Blurring the senses: Artist-in-residence Nick Cave brings signature soundsuit to Ruffin Gallery

Renowned sculptor, professor, and community-builder Nick Cave is this spring’s Ruffin Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at UVA. His show, “Spot On,” is on view at Ruffin Gallery through March 31. Renowned sculptor, professor, and community-builder Nick Cave is this spring’s Ruffin Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at UVA. His show, “Spot On,” is on view at Ruffin Gallery through March 31.

On a Saturday morning, artist Nick Cave and his partner Bob Faust sit with a group of 25 University of Virginia students.

“Who came straight from a club?” Cave jokingly asks as he surveys the group. Many are puffy-eyed and swigging coffee in an effort to wake up.

“This is Charlottesville. There aren’t any clubs here,” one student responds.

It’s day two of the first leg of Cave’s workshops, part of his residency at UVA. During these workshops, students across art disciplines collaborate in groups of five to respond to a prompt Cave and Faust designed, the centerpiece of which is a “2020” icon, with the second 20 flipped upside down. In April, the workshops will culminate in art exercises, installations, and presentations in locations of the students’ choosing across UVA’s Grounds.

“It’s important for students to invite their friends,” Cave says. “Who is this for? How do you get the people there, and what is your message? I’m interested in seeing what this student body wants to talk about, and how do we find common ground?” His voice moves in and out of being audible above the unpredictable din of “Spot On,” his current show at Ruffin Gallery.

On view through March 31, the show features three of the award-winning sculptor’s videos, “Blot,” “Bunny Boy,” and “Gestalt.” Each piece includes one or more of Cave’s signature soundsuits—ornate, full-body costumes that produce noises that are meditative yet jarring, rooted in nature though mechanical, and hauntingly beautiful.

“I chose video because I wanted to show choreography and collaboration, and how those set the stage,” says Cave. “How do we identify a space? What does that look like? How do we place ourselves within that context? That’s what the students are doing in our workshops.”

Cave created the first soundsuit in response to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police. Though colorful, whimsical, and mythical, the suits originated from Cave’s feelings of fear and isolation in response to the globally televised incident of violence, racism, and police brutality.

“I felt like my identity and who I was as a human being was up for question,” he told The New York Times Magazine last October. “I felt like that could have been me. Once that incident occurred, I was existing very differently in the world. So many things were going through my head: How do I exist in a place that sees me as a threat?”

“Bunny Boy” speaks perhaps most poignantly to Cave’s exploration of identity, loneliness, and vulnerability. Viewers must enter a wooden structure that nearly covers the length of Ruffin Gallery and step into a dark interior to watch the film projected inside.

“You don’t know if you can enter this space,” Cave says. “It’s not saying that you can’t, but it’s not clear from this perspective. It asks us to think about expanses and how an audience enters and engages with the work.”

Inside, participants see a nearly 45-minute video of Cave wearing a furry fuchsia soundsuit with rabbit-like ears, floppy paws, and an exposed torso. He occupies an underworld dark space with just one harsh spotlight, while pawing at sounds (a dog barking or a lawnmower) of the “above world,” as Cave calls it. One can’t help but think of the ostracized protagonists of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or the psychological thriller Donnie Darko.

“We can all identify with this,” says Cave. “We have all been in these spaces within our own internal dark selves. There’s a blurred sense of fantasy and seduction.”

Equally seductive is Cave’s “Blot,” a film that features a shape-shifting black soundsuit comprised of long strands of synthetic raffia. In movement, the raffia strands create a sound reminiscent of the ocean, as the Rorschach-like inkblot pushes and pulls against a reflected image of itself. Behind the scenes, the actor lurches and lunges into a wall; in post-production, Cave removed the wall and created a mirror image of the soundsuit. Cave shot “Blot” and “Gestalt” in one largely improvised take. Though he gives actors a loose statement of his intent for the video, the movements remain predominately unscripted.

“It’s about putting on the object and understanding how it’s moving,” Cave says of the performers who wear his soundsuits. “Are there any limitations and boundaries? What is in motion? How much does it weigh, what is the volume? What will it illustrate as I expand my body?”

While “Blot” lures viewers into a slow, meditative trance, “Gestalt” grabs participants by the shoulders and shakes them awake. Multiple soundsuits—one with buttons and an abacus face, another with a washboard face, and a third adorned with doilies—enter and exit the scene. They interact violently with one another, butt heads, throw one another to the ground, and drag themselves across the floor as the video speed jarringly toggles between fast and even faster. It comes from a place of being bullied, Cave explains, or feelings of being jailed by space and time.

“How do you create work that you have to stay and experience?” Cave asks. “I’ve been in a lot of museums and shows where I could be in there for 10 seconds and say, ‘Okay, I gotta go.’ How do you capture and secure one’s ability to take the time to commit to that experience?”

For Cave, the answer has been wearing his emotions literally on his sleeves (and head, heart, and the rest of his body).


Renowned sculptor, professor, and community-builder Nick Cave is this spring’s Ruffin Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at UVA. His show, “Spot On,” is on view at Ruffin Gallery through March 31.

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