Kristen Hileman, Curator & Dept. Head of Contemporary Art
I wonder what people hear when they see one of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, like the BMA’s example from 2013. Can a silent piece of visual art really elicit an auditory response? In order for me to imagine what the artist’s suits might sound like, I have to invoke a third sense…that of touch. I think about how it would feel to put a suit on and move around, perhaps even dance the way that the artist himself and others have in Soundsuit performances.
The BMA’s particularly elaborate piece was not created to be worn. The bodysuit of crocheted doilies is stitched on to a mannequin and the stunningly ornate headpiece is too heavy and fragile to allow any mobility if a person could manage to lift it onto his or her head. Nevertheless, if it were possible to dress in this sculpture, the lively rustling of the many beads would proclaim one’s presence. And being suited in such fantastical garb might give the wearer the permission and audacity to say things that he or she might otherwise keep silent. An old-fashioned gramophone speaker seems positioned by the artist for just such a purpose—the annunciation of bold ideas or projecting shouts of joy.
Cave has talked about how the Soundsuits relate to issues of identity and expression. By covering one’s body with such an otherworldly suit, one disguises skin color (and in some cases gender), creating an opportunity to express oneself free from the prejudices of others. The works also suggest the tradition of Carnival—a period during which certain practitioners of Catholicism dress in costumes or masks and engage in mischievous behavior before the arrival of Lent and with it a time of reflection and penance. Other cultures also use masks and dance for performance and rituals. Throughout Africa and the Diaspora, for instance, costumes are employed to transform their wearers into spiritual figures, empowered to covey religious or moral ideas, or into satirical representations of familiar cultural and political personae.
Cave, who has a background in both modern dance and visual art and is a Professor in the Department of Fashion Design at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, only realized the importance of sound to his art after he tried on his first sculptural suit made from twigs that he had collected in a park. That recognition has led to an exciting and unique practice that combines actual and implied sound and movement with Cave’s one-of-a-kind visual sensibility.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.