We’d really like to know how Nick Cave decorates his Christmas tree. His 2013 'Soundsuit' in the Contemporary wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art is packed with as much domestic personality, tradition, and kitsch as your grandma’s tree, covered in old knick knacks and glistening glass garlands.
The American artist (not the frontman of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) is known for his Soundsuits, elaborate full-body costumes made from anything from human hair to sequins to found objects, often worn in dance performances choreographed by the artist, who is trained as a professional dancer. Cave’s recent Soundsuits, like the one in the BMA, have been topped with intricate ornamental structures, which don’t need physical movement to reveal their complexities. The branchlike armatures are strung with glass-beaded garlands and decorated with various knickknacks that might be found in Grandma’s house or a Hampden antique store.
Ceramic birds, figurines, flowers, produce, and garlands surround the head of the 2013 ‘Soundsuit,’ with tightly fitted fabric, reminiscent of chunky knitted blankets and tacky sweaters, covering the entire head and body of the mannequin. The ceramic pieces are distributed evenly around the structure, and the garlands are woven to form an intricate web of speckled glass light—like a particularly intricate Christmas tree. Peeking through the web is an antique gramophone horn which protrudes from the head like a gaping open mouth making no sound—or whatever sound the viewer might project onto it. It’s easy to spend a significant amount of time with the 'Soundsuit,' because of the way it presents hundreds of distinctive yet familiar images.
The “ornaments” were selected from thrift shops, antique stores, and flea markets for their domestic identity and cultural histories. Each piece represents the personality of the quintessential American home.
Cave—who visited Baltimore last February to speak at The Contemporary’s CoHosts Series event with Pinebox Art Center—deals directly with race and oppressive objects in his more recent work (last fall his solo exhibition at Jack Shaiman gallery in Chelsea, “Made For Whites By Whites,” featured similar garland-and-ornament structures looming over viciously stereotypical black male figurines). All of his Soundsuits conceal the identity of the wearer—erasing race, gender, age, etc.—and replace it with the suits’ material identity; in this case, with domestic history. The mannequin, positioned in a power stance with clenched fists and legs spread apart, appears alien or potentially monstrous despite being covered head to toe in the most unalien objects.
The holidays often entail going to parents’ or grandparents’ houses and revisiting objects or spaces that are intertwined with one’s personal history, even totally banal knickknacks or furniture that have played no particularly important role beyond being a physical presence in lives of the home’s inhabitants. Visions of the domestic past condense during the holidays, as they do physically in Cave’s 'Soundsuit.' The large, heavy headpiece suggests the weight of those images, taking over the the identity of the figure bearing them.
Would Cave decorate his holiday tree with old ornaments inherited or gifted from or crafted by relatives, as many of us do; or would he use the same objects he finds or purchases to use in his 'Soundsuit'? In Cave’s tradition of identity replacement through material, the kitschy ceramic birds, flowers, and figurines are detached from the artist’s personal history, but they represent a domestic past belonging to anyone.