A Colossal Interview 

Artist Nick Cave Unpacks Silence and Compassion Ahead of His First Retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago

May 11, 2022


A portmanteau of forevermore and for others, Forothermore is a prescient title for the first retrospective of artist Nick Cave. The career-spanning survey opens this week at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, a city the renowned artist, designer, educator, and activist has called home for the last 30-plus years. Forothermore is organized as a sort of triptych of time, not one that collapses past, present, and future but instead considers what recurs and transfigures as the world evolves. It focuses on what has been and will always be relevant.

Cave’s Soundsuits, the captivating costumes of color and fur that are likely his most recognizable works, were born in response to Rodney King’s brutal beating by Los Angeles police back in 1991, an event that’s catalyzed his career and served as a reminder of how slowly change occurs. Now spanning sculpture, installation, performance, and various mediums, Cave’s body of work consistently confronts racism, homophobia, and other bigotries through the alluring, affecting power of art. That’s where the “other” part of Forothermore comes in. Even in the wake of continual state-sanctioned violence and amongst a political sphere determined to strip people’s rights and humanity, Cave has an ardent belief in futurity, in advocating for a more just world, and in perseverance amidst chaos and devastation.

Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with the artist in March of this year via Zoom. This conversation has been edited and condensed. Shown above is “Speak Louder” (2011), mixed media including black mother-of-pearl buttons, embroidery floss, upholstery, metal armature, and mannequins, 93 ½ × 199 × 123 inches. Photo by James Prinz Photography, © Nick Cave, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Grace: Forothermore has been in the works for quite a while. How was it finally realized, why now, and how did you coin the title?

Nick: Why now? Why not? It wasn’t planned. It was an invitation through Naomi Beckwith at the MCA, now at the Guggenheim, and that was about two and a half or three years ago.

Grace: So pre-pandemic?

Nick: Yeah. I accepted the offer and then really started to think about my work, about just what this meant with everything that was going on. When I really think about my work, it’s always been to serve. I’m a messenger first, and this was the next assignment.

Forothermore came out of forevermore. It was really thinking about not being forgotten and for others. That was me handing it over. Why now, why now this moment, why this exhibition, why this survey, and who is it for? Once I removed myself from it, I realized that it’s not for me. It really allowed me to take a course of action in terms of that movement and what will this look like, looking at three and a half decades of work.

As I was getting into it, I kept coming to this idea of light. It dawned on me that I have been, since Rodney King, trying to shine light on racism and police brutality. That’s what my work has been grounded in and rooted in for over three decades. To look across the spectrum of work as we were selecting the work, (I was like) you’re an artist, you’re making things, you’re responding to whatever is currently going on in the world, and you’re just kind of like, thank god this has been my savior, my place to vent and to work it out. But then to look back and to see this consistency of what you have been committed to addressing, my purpose is grounded. I get it. It’s really been this amazing, enlightening experience to see this body of work over these decades and to understand where you have been putting your focus and your purpose, and trying to think about ways to reimagine, to collaborate, to engage in these safe spaces.

Grace: Can you speak to these ideas of gun violence, police brutality, and racism and to how your thinking has evolved? I’m wondering about how it’s shifted now that we’re in a COVID world, which has obviously sparked many conversations about racism, and also since George Floyd was murdered.

Nick: Right. In terms of looking at the show, we came up with this concept of what it is, what it was, and what it shall be. That has allowed us to think about the structure of this exhibition. At the same time, as you move through the exhibition, (you’ll see) what have been those key moments that have triggered a shift in the practice, and so that has allowed me to really see this timeline.

The show opens up on the fourth floor of the museum, and you walk into this wind spinner installation, which comes from the Until project at MASS MoCA. That project was an invitation by Denise Markonish, the curator there. Denise came to my studio maybe five to six years ago, invited me to this project at Gallery 5, which is the largest space at MASS MoCA, and said, “I’ll be back in a year.” Well you know, I’m working on other things, and nothing is coming to mind, what this will be. I just sort of ride it out. And Michael Brown happened. I was in the studio working, and this thought came over me: is there racism in heaven? That was the catalyst for Until. So again, thinking about what role do I play in these critical moments, and how do you use art as a vehicle for change? The show opens up here with a section of the wind spinners. From a distance, it’s beautiful. It’s sparkly. It’s flickering. It’s moving. It’s kinetic. It’s exciting until you get close, and you see the wind spinners are guns, bullets, and teardrops. All of a sudden, you are hit in the gut.

What we have to remember is that what is going on in the world is also in our backgrounds. We want to shut ourselves away from it, but in reality, it’s very much present in our lives, and that’s what COVID did. It allowed us all to collectively witness this heinous crime without any distractions. It allowed others to finally have empathy for the outcalls, the screams that have been going on for decades from people of color. It’s not like we have not been asking for help and to bring awareness. But I think that was the first time that we all witnessed it and had to make a decision about whether or not this was acceptable.

You’ll find in the exhibition “TM13,” which is a Trayvon Martin piece—as an artist, I would like to talk about other things that I’m interested in—and a series of new Soundsuits. It started out as Soundsuits 2.0. I was imagining an 18-year-old kid and thinking about the year 2000. We all thought it was like Space Odyssey, like we were going to be living in this other kind of existence. I was imagining what would a Soundsuit look like from that 18-year-old young man’s mind. When I was in the process of making those, George Floyd happened. So then all of what I was consumed with was then shrouded with a black veil. (In the final work), that 2.0 is there, but it’s now shrouded in that black veil constructed with black flowers. It started out with 846 (flowers), and those were all organized onto the veil in a way that it wraps the body. Then when we realized it was 929, and the numbers changed. You’ll see this new body of Soundsuits in the exhibition, and you’ll see peeking through this shroud, this whole other even more embellished, more adorned 2.0 piercing through, feeling trapped, contained, concealed.

As I’m trying to imagine other ways of thinking and making, I’m constantly being brought back to this, unfortunately.

Grace: It’s hard to not when it keeps happening.

Nick: Yeah. But what I did come to understand in this moment of George Floyd is that I am no longer going to let these incidents direct the work. I am going to move forward, and when something occurs, I will then integrate it into the work. I never thought about it that way until the moment I had to shroud these new works. It dawned on me that I have been allowing that to be the directive as opposed to flipping it. That was really an awakening moment.

 

“Wall Relief” (2013), mixed media including ceramic birds, metal flowers, afghans, strung beads, crystals and antique gramophone, four panels, each 97 x 74 x 21 inches. Photo © Nick Cave, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Grace: How has it been to move forward with that approach?

Nick: There are new works in the show, but they’re from existing work and on a different scale. MCA is partnering with the DuSable Museum where I’m in collaboration with my brother Jack, creating an 80-piece collection in response to the exhibition. It’s going to be this fashion performance, accompanied by musical artist Labelle. This is really that first moment of that shift happening. After that fashion performance, then the collection will be on exhibit at the DuSable. So there will be two projects that will straddle South Side with the North Side.

Grace: What does it mean to do this in Chicago and to have this big of a show in the city that’s been your home for many years? Are there parts that speak directly to Chicagoans?

Nick: That’s why these partnerships are important and why I’m doing an open call for this fashion performance, looking for performers as opposed to models and being more inclusive. I’m going to be in residence at the DuSable with 80 performers. What does that look like on the bodies and body types? All of that is being taken into consideration. This fashion performance titled “The Color Is” is the gala fundraiser event, but then what about everybody else? After the gala on Saturday, Sunday and Monday are two public performances, which will be with musical artist Jamila Woods.

It’s about trying to keep it local, trying to collaborate in that fashion, and really celebrating Chicago. I’m always thinking about how do I get it out into the world? We still have a large public population that doesn’t frequent museums. I’m trying to think of ways to bring awareness, to do my part as an artist with a civic responsibility in connecting the dots. I am overwhelmed by the love I’m receiving right now as we’re building the show. I am trying to get that all under control so that I am not a disaster at the opening. I feel the love. I feel the support. I feel the impact of what this is going to affect and what this is going to bring to and for the city. I am completely all in and just excited that the show can be used in so many ways around education and programming.

I have this amazing studio. I have amazing assistants. We make this work, and then I look at it, I document it, I look at it being packed up, and then it vanishes. You’re like “wow, it’s gone.” It’s going to be amazing for me to go back and look at those pivotal moments and to think, “this came out of that experience, and this triggered that.”

The exhibition closes with my first outdoor bronze Soundsuit. I’ve been working toward that, and I just said, “I’m just going to go all in and see what this is about, what this means.” So I did it. And it is spectacular.

Grace: So you’re feeling good about it?

Nick: Oh my god. I’ve been thinking about it for probably five years, and I’ve been incorporating bronze into the work but not really diving all in. The moment that I stood at the edge of the cliff and fell back into the abyss, I was like, “We’re just gonna go.” The amazing thing is that when I make these kinds of shifts, what I’ve come to terms with is that as long as I can transfer the essence in my practice, everything is going to be fine. The piece is unbelievable.

It’s me thinking about the public, thinking about accessibility. I want more people to engage with my work. What does that mean? It means a 15-foot bronze. This was before the dismantling of all of the monuments, which was also very surreal when that started to happen. It’s interesting how things unfold, what then emerges through that moment.

 

“Untitled” (2018), mixed media including a table, a carved eagle, and 119 various carved heads, 48 1/4 x 120 x 45 1/4 inches. Photo © NickCave, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Grace: How do the materials that you use—I’m thinking about found objects and also your departure to bronze—relate to the more conceptual aspects of your practice? I know sometimes they help draw people in because they’re so visually striking, but how are you thinking about that as you’re working? Especially now with the bronze?

Nick: I have to think about the journey and how I get your willingness to explore and go with me. I’m always thinking about ways into the work. Once you’re in, then I tell you what is the root of the work, where is it grounded. At that moment, you have to make that decision. Do I shy away from that and consume myself with the beauty? Beauty for me is optimism. It is the future. It’s me colliding these two forces together and challenging myself, as well as the viewer, to start to dissect, to start to expand on the narrative, to talk about what they’re emotionally feeling and connecting with. At the end of the day, it’s compassion. We need more compassion in the world.

When it’s difficult, when it’s hard to even communicate about what may be, it’s not so hard to deliver or receive a hug. What do we do to collectively come together to show sympathy and empathy? For me, it’s you being present at the show and being able to look around and see who else is in the room. That also is going to play a critical role in the performance. We already are dealing with a lot of trauma. I’m not trying to pile on more trauma. We’re trying to dissect that and to heal that.

Grace: Is that healing place where Forothermore ends?

Nick: I don’t know if the show ever ends. I think you will leave the show with a lot of thoughts. I don’t think that it ends. I think that it begins.

When you’re sitting in silence, there you are. The truth starts to pour down, and so how do you embrace that? How do you accept that? It takes everything that we have just to be. I want to be the most full person that I can in order to continue doing the work that I’m doing.Nick Cave

Grace: Maybe that’s a good place to come back to the silence that we talked about briefly before we began this conversation. Is that what we need?

Nick: Yeah. I’ve been sitting in silence for like 40 years. I remember even being 20 trying to get my projects done in school, and I would be up until 3 in the morning. I remember breaking down back then, just bawling as I’m trying to get the work, and maybe not really understanding it all but knowing that I was vulnerable in the moments, trying to pour my emotions and expressions into this artwork. When you’re sitting in silence, there you are. The truth starts to pour down, and so how do you embrace that? How do you accept that? It takes everything that we have just to be. I want to be the most full person that I can in order to continue doing the work that I’m doing.

Grace: Thinking about your personal life a little, I’ve been wondering whether you collect things personally? You have these massive collections that become your work, and does that also happen in your personal life?

Nick: Before I bought this building, I would say 100 percent. But when I moved into this new space, I decided that I’m going to pare down. I would say from 100 to 40. That’s the extreme of it. I had a fundraiser for a scholarship for grad students at SAIC with all of these amazing finds. I just sold all of it. Now I live in a minimal space with the things I could not part with ever. I’m surrounded by fabulous art. I’m an art collector, and I live and exist in my destiny. That shift is me shedding and getting closer to the bare essence of self.

Grace: That’s a whole process and takes a long time.

Nick: That’s a lifetime process. We’re forever changing, and I know that I just need space to think. My studio is where stuff is, where distractions are, but it’s where I make things. My living space is completely zen, this space to contemplate, to get away, to settle.

Grace: To be silent!

Nick: Yes.

Grace: I would love to return to the SAIC part of your life. How has your 30-plus-year teaching career impacted your practice? How do you relate to your students?

I’m not really interested in the perfect portfolio at the end of the day. I’m interested in what appears to be a disaster, but there’s something fearless in the chaos.Nick Cave

Nick: It’s interesting. I teach at the grad level, and I’m always so excited for the first day of class because it’s a new group of grad students. I’m excited for them. I’m excited for the second-year grads, who are bringing everything to a conclusion. It’s really that these are the next generation of creative ambassadors. I teach in the Fashion, Body, and Garment program, but my grad students are really made up of this trans-disciplinary group. We get applicants who apply to the program but their background is ceramics, and I’m like, “hmm, why? And why not?” This is how I select the students. I’m not really interested in the perfect portfolio at the end of the day. I’m interested in what appears to be a disaster, but there’s something fearless in the chaos. I’m into those that are very streamlined. The program is made up of those that are interested in fashion and fashion collections, those that are interested in performance, and those that are interested in sculpture or installation. The one thing that brings us all together is the body. The body becomes the center of everything that we do and how we function.

We have two years to get them to know how to trust themselves. It’s critical that they walk out of the program with a body of work that should sustain them for three to five years as they’re trying to figure out their lives. That is the end goal, and I don’t care what it takes. We will get you there. We have no choice. We have to get you there. The one thing that I never want to experience is a student that doesn’t come full circle. These students are smart today. When they’re looking for grad programs, they’re doing their research. They already know who I am and what I’m about. The first day in class I say, “I am not your friend. I don’t need to be here, but I choose to be here. I am thrilled and excited about seeing the conclusion of what this two-year experience will be, but my demands are extremely high. That’s the only place that I function, so do work hard. If you work hard you’re gonna be fine, if you don’t, you’re gonna be in trouble.” These are the two options.

I remember in grad school, my professor said, “you are one out of 80,000 grad students. What’s going to distinguish you from the next?” We were just like, “oh God, really? Ugh.” But it was something that resonated with me. It has really helped me to think about that. I remember going to these art fairs when I was in my 20s, and I would just be so depressed. Like, “oh God, I don’t know what I see here. I don’t see myself. I don’t know if this is going to work out.” You don’t leave school with a manual of how to be an artist!

Grace: That sounds like a huge undertaking. How do you think about doing that in just two years?

Nick: It’s a very short period of time. We start out the first semester with new incoming grads where we have a critique every week. Every week, you have to make something, and we’re going to talk about it. What we’re doing is trying to build their momentum up, figure out whether or not they can deliver, how are they operating, how are they talking about the work, building good work ethics, a rigor.

Second-year grads cannot have critiques in the studio so they have to identify and establish that outside, in a public space. That’s making arrangements, setting up appointments. This is where you want to show your work, so what are the sort of procedures that need to be put in place for that to happen? They’re learning. It allows us to travel all over the city. I’m telling you, there are so many fabulous spaces that they find for their work, and to be able to put it into the public is really quite exciting.

When George Floyd happened, in those moments, any critical moment, I will stop a project, and we will go into collaboration mode. They are all working together. Whenever there is that kind of crisis, I always bring us together where we unify and work collectively. Right now, with COVID, George Floyd, being isolated, being separate, being disconnected, and being online, we are having to think of all of these alternative ways of teaching and connecting. We come together. We’re exercising new ways of approaching the classroom, and it’s a different student right now. They’re emotionally very different. How do you remain very open, present, and considerate around all of these various needs? They’re looking to us as leaders and mentors, and so we’ve gotta be able to be available.

The fact that the show’s here, I will bring the class to the museum. We’re able to talk about the show on so many levels. Designing the show, that’s a thing in itself. How do you want the audience to navigate through the show? Why? And then getting into some of the work. It becomes this study exhibition. Being able to do that and to make that accessible for them is fantastic.

I’m interested in how they’re thinking about things and how they approach things, so there’s a lot of learning on both sides.

Grace: I was going to ask you what’s next, but you’re probably pretty focused on Forothermore?

Nick: I’m focused on the MCA, the DuSable. After May, I will take some downtime. I’m going to New York in a couple of weeks to see the MTA, which is oh my god. It’s amazing.

Grace: How far is that project?

Nick: I’m finding that I’m doing a lot of projects where I’m on the other side. I’m not the physical maker. It’s very different, very very different. Like with the bronze, I’m part of the process, but at the end of the day, I haven’t touched a thing. I’m giving birth to this foreign idea. The MTA, working with Mayer of Munich, I was hesitant at the beginning. How is my work going to translate to mosaic? I was like, hmm? Is it going to capture the movement? Is the material going to read as hair? As raffia? As beads? I am telling you, it’s spectacular. Like, shocking. And the fact that it’s in Times Square. I can’t. And permanent! It’s a massive, massive installation. Now I’m thinking I want to do mosaics. What am I going to do?

It’s really remarkable. I did go to Munich a couple of times to see the work in progress, and what I saw was very small. I was like, “okay, I’m on board, but I’m still not quite convinced.” But when I went to the MTA and saw what they’d done–when I go back they will be finishing phases two and three–but with phase one, I was in shock. Oh my god.

This is this new way I’m working, where I’m working with foundries, I’m working with other artist studios, and almost as a director of sorts. It’s a different kind of way of functioning and translating information but very fascinating and very exciting.

Grace: Absolutely. And gives you something to think about for the future, too?

Nick: Totally. I’m grateful, happy, and excited about the future.

 

Nick Cave: Forothermore is on view through October 2, 2022. More of the artist’s work can be found on his site and Instagram.