February 1, 2016

By Andrew Taylor

He does not sing, use heroin or hail from the Victorian town of Wangaratta.

With his powerful physique and gentle mid-western accent, African-American artist Nick Cave does not look or sound like his Australian namesake either.

Yet still the two men are confused for each other.

“There have been articles written where it’s my work but talking about him,” Cave says. “It happens all the time.”

“I’ve never done drugs, I swear to God,” he adds, laughing. “No, never.”

Cave was in Sydney last month scouting for venues for the Australian premiere of his HEARD.SYD in November. Thirty life-size horse sculptures will canter through Carriageworks, Sydney Town Hall and Pitt Street Mall performing choreographed movements accompanied by musicians as part of the art installation.

“It started out I remember as a kid my mother put a sock on her hand and all of a sudden this became a puppet,” he says. “Something as simple as that, but the whole idea of how something so simple can be so powerful and so animated.”

Likewise, the equine sculptures, known as “sound suits”, are an elaborate version of two people covering themselves with a sheet and horsing about.

Integral to the HEARD work is that it is performed in a public space, Cave adds. “There’s still a large part of the population who doesn’t frequent museums so as an artist how can I bring my work into communities to facilitate a cultural empowerment.”

“That’s part of my work. I have to think about that. I think as an artist of colour how can I broaden that.”

HEARD was first performed in New York’s Grand Central Terminal in 2013, attracting crowds so large that an entrance to the station had to be closed.

Cave says the performance did not disrupt trains but “I’m sure people caught the next train out. So that’s a form of disruption.”

“What I felt people were getting from the piece is that sort of magical transformative experience,” he says. “It was a moment that allowed you to escape from your daily life.”

The City of Sydney, Carriageworks and Arts NSW have each contributed $80,000 to stage HEARD.SYD, which arrives in Sydney following performances in Hong Kong, Denver and Texas.

A professor of fashion in Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, Cave has had a number of solo shows in museums across the United States and his sound suits, which fetch up to $US200,000, have been acquired by institutions including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Made of brightly-coloured raffia embellished by traditional patterns and operated by two performers, Cave’s horses are a vivid amalgam of sculpture, dance and fashion.

But the sound suits are inspired by an incident of police brutality and racism – issues that continue to mar American society and that he says are at “the core of my work”.

Cave’s first sound suit was developed in 1992 in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles.

It was made of twigs that covered his face and body, providing an armour that masked gender, race and age and thus forced the viewer to suspend prejudice.

“To become something other, can be threatening, can be alluring and seductive,” Cave says. “For me it was operating as something that is unknown that can make one comfortable, that can make one feel threatening. These are things as a black man that you encounter.”

The 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida have prompted Cave to conceive a new artwork that will also be shown at Carriageworks.

“One day I was reading and thinking about all of it and I was thinking is there racism in heaven?” he says.

The new work, which will be shown in collaboration with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, will involve viewers walking along a trail lined with garden spinners that are revealed to be targets and guns.

“And so then the question is who is being targeted? Who’s being profiled?,” he says. “It’s really speaking about what’s going on in the world today y’know. Gun violence and these horrific acts of destruction in Paris and around the world.”

Nick Cave: HEARD.SYD will be exhibited at Carriageworks, Sydney Town Hall and Pitt Street Mall in November.