Stepping onto the fourth floor of Chicago’s Forothermore Museum of Contemporary Art, Nick Cave’s Spinner Forest (2022) greets the viewer with thousands of reflective, metallic and shiny spinners. “Wind Spinners” hanging over porches and yards throughout the Midwest have been updated with shapes from Cave’s design. Polygons spinning in concentric circles rotate in the sunlight; Upon closer inspection, they contain symbols—pictographs—including guns, smileys, hands clasped in peace signs, daisies, and psychedelic ephemera.
Spinner Forest is a rendition of an installation by Cave first assembled for Nick Cave: Until, released by Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia. at MASS MoCA in 2018 and at The Momentary (2020-21), a contemporary art space in Bentonville, Arkansas. In Spinner Forest, Cave successfully creates a fantastical space that’s playfully and visually intriguing, unhesitatingly delving into questions like “Is there racism in heaven?” That’s the question Cave asked himself during the making of Spinner Forest. It’s a phrase of the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” or in this case “guilty until proven innocent”. The set examines the complex issues of race, gun violence, racial profiling, and gender politics that divide the United States and the extension of these complex issues to communities around the world. Spinner Forest conditions the viewer to be receptive to building a dialogue about violence and systemic injustice, alongside imaginative and utopian methods of creating solutions.
Forothermore is Cave’s first retrospective. Known for both his community-focused projects and his visionary, multidisciplinary work, the Chicago-based artist appropriated the kitschy plastic and reflective spinners found outside the homes of many working-class people to raise serious questions about gun violence and racial profiles while providing great feel, enjoyment and accessibility.
Upon entering the first gallery, the viewer is greeted by a dazzling display of Cave’s “Soundsuits” and “Beaded Cliff Wall” (2016), a massive wall covering made of millions of pony beads threaded onto shoelaces and then tied together in a lattice formation by hand. The “soundsuits” are, above all, Nick Cave-ian. They stand masculine and vital. At least eight feet tall, they are a myriad of towering figures seemingly made of plastic flowers, thousands upon thousands of beads and buttons, garden statues and sock monkeys, among other objects. Cave’s “soundsuits” were magnetic when I first spotted them in 2012’s “Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth” at the Cincinnati Art Museum. The soundsuits seemed to represent working-class glitz and glamor. The dime-store materials paired with handcrafted crochet patterns felt combative yet loving and accessible when combined on this nine-foot-tall armature. They were the suits for a utopian army somewhere in the future that militarized compassion, praise and cooperation, where armed dance freed people from their ill will and reactionary manoeuvres. The “Soundsuits” are icons we use to project our fantasies of better worlds. They are so imaginative that it is both unnecessary and unmotivating to quell my desire to imagine the absolute best-case scenario. In the presence of “soundsuits” I am ready to imagine total safety and freedom.
On the raised platform containing the first “Soundsuits” is a large printed graphic that runs along both the base of the wall and the side edge of the platform that reads, “If you’re going to march over it, you’ve got to talk about it.” The text begins with clearly shaped letters that are dragged across the platform, thus drawing a kind of barcode across the stage, on which stands a collection of “soundsuits”. The text feels like a misstep, as it implies that LGBTQIA+ and black activist communities in America have not discussed state-sanctioned violence in open forums for over a century. Still, I prefer to think that this phrase suggests an institutionalized courtesy that so often overwhelms art that critiques systemic structures such as societal bias and prison systems. Perhaps “if you’re going to march about it, you have to talk about it” is Cave’s reminder to the museum and the visitor to actively protest injustice and engage in the work required to right it.
Nonetheless, the “soundsuits” demonstrate pride and power and joy and hold a palpable contempt for their existential necessity. They are made to disguise the body that wears them. Cave has said that the suit becomes a protective shield for the wearer, a kind of anti-glare camouflage – a protective barrier that protects bodies that constantly feel different from the eyes of pursuers.
Nick Cave: Forothermore is both an ode to those who, whether because of racism, homophobia or other forms of bigotry, live their lives as “others” – and a celebration of them, like art, music, fashion and performance it can help us envision a more just future.
Naomi Beckwith, the exhibition’s curator and former senior curator of the MCA, who recently moved to the Guggenheim, has done a great job of welcoming the viewer into Cave’s joy of collaboration and organization while guiding them into the depths of its navigation pulled through reclaimed materials and found hope in discarded materials and the potential of reshaping with what we already own. In doing so, the viewer witnesses an enormous amount of personal and historical grief, loss and memorial. Upon exiting the first room of the installation, a wall text reads:
What is really valuable in a culture of abundance? Our society produces a plethora of objects: sometimes rare and handcrafted, but often cheap and easily interchangeable. In affluent societies, most consumer goods eventually end up on the dustbin of history.
Cave plays with how we value some objects over others, collecting discarded and “useless” objects – plastic jewellery, flea market finds, tacky decorations – and giving them a second life as dazzling art objects with the skill of a couturier. Creative reuse is a way for Cave to make not just a visual statement, but also an ethical statement: if we can turn trash into art, the world is filled with potential value.
Although the statement deliberately engages in classist perspectives by implying that there is a universally true understanding of what objects have value and for whom, the statement nonetheless manages to raise an important question that Cave uses consistently. Cave uses his myriad flea market finds as a metaphor to ask audiences who they value and why—forcing them to ask themselves what objects they value and why. The statement integrates consumerism into the issues of race, queerness, and class that are at the core of Cave’s work. Questions like: how can bypassing consumerist tendencies revitalize what we prioritize or value as a society? How do our things define us? How do they unite us? And how will they isolate or unite communities trying to grow, develop, and care for one another — in the ways Cave is interested in?
Then we come to Speak Louder (2011). The work consists of seven mutually committed “soundsuits” with a fabric extension that unites them into a unique body. Rather than towering over the viewer, their tips consist of rounded, flat Plateresque shapes that, upon seeing the use of the gramophones in “Platform” (2018), were later read as loudspeakers – reflecting the need to shout out in order to be heard will. Black mother-of-pearl buttons “Speak Louder” with other upholstery and fitting details projects an assemblage of unity and volume—both in terms of weight and sonic metrics.
While the first half of the exhibition served as a shuttle into an imaginative future, the second half draws us into the patterned and varied experiences of personal and social grief that Cave holds. It serves as a powerful reminder of where all that hope comes from.
“Platform” is a fairly condensed install compared to previous iterations; When shown during As It Was and Still Is at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City, the installation took up most of a large gallery. Here it is condensed into a somber diorama; we see four large gramophones, chains of bronze (and blackened) hands, black heads, cushions and carved eagles. The installation evokes Jim Crow’s tropes by placing Americana objects, the wood-carved bald eagles, near tormented black faces. Black hands are suspended forming a chain of holding hands, allowing them to depend on one another – creating a chain link of interwoven hands. It is a reminder of the horror of American Romanticism and how it has proven time and time again to be violent toward Black bodies, and the enduring strength of the community and support structures that have been built despite that violence. It’s brutal and it’s delicate.
“Truss” (1999), one of the oldest pieces in the retrospective, serves as a memorial in the truest sense of the word. Like many of Cave’s early works, “Truss” evokes a personal loss; It is a memory of a friend of Cave’s who died as a result of an AIDS-related illness. Lots and lots of used, worn, ruined and discarded work gloves are encased in gold-amber resin and built into a metal fitting. This is a memorial, but it also feels like a promise of an unknown, better ending. The inclusion of this work, self-contained, feels intimate and meandering. It’s private, dark. Still, it reminds us why joy, sincere love, tried and true cooperation and cooperation are so important. The ones we lost deserved better in the first place.
Nick Cave: Forothermore runs through October 2nd at the MCA, 220 East Chicago.