 2019; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR, July 18, 2020–January 3, 2021
Nick Cave: Until, installation view, Tramway, Glasgow, 2019 (photograph provided by Tramway)

The initial sensation on entering Nick Cave’s installation Until is one of beguilement. Thousands of brightly colored wind spinners—metal discs cut with concentric designs that generate a holographic effect when in motion—hang on wire strands from ceiling to floor in a glittering thicket. The walls are netted with pony beads threaded into vivid designs: the word “power,” a hashtag, a red World AIDS Day ribbon, a rainbow. Skirting the wind-spinner forest, a pony-bead curtain cascades over the floor, leaving a bejeweled tideline. At the exhibition’s heart sits a gigantic structure that seems to float celestially, its underside shimmering with illuminated crystal chandeliers. The top, a cornucopia of thrift-store finds featuring cut-glass flowers, golden pigs, and gramophone trumpets, can only be closely inspected by ascending one of four precarious ladders. The resulting oscillation between shelter and exclusion encapsulates the ambiguity underlying Until’s visual efflorescence. While some spinners are abstract and anodyne, others are shaped like guns, bullets, or explosions. A sculpture of a bronze hand, fingers pointed upward and enshrined with beaded flowers, signposts the start of a path through the environment. Cast from Cave’s own hand positioned as if holding a gun, the work transforms this gesture, in the artist’s words, “from one of violence to one of beckoning” (201). Unarmed (2016), which also directs viewers toward the menace rippling through the installation, constitutes both a memorial to victims of gun violence and a call to action.  

Until was commissioned by MASS MoCA in collaboration with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Carriageworks, Sydney. After nearly a year at MASS MoCA in 2016–17 it headed to Australia, and in 2020 travels to Crystal Bridges. The extension of this itinerary to include the Tramway, a multidisciplinary arts venue in what was once Glasgow’s main tram terminus, marks Cave’s first solo exhibition not just in the United Kingdom but in Europe, as well. For audiences unfamiliar with Cave’s work, this forms a somewhat unusual introduction, given that the original approach by MASS MoCA curator Denise Markonish came with one stipulation: that the commission would not feature any of Cave’s iconic Soundsuits, the hybrid performance-sculptures that have become synonymous with his practice (21).

The catalyst for the Soundsuits occurred in 1992, as civil unrest gripped Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. Although King’s brutal beating by officers in the Los Angeles Police Department the previous year had been caught on video, the jury acquitted his four white attackers, sparking protests among the city’s African American and Latinx communities against decades of police persecution. Cave’s first Soundsuit comprised a body armor of camouflaging twigs gathered from a park near his studio in Chicago, where he continues to live and work. It channeled the reverberations of the assault on King, and the artist’s reflections on his personal experiences of racial profiling, into a form of creative resistance.

The Soundsuits subsequently became increasingly ornate, featuring beading, embroidery, sequins, and fur. Their iconicity stems from their simultaneous indexing of the threats to people of color that necessitate protection and their potential for performative, ritual transformation that blurs rigid constructions of gender, sexuality, and race. Only one direct reference to the Soundsuits could be found at Tramway: a wallpaper vinyl applied to the entrance space featured an image of an eye peering out from a yellow raffia suit, refracted into a kaleidoscopic design. But they nonetheless remain key coordinates in Until’s critique of gun violence in the United States and its disproportionate impact on people of color due to the intermeshing histories of white supremacy, repressive law enforcement, and the proliferation of firearms. This influence extends from Cave’s conceptualization of the experience of Until as being like entering the belly of a Soundsuit (140) to the staging of performances and events inside the installation.

By scaling up the Soundsuits to environmental proportions, Cave has been able to create a participatory forum that can accrue a complex array of allusions and hold them in relation. The exhibition catalog draws out Until’s elegiac qualities, with contributions from Cave, Markonish, and the poet Claudia Rankine that reference the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of US law enforcement, including Eric Garner in 2014 and the teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. They also list the homophobic attack on members of the LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were people of color, at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016 and a white supremacist’s murderous assault on the congregation of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. An essay by the musician David Byrne responds to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The incorporation of excerpts from Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) links directly to the UK context: “August 4, 2011, in Memory of Mark Duggan” commemorates Duggan’s shooting by London’s Metropolitan Police and references the highly racist and classist reporting in the British press about the disturbances that ensued across London and other UK cities (124). Closer to Glasgow, Until’s appearance at Tramway resonates with the memory of Sheku Bayoh, who died while being physically restrained by Scottish police in Kirkcaldy in 2015.

Cave’s aspiration for Until to act as a catalyst for change in the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a monument, is perhaps most evident in the installation’s use for dance, performance, and discussion. For Glasgow, Cave developed a program entitled Call and Response, inviting eight artists to create performances in the installation. Until’s peripatetic relocation and reinterpretation at each venue has substantial potential to link experiences of repression and resilience in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom and to counter the unprotesting acceptance of violence more widely. The catalog, however, contains only small segments of documentation from prior events at MASS MoCA; a second publication recording Until’s programming will follow. This is vitally necessary if the work’s transformative potential is to be fully understood, contextualized, and historicized. While the detailed catalog photographs convey Until’s immersive quality and foreground the many technicians who helped craft its intricate segments, the first publication emerged too early to grapple in-depth with the interconnected but distinct histories of violence, racism, and colonization referenced through the installation’s site-specific activations.

Until’s capacity to host a range of events might mark a shift in Cave’s practice, to modes of action and movement that expand beyond the Soundsuits. However, sculpture as a process and medium retains an important role in the work. Among the flora and fauna of the cloud sculpture, Cave has placed seventeen lawn jockeys. The artist’s inclusion of these racist objects, intractably imbricated as they are in America’s histories of racial oppression, from the transatlantic slave trade to Jim Crow and segregation, continues a significant strand of works by African American artists questioning the potentials and limits of repurposing and thereby rerouting racist imagery through sculptural practice. Betye Saar, in her influential assemblage The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), freed this racist caricature figure by giving her a gun, allying her with Black Power and the Black Panthers. Nearly fifty years on, Cave’s decision to embellish the lawn jockeys with crystals registers a connected but also very different cultural context, in which gun violence has come to seem dangerously like an intractable, unsolvable “fact” in the United States.

Until’s cloud sculpture was prompted by a question Cave posed himself: is there racism in heaven? The presence of the lawn jockeys is thus deeply equivocal, raising specters of hope and despair alike. The more time spent inside Until, the more the initial glister and glimmer become disconcerting, evoking the media’s readiness to trivialize traumatic events, capitalism’s facility in commoditizing violence, and the depoliticizing effects of normalization. The initial impression of beguilement is troubled and rendered suspicious. This is not to deny Until’s strongly reparative and utopian aspects but rather to stress that the ambivalence encapsulated by the title is one of the installation’s most crucial critical attributes: Until what? Until when? Innocent until proven guilty, or, as many who commit acts of white aggression against people of color evidently assume, guilty until proven innocent? Can entrenched structural violence be broken? Until might in some senses be like a gigantic Soundsuit, but the expansion into large-scale installation means that the offer of protection feels more diffuse and provisional. By turning his Soundsuits inside out, Cave has created a challenging experience that demands that viewers self-reflexively navigate a disconcertingly equivocal zone, in which threat, seduction, and defiance are all constantly in play.

Catherine Spencer
Lecturer, School of Art History, University of St. Andrews