We're All in There Somewhere

Sunday, March 27, 2011 8:00 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)
Thanks to Nick Cave, from now until June 5th, you can stroll into the Seattle Art Museum and ask the people at the front desk "How do I get to the Center of the Earth," and they will smile and tell direct you to the fourth floor. Who knew it was so easy? Really, you should try it.

Nick Cave is an artist, a dancer, a black American, a recycler of abandoned, overlooked and temporarily invisible objects, and an incredibly gifted and exacting craftsman. Working with small army of dedicated cohorts, he has revealed, by creating it, the world that exists at the center of not just the earth but everything that matters, or should matter, to human beings. In spite of the fact that this is a ridiculously ambitious undertaking, he seems to have pulled it off with this impressive body of work. And then put it on again.

Listening to people's reactions to this exhibit is almost as much fun as looking at it all. And there's a lot to look at. In the space of just ten minutes spent hanging around the entrance to the exhibit, I heard two different people say "Holy cow!" Since one of the things that Cave wants us to think about is the connection between the human and animal worlds, that’s a pretty wonderful comment. But he also wants us to think about the power and freedom that disguise and anonymity offers to people who were born on the wrong side of the color, gender, and identity divides.

A growing awareness of the ravages of identity politics does inevitably start to sneak up on you the longer you look around. But after a while, the sheer joy you feel with prolonged exposure to the extraordinary depth and breadth of Cave’s inventiveness creates a tidal wave of euphoria that washes over you and tends to overwhelm the more sinister content. And then one more walk around the "Sound Suits" made of twigs or some time spent with the photographs of Cave wearing the pieces that don’t hide his identity or another look at the contrast between the suits made of homemade bits of kitsch where the buttons are attached by those creepy plastic doohickeys that keep the price tags on the clothes at discount stores and the couture-style costumes over in their own private and privileged gallery with their carefully hand-sewn embellishments will bring your feet right back to the ground. And speaking of feet, check out all those fabulous socks. I have a thing about socks and that part of the show took me completely by surprise    

There’s so much to see that everyone will have a different list of favorites. The big bear upholstered with cast-off sweaters includes a working zipper down the left leg that I really could have used when I had surgery for a broken leg two years ago. There’s a beaded and spangled space-princess suit complete with a fabulous headpiece/shield/carapace that Cave wears in one of the little gallery of photographs. I named one of the pieces that was made of crocheted headgear "The Bad Hat" because it reminded me of the Madeleine book of the same name. But hey, go find your own.    

The only thing I found disappointing was that I couldn’t actually get into and walk around in one of the "Sound Suits" made of twigs. Cave's description of how surprised he was when he first tried it on and discovered the noises it made was so compelling that I really, really wanted to try it myself. Yes, I understand that allowing anyone - and there would be plenty of us - to climb inside one is impractical but I’m still feeling deprived.

Still, there is much satisfaction and some kinetic consolation in watching the film loops that are playing on the walls at the very back of the exhibit. One of them is a never-ending parade of Cave-clad dancers striding, floating, flailing, leaping, billowing, and shape-shifting through a white seamless world that seems to have no up, down, or gravity. And the best one shows Cave engaged in a frenzied wrestling match with a suit that looks like a big piece of black-and-white knitted coral. The sped-up action combined with Cave's brilliant choreography is comical and frightening at the same time.   

If you know any fellow humans, young or old, hip or square, sentient or clueless, who have always thought (sometimes with good reason) that there is nothing in an art museum that might engage, delight, or amaze them, you should invite them to "Meet Me at the Center of the Earth." It's a show for doubters, refuseniks, and outsiders who will recognize themselves looking back out from the center of at least one and probably several of these little worlds that Nick Cave has imagined and built from scratch and inspiration.

Kathleen Cain

Kathleen Cain is a Seattle-based writer and bibliophile who follows art, collects buttons, and has a sock fetish.

"Meet Me at the Center of the Earth" by Nick Cave is on view through June 5 at the Seattle Art Musuem, located at 1300 First Avenue in Seattle, Washington. For more information, please visit the website www.seattleartmuseum.org or call (206) 654-3100.

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