The new razzle dazzle

Soundsuit visionary Nick Cave fashions a wild trip to the fiery core of inspiration


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Where is the center of the Earth? According to artist Nick Cave, it lies somewhere between a night out at Taboo with Leigh Bowery and a Brazilian Carnaval parade. It can be found in Liberace's glittering stage getups and Yoruba ceremonial hunting dress. Other possible coordinates include Yinka Shonibare's Africanized rococo costumes, Cockney pearly suits, the hautest of haute couture, and the fun fur tribes of Black Rock City.


Thankfully, for us, Cave's crocheted, sequined, bedazzled, embroidered, dyed, and encrusted vision of the heart of the world can be found locally. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' "Meet Me At the Center of the Earth" presents the largest exhibit to date of the Chicago artist's work, which straddles the realms of sculpture, high fashion, body art, and dance with a visual ferocity and level of workmanship that is alternately stunning and inspiring.

Cave's art practically dares you to play chicken with your thesaurus. One would have to borrow a page (or several) from the descriptive reveries of Thomas de Quincey or Ronald Firbank to fully convey the cluster fuck of beading, psychedelic hair furs, plastic tchotchkes, yarn, tin toys, buttons, second hand sweaters, and enough sequins to cover a thousand '80s cocktail dresses that he has quixotically and painstakingly pieced together.


The centerpieces of "Meet Me at the Center of the Earth" are undoubtedly Cave's Soundsuits — wearable sculptures that take their name from the sounds created by their movement. They fill YBCA's largest gallery like some other-wordly pantheon of gods and monsters. Arranged in an X-shaped configuration with paths running down the center of each axis, the suits form a giant visual nod to the exhibit's title. X, of course, marks the spot, and hanging above the room's center is the Earth itself, swathed in several shades of inky sequins. On the adjacent walls hang two huge and possibly glitzier tondi — the Italian Renaissance term Cave uses for these round hangings — which serve as flattened counterparts to the globe.


The display lets you explore the Soundsuits from every angle. Designed to cover the entire body, the suits hide any individual traces of the wearer by creating a second skin, and then some. The suits with towering, festooned cage structures — which bring to mind both Balinese funeral pyres and Simon Rodia's Watts Towers — still have a vaguely human outline at their core, whereas the suits patterned in all sort of brilliantly colored fur-like human hair could very well be studies from an unrealized Jim Henson project. This lycanthropic aspect of the Soundsuits is explored most humorously in Cave's more recent pieces, which take the reverse tactic of fashioning knitwear pelts for taxidermy models of bears and beavers.

While much of Cave's work, to quote New York Times critic Roberta Smith, "fall[s] squarely under the heading of Must Be Seen to Be Believed," it also begs to be heard. It is unfortunate that YBCA wasn't able to more fully integrate the sounds of the suits into their display.

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