UCLA Today

Wild, 'wearable art' creates fantasy of sights, sounds

Nick Cave 01
This colorful Soundsuit can be seen at the Fowler Museum's exhibition, "Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth." All photos by James Prinz and courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and the Fowler Museum at UCLA.
Once you step inside the Fowler Museum’s Getty Gallery to enjoy its latest exhibition, “Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth,” you know you’re in for a unique experience.
For one thing, you’re greeted by a 10-foot-tall polar bear with a “skin” of colorfully striped sweaters — Gap, J. Crew, you name it. Meant to be a welcoming figure, the bear is nonetheless an imposing form that stops you in your tracks.
A fabric bear doesn’t sound so unusual when you learn that the artist serves as associate professor and chair of the fashion department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But while Cave is an expert in fiber art, he has no fears about experimenting in all manner of disciplines, even dance. This becomes obvious when you venture farther into the gallery and encounter the highlight of the exhibition — an amazing array of wildly colorful, beautifully made outfits called “Soundsuits.”
Cave’s Soundsuits are multi-layered, mixed-media sculptures named for the sounds they make when they are donned and performed in. Constructed of scavenged yarn, sequins, bottle caps, vintage toys, ceramic bird figurines, hair and more, the suits look African but are also contemporary. The detail on the suits is incredibly intricate — buttons and sequins are individually sewn on; embroidered stitches are perfectly placed.
Nick Cave - Meet Me at the Center of the Earth -Headshot--credit James Prinz pic in show
Artist Nick Cave
“People who write about Nick’s work say that his pieces are about the idea of transformation and identity, and what it means to disguise who you really are by putting on a Soundsuit that turns you into something other than who you are,” said Fowler Museum director Marla Berns, who brought Cave’s Soundsuits to campus after admiring them at the Seattle Art Museum in 2008. “You’re human, but you’re not human, which is very much like the principles of African masquerade.”
The 35 creations in “Meet Me at the Center of the Earth” are not meant to be worn — they are sculptures. But the artist has also created a separate set of Soundsuits meant to be worn in performance, and these suits are being used in different ways by the venues that are hosting the traveling exhibition.
Berns decided against hiring a professional dance company to wear the Soundsuits; instead, she saw an opportunity to involve students from the World Arts and Cultures (WAC) dance program. She approached WAC chair Angelia Leung about forming a partnership and, as part of the alliance, M.F.A. students take a course that teaches them how to wear the Soundsuits. These students later perform in impromptu “Soundsuit Invasions” both on and off campus.
Nick Cave 05Word about Nick Cave’s creations has spread throughout the UCLA community and beyond. Earlier this month, 150 students from four local high schools came to Royce Hall to hear Cave speak; afterward, they toured the exhibition.
“It was a fabulous show that was engaging, both conceptually and aesthetically,” said Amy Bouse, who brought 52 students from her studio art classes at Santa Monica High School. “It engaged a lot of students who otherwise wouldn’t be that interested in art, so it was an all-around success.”
Nick Cave 02Leslie Karten, chair of visual arts at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, brought 16 students from her “wearable art” class. Her students were enthralled, Karten said. “They came with cameras — they’re very serious! They’re fine arts students, so they really appreciated the genre. It spoke to so many things they’re involved in. It spoke to their sculpture class, their sense of fashion, sense of color, sense of drama and theater. It was a really, really great exhibit for our students.”
To see the Soundsuits in action, check out this YouTube video taken at the recent opening night gala event for the L.A. Art Show. Listen to a selection of Soundsuits Soundscapes at UCLA's itunes U site. Search for "Soundsuits." And be sure to check the Fowler Museum’s Facebook (www.facebook.com/FowlerMuseum) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/FowlerMuseum) sites to see when the next “Soundsuit Invasion” will occur. Performances will take place during the exhibition’s run through May 30 at the Fowler Museum.
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