Nick Cave on Art as a Means of Working Through Grief and Trauma
To the Chicago-based artist Nick Cave, modern-day talk of “resource scarcity” is downright false. In his view, our world is actually one of overwhelming abundance, teeming with objects and materials that are just waiting to be reclaimed and utilized. “All of my resources lie outside of my studio,” he says on this episode of Time Sensitive. “They’re just out in the world for me to gather and pull together.” This outlook was sown early on, during his upbringing in Fulton, Missouri, as part of a large family of makers, including a master quilt-maker grandmother, carpenter and furniture-maker grandfathers, and six seamstress aunts. The second-eldest of seven brothers, Cave was no stranger to hand-me-downs. Rather than accept them as-is, however, he would deconstruct and reconstruct the garments in ways that made them feel new, and also something entirely his own.
Following his creative instincts and impulses, Cave went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fiber arts from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1982 and an M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in 1988. Three years later, while teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cave fashioned his breakout work: a wearable sculpture, made out of twigs found in a local park. Created in the aftermath of the videotaped beating of Rodney King by L.A.P.D. officers, the piece ultimately became the first of his renowned Soundsuits: eccentric, sculptural forms that camouflage the body and thereby conceal race, gender, and class, forcing others to see the wearer without prejudice. Considering the suits a form of protest, Cave has gone on to create more than 500 of them over the past 30-plus years in response to ongoing police violence in America. Other works by Cave incorporate “Black kitsch,” overtly racist or oppressive objects that he sources from flea markets or antique shops and reframes through his artmaking. In all of its forms and expressions, Cave’s work is, for him—and, he hopes, for viewers—a transformational way of healing.
Cave’s prolific body of work recently culminated in his career-spanning retrospective, “Forothermore,” currently on view at the Guggenheim in New York (through April 10), featuring sculpture, installation, and video works. Cave—along with his creative and life partner, Bob Faust, with whom he runs the creative space Facility in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood—also recently branched out beyond art to create a collection of four upholsteries, three draperies, and three wallcoverings with Knoll Textiles. Though a departure from his previous work in some senses, the Knoll line reinforces Cave’s lifelong conception of material as language, as a way to communicate the seemingly incommunicable.
On this episode, Cave talks with Spencer about his improvisational approach to work and life, how his artwork seeks to find brightness in darkness, and what the world might be like if everyone sat in silence for an hour each day.
Cave talks about his famous series of 500-plus Soundsuits, which first began in response to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by the L.A.P.D. and has continued to be a way to process and confront continued police violence against Black people.
Cave talks about his exhibition “Forothermore” at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and discusses several works on view in particular, including “Time and Again” (2000), a sort of memorial for one of his grandfathers, as well as the hypnotic video work “Blot” (2012).
Cave recalls his upbringing in Missouri, his first experience at an art museum (at the St. Louis Art Museum, where he cried in awe of an Anselm Kiefer painting), and his time in Michigan in the late 1980s during the AIDS crisis.
Cave discusses his material-sourcing process and how he and his partner, Bob Faust, go in search of objects, including “Black kitsch,” that find their way into his work, such as the ceramic caricature centerpiece of “Sea Sick” (2015).
Cave shares his views on public art, and particularly his work permanently installed at airports and train stations in cities such as New York, Kansas City, and Chicago.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi Nick. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
NICK CAVE: Hey. Hi, how are you?
SB: I wanted to begin today with a question you’ve asked on several occasions, which is: What would it be like if we lived in a world where everyone, for one hour a day, sat in silence? I love this idea, this hour of silence. And so, I wanted to start there, hoping you might get a bit more into it. What do you actually think would happen if the world abided by this daily practice of a silent, slowed-down hour?
NC: When I think about this daily practice, just that alone is like, Oh, my god, everything to me, just to sit in silence…. I think you come closer to your truth. And I think that brings the clarity and the understanding to perhaps why you’re here. It’s a lot just to be. I think it’s important that you give yourself that time to reflect and to center and to get grounded. I think we’d live in certainly a better world, for sure.
SB: Also, on the subject of time, I find it striking that early in your career, maybe around forty years ago, you wrote down this quote: “I’m working toward what I’m leaving behind.” And it’s interesting that you were thinking about legacy even back then. And to me it’s also a profound commentary on time, on production, and on the endurance of objects.
NC: Yeah. And I think that quote was thinking about the moment yet projecting the future. And so, living in these two sort of worlds, one that is real, that is now, that is today, and fantasizing about what it looks like or what it could be, or how do I structure a design pathway to get to a place that I don’t know, but to have this desire to reach.
And so, it’s this guiding light or force that structures the agenda. I’m interested in an agenda—what does that look like for each and every one of us? And how do we then start to take full control of designing and shaping that and moving in this particular path? Because we’re all hoping to get somewhere.
SB: This leads me to thinking about the Soundsuits. I mean you’ve created around five hundred examples over thirty-plus years. The duration of that is incredible. The variety of textures, material, shapes….
NC: Madness. [Laughter]
SB: What do you make of this duration? Why do you think they remain so interesting and potent and powerful even thirty years later?
NC: I’m thinking about the Soundsuits and this sort of abundance as a collective, as a sort of force to be reckoned with. So, this is my aim to solidify a certain type of protest. It allows me to bring together others, hiding gender, race, and class, enforcing the viewer to look at something other—without judgment.
For me, when I met the first Soundsuit, it was an awakening moment because, as I’m building a sculpture in response to Rodney King, and in that process—you know, it’s all constructed all out of twigs—and in that process, not realizing that I could wear this thing, and then I put that object on the body and started to move and it made sound. That was the beginning of me recognizing that this is a form of protest. This is to alert. This is an awakening of sorts. And this is something that is unfamiliar, scary, but yet seductive at the same time.
And that weird space of fear and seduction has always been an uncomfortable place for me as an agitator of sorts. But it’s that alluring kind of element that…. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s a humanness to it that I can identify with. And so, just that, asking myself, am I open to something other and how do I become available, accessible? How do I even surrender to that? Being in it is a whole different experience.
And for me, when I put the first Soundsuit on, the first thing that I did was I just stood there and looked in the mirror and [was] just standing still. And in that space of standing still, I also found myself standing upright in a way that I had never stood before, so just being empowered by the gravity, the weight, the magnitude of this form. And just pushing my shoulders back and standing with determination and curiosity was empowering in a way that I had never experienced.
And so, I’m thinking about it as a sculpture, but yet it’s wearable. And I’ve always been interested in that double role, I think. And that comes from my experience at the Museum of Natural History. And I’m looking at all these artifacts through a glass case, and yet I’m reading about the significance of the roles they played within a particular culture. And yet I’m forced to also look at them as these static objects.
So, I’m like, there’s this double message there. Oh, so these really have a purpose, but yet they’re art objects right now. And so, that kind of shift of play that comes into the work is—I’m interested in the duality there.
SB: I love that you said “when I first met the Soundsuit,” because to me, hearing that, it sounds like you’re meeting a living, breathing thing.
NC: Well, in that process, I have given birth to this form and it is here; it is in front of me. You know, and I don’t really draw. So, this is just me intuitively making something and then putting it on the body and realizing that I am no longer who I was. And so then what am I right now?
You know, it’s interesting working with dancers and really talking them through the process of transformation and becoming something other. And how do you surrender oneself in order to embrace something else? And that’s bringing us back to that moment of silence and being still—being open.
And it’s just part of how I move through the world. I have an agenda, but yet I’m very open to the improvisational moment through the day. Anything could happen. And am I prepared for that? And being open is being prepared because you will just unfold the experience as it reveals itself. But I’ve always been like that for some reason.
SB: The Soundsuits, of course, also reflect on police violence. You mentioned Rodney King and this continues through to Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Tyre Nichols. How do you think about this ongoing violence across time, and how have these Soundsuits and your artmaking and community work more generally been a way for you to process, to mend, to heal and deal in the aftermath of this violence? Which is also, I think it should be said, broadcast. I mean, going back to King, it was one of the first times there was a videotape of this.
NC: I’m fortunate to have this thing called art to work through it, because trauma’s real and it’s psychologically debilitating—or could be. I’ve always had this place to vent, to work through it. I think about Facility, the building that I own in Chicago and you buy property and it’s an amazing studio lab for Bob Faust, my partner; Jack Cave, my brother; and myself. Well, it’s what we create, we invite. And it’s also this amazing space where we can call-and-response in the moment.
And so, when George Floyd happened, I was in Missouri at my mother’s, and she could tell that I was on edge and like, “This kid needs to get back to Chicago because he is about to bust out of his clothes right now.” I went back and Bob had just come back from a rally with his daughter, and he goes, “We just were part of this rally and it was amazing.” And I was just on edge. And I said, “If you’re going to march about it, you’ve got to talk about it.” That’s what I said.
And then we started to talk about where I was—what I was dealing with emotionally—and then from his perspective, in my perspective. But then at the same time I was like, we have to respond in the moment. And Facility is a twenty-four-thousand-square-foot property, but the front of the building are these three storefronts that are exhibition spaces and project spaces. We were able to respond in the moment. And that saved my life in that moment, because we didn’t have to go through the bureaucracy of trying to work with an organization or an institution to allocate a project. We were able to take a stance in the moment. And that has changed everything.
So, for me, being able to have space to call and response is, again, another amazing outlet. We need outlets. We need places to go to in order to work through this outrage and the emotional despair. I mean, it’s heavy and it’s been heavy. As a person of color, when I look back at my exhibition “Forothermore,” when I first installed that exhibition at the MCA in Chicago and I had walked through it by myself, I realized that for almost four decades I had been trying to bring light to the subject of racism. I knew that prior, but when I saw this work over this period of three and a half decades, it all became real clear.
And so, I really, really understood purpose—why I was here. And I realized that I have been the voice for so many others and the reflection of history and time. I mean, I think about—as I’m walking through the exhibition, I’m looking at the first twig suit, and yet I’m looking at the Trayvon Martin “TM13” [from 2015] expression. And then I’m looking at Michael Brown, and then I’m looking at George Floyd and these markers.
SB: They’re markers of time.
NC: Of time. It’s just unreal.
SB: And it’s really at the root—I mean, the oft-told story: You’re sitting in a park shortly after the beating of Rodney King by L.A.P.D. officers and you’re looking at a discarded twig on the ground. And that leads to the first Soundsuit, which—
NC: Yeah. Just feeling. That twig was the metaphor for: What does it feel like to feel discarded, less than, devalued? But yeah, at the same time, I’m taking on that emotion that is very repressive and suppressive. And then I’m also reimagining and shifting that narrative. And yet, out of that comes this other being that’s bigger than life, that’s more than what we are enduring.
SB: And you knew the power of that thing immediately. And I think it’s remarkable that for so much of the nineties, you kept these Soundsuits to yourself.
NC: Oh, my god.
SB: You’ve said, “I literally shoved all of them into the closet because I wasn’t ready for the intensity of that attention.” Describe this incubation period to me. Because a lot of artists I think would’ve just put it out there, ridden that wave immediately.
NC: Well, I think for me, when it introduced itself to me, I knew. In that moment, I knew that my life would never be the same. I could feel it. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew that I hadn’t seen anything like it before. And so, I wasn’t quite ready for that because again, with one that’s not sketching at an idea, I’m having to accept what is just…
NC: …there. And so, I am like, okay, I need a minute to think about this work. But I kept working. I kept making things, and that was the beginning of this work that was rooted in sustainability and working with just excess and surplus. And just again, realizing in that moment that all my resources really lie outside of my studio. They’re just out in the world for me to gather and to pull together. And so, it was really me just riding that wave and just making and just seeing what would emerge from doing. And it took a minute for me to gather my thoughts. And let me tell you, the moment that I did reveal the work, everything shifted.
SB: It makes me think of these eight years or whatever it was as an extended version of that one hour we were talking about earlier.
NC: Oh yeah, yeah. And just to think, it’s amazing to be able to be making and not knowing why, but somehow there’s a trust there that you must follow and believe. And so, again, that’s just years of exercising this space of silence and vulnerability, I think.
SB: So, last weekend, I visited “Forothermore,” which is now at the Guggenheim, curated by Naomi Beckwith, and I was so struck by how time and space collide in the most incredible way. It’s organized across three floors, each its own section: “What It Was,” “What It Is,” and “What It Will Be”—again, time. Past, present, future. Philosophically, how do you think about time, and how do you think about that in the context of this exhibition?
NC: Well, I think about “What It Was,” “What It Is,” and “What It Will Be”—I mean, I just love those subtitles for “Forothermore,” there’s a movement there. You just feel that you’re traveling in time. Each moment is a breath, a full expression.
For me, to think about the Guggenheim, and to think about the architecture, number one, and this exhibition traveling upward as opposed to horizontally in a space was just, again, very interesting for me to think about it that way, how one moves through the show. Which is also time, moving up. But also, just the moment that you step out on one of the exhibition floors.
I was just there and, all of a sudden, I went into one of the spaces and my body, everything just sort of—I could feel that it was just shedding and I was able to release everything and just be open to what I was about to experience. So, something happens in the moment of entry for me at that show. I can drop all expectations and just be in the moment with each piece, and in the moment in terms of history, in the moment in terms of where I am right now. It’s hard sometimes, and yet it’s comforting. It’s about trauma, it’s about reality, and it’s about forgiveness. We’re struggling with a lot, and so how do we somehow figure out ways to navigate in order to find balance?
SB: There’s also this role of memory, and there’s a piece in the exhibition titled “Time and Again” [from 2000]. It’s an installation that’s constructed from various workshop materials and tools similar to those of your carpenter and furniture-maker grandfather, the ones he once used. Could you speak to that piece from a time perspective? I mean, “time” is in the title.
NC: I can’t remember the date when that was done, but that piece came about when I lost my first grandparent. At that time, I also was headed to a residency for a year in Charlotte, North Carolina, the McColl Center residency. And, for some reason, I decided not to take anything. I just grabbed my backpack and jumped on a plane. That is very unusual. I normally send in shit—
NC: —in boxes in the mail, but I took nothing. So, out of that experience, I was able to make new work, new materials, just being open to, again, the process. But, at the same time, thinking about the family and family structure and the hierarchy within that and the empowerment of coming from an upbringing of incredible makers. And so, that particular piece was me paying homage to my grandfather, James Galbraith, who was this amazing carpenter. And for me as a kid, that was what the tool wall looked like. The order, the arrangement was fascinating to me, and all of these utilitarian objects made something. That was probably the most important thing, is that these tools allowed something to be created.
It was really me paying homage to him. And it also shifted the practice. And so, from that point forward, whenever I went to a residency, I just grabbed my backpack, which allowed me to expand in terms of material language, and just stepping out of those comfort zones and ways of working that I was familiar with, and exploring and playing and failing, and yeah, just making shit. [Laughter]
SB: So, after walking through the three floors, I took the elevator down to the museum’s basement theater, where I watched the three films on view [“Nikki” (1989), “Gestalt” (2012), and “Blot” (2012)]. And I was particularly moved by “Gestalt” and “Blot,” both from 2012 and both of which are so much about time. In “Gestalt,” there’s this feeling of being trapped—almost that time’s running out. There’s this sort of urgency. And I was wondering if you could speak to that.
NC: Well, with “Gestalt,” I was working in Chicago at one of the open studios that we rented to shoot the video. When we walked into the space, there was already a set there, and I said, “We’re just going to work with the set here.” Because it was there. And I was like, why not? When you’re doing a video, and you’re working with a director and creating this film, they have all these cards, which are these cards that tell the narrative of the story. They were like, “Where are your cards?” I’m like, “I don’t have cards. We’re just going to improv and we’re just going to work in the moment and we’re just going to see what happens.”
That’s always been my approach, and what I like about that, for me, is that it’s real. It’s all in that one take, and it’s all me communicating with the performers: “This is what I’m looking for. Think about being trapped and being contained within a space and you have no way out.” I just wanted to capture those moments. So, that narrative, that story was just created in the moment. And then, we just did the first take.
Same with “Blot,” but this is also working with professionals that understand their bodies and they understand how to take direction. And so, with “Blot,” that was one take. One take. “Blot,” for me, is that space of meditation. The sound is unreal.
SB: Well, I have to stop you here because, watching “Blot,” which—it is meditative. There’s an almost hypnotic quality. And I actually while watching it, found myself returning to a work of yours that was upstairs, “Sea Sick” [from 2014], which is made up of several historic oil paintings, cast hands, a plastic ship, and at its centerpiece, this ceramic racist caricature. And the sounds of the Soundsuit in “Blot” create this pulsating, lapping effect. Almost like waves hitting the hull of a ship.
NC: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
SB: Maybe it’s a reach to make this, but that’s what I viscerally felt. I’m sitting there in the theater—I just got chills even telling you this. I mean, the way I responded to that film was in reaction to “Sea Sick” and the connection between the two.
NC: I think that is that intuitive space that I work in. It’s all coming out of the same idea or subject matter, but yet taking a different form.
SB: Yeah. This isn’t didactic. My connection is kind of far-reaching. Most people might not make that.
NC: But I can see by looking at “Sea Sick” and just the rhythm of the waves as you’re looking at the painting and just that repetitive pattern that’s there. So I get it. It makes sense to me. As you said it, I am right there with you. Yeah. I get it.
SB: Let’s go back to your upbringing. You were raised in Fulton, Missouri. The second-eldest of seven brothers, and you come from this family of many homespun traditions. You have a gardener grandmother, master quilt-maker grandmother, carpenter and furniture-maker grandfathers, one of whom we talked about, six seamstress aunts. I mean, an incredible family of makers.
NC: We’re talking, like, amazing, yeah.
SB: Yeah. And you’ve described [in an interview with Naomi Beckwith, from the “Forothermore” exhibition catalog] your family’s home life as “an atmosphere of unconditional love.” You’ve credited your mother with jump-starting your career—her just oozing enthusiasm about the art you made, these little birthday cards.
NC: Oh, my God, that or a macrame halter or something, anything. But just looking at her expression and thinking, Whoa, this little object that I made or this handmade card provokes this kind of emotion, was magical to me. It just was like, Whoa. So, I have always been drawn to that moment, those moments. The impact of those moments.
SB: Yeah, how do you think about the memory of this time in your life, being surrounded by these people? And I also wanted to mention your paternal grandparents’ farm in Carrington, Missouri, which seemed like a whole other kind of life that—
NC: Well, it’s interesting, farm life. This is the deal with farm life: We really couldn’t touch anything. We couldn’t work in the garden because it was so pristine. And so, we could look at it, but we couldn’t really work. [Laughs] Does that make any sense? We just could look at things and we could be there and play, but that was just this world. I mean, and the hogs. It was really quite lovely. Was I interested in getting dirty? Not really. [Laughter] But that was one set of grandparents that had the farm, Ernest and Roseman, the Mavins.
Then the other side was—that’s my father’s side of the family—and then my mother’s side where the bake sales at the county fair and church and getting dressed up for church and just this whole other world. Love, it’s interesting. Even now, when we all get together, everyone kisses and hugs everyone right at the front and nobody brings drama. Nobody. You do not bring that into the house. So I’ve never understood when [people say around the] holidays, “There was so much drama!” I’m like, I’ve never really had that kind of experience. Everybody checked that at the door. It was just interesting knowing the importance of family time and what that meant collectively.
SB: Sounds like real love, not the commercialized kind. Do you see your work as a manifestation, in some ways, of that love of that feeling?
NC: Oh, totally. I was with the staff at the Guggenheim today, and I’m telling you, it was remarkable, talking with them. I could just feel the love, and the importance of that exhibition for them, in this time, in this moment—and the importance of them sharing the show with the world. So, I feel that again, I am speaking for them, and yet enlightening them as well as myself about the future.
SB: To go back to when you were 17: Your father passed away from cancer that year, and I was hoping you might speak about that moment, how you responded to the grief and loss. I think it’s interesting that so much of your work is kind of animated by finding brightness in darkness, discovering joy through pain. Do you see that as part of that processing?
NC: Definitely that and coming up in the late seventies, eighties, and really in the height of the AIDS crisis and losing like….
SB: I read five friends in a year.
NC: Oh, my God, it was unreal. Just the fear and trying to process that and trying to help where you could.
SB: Well, I did want to bring up at 18—
SB: A year later, at 18, you had what you said was your first museum experience, at the St. Louis Art Museum, where you saw an Anselm Kiefer painting and started to cry. And Kiefer, obviously, he’s exploring some very dark, painful themes—
SB: —in his work as well. And it sounds like you had this awe-inspiring experience standing in front of this. I was wondering if you could describe that particular moment and experience? Do you see that as connected to this processing conversation?
NC: Yeah. I mean, that moment was an out-of-body experience for me. I didn’t really know why I was crying at that moment, but I knew that I was emotionally affected by something in this work. It’s interesting that you brought that up because at the museum today, talking with the staff, one of the staff members said, “I can’t tell you how many people have wept standing in front of the table with the heads and the eagle [“Untitled” (2018)].” I got so emotional in that moment [pauses] because… That piece is about how decisions are made on the backs of others and who sits at the table. And so, I get it. I know what that feels like. No one ever knows whether or not that’s going to happen. But I think when you’re creating work in the space of vulnerability, there’s so much that is unsaid, there’s so much that is unspoken, but it’s very much present in this building of a work.
SB: Thank you for sharing that.
Shifting gears a bit, we can’t have a conversation about your work without talking about materials—and we’ve touched on it—but particularly found materials. And so, I wanted to ask you about that. We often live in a world where we think about things in terms of “resource scarcity,” but your work is almost a manifesto of the opposite, which is that it’s an acknowledgement of the surplus and abundance of materials around us and the thrown-away things—you’ve called them “relics,” which I love. And it’s a renegotiation of value and the properties these materials have and carry. I view what you do almost as an act of rescue. It’s like a rescue operation. You’re venerating these lost and discarded things. Tell me about how you go in search of these materials, your time spent at flea markets and in thrift stores.
NC: Yeah. I mean it’s really quite extraordinary. I’m going to go back to when I was maybe 12. Imagine you’ve got seven siblings, and then there’s just hand-me-downs and I’m like, I’m not having it. Absolutely not.
NC: So, that was the beginning of me deconstructing, taking something apart and rebuilding it so that I felt that it was my own at that moment. So, I think that was that beginning of just me thinking about that. And I used to go thrifting with my mother all the time. So thrifting was important to me. I remember, in undergrad, I was thrifting to a degree where it was more curating. I would buy whatever was fabulous, and then I would open my house to the entire student body on the campus and just sell all these amazing clothes, shoes, whatever.
I was just totally interested in textiles and quality and construction. And back then, it wasn’t like a salon, but operating with that in mind. Literally you could just come into my house and just go into the closet. Everything was for sale. I was like, “I’ll buy something else to wear.” And so, again, gathering something, resources, materials, but yet not holding onto anything and being able to let it all go. That’s actually, when I think about this exhibition, I’m looking at all this work, and yet in mid-April, it all comes down and it all goes to museums and private collectors. I will never see it again.
These moments that [are] prepping one to be able to work and to release things into the world in that way. But me and Bob will jump on a plane and fly to Washington State. We’ll rent a cargo van, one-way ticket, and we’ll just start shopping our way back to Chicago. And let me tell you—fabulous. It is so epic and so insane and just fascinating because I’m gathering some…. There’s resource material that I need, but I’m wide open for new ideas to emerge in that process. So, right now, if I go thrifting, antiquing, I’m finding that I’m making work in the moment, which is very different than when I started out doing that.
SB: Hearing you talk about just the nature of material and resource, it seems like such a modern perspective, especially right now in the climate crisis. People talk about sustainability and upcycling, but that’s just what you do.
NC: That’s just what I do. I’ve always done it. I’m interested in material as language, and finding the proper means to express the idea. It has allowed me to, not only is it found, but how do we construct a material? How do we make a material in the studio? It’s really very driven by techniques and couture processes and working with the team that understands how to build a cloth. And again, being very open and working in the improv kind of language where I know what I’m looking for, where I know what I need to deliver, but [am] not sure how we’re going to get there. And so, that’s a beautiful kind of space to be in. But that just comes from exercising. The more and more that you do it, the more that you are comfortable and able to work that way.
SB: And you mentioned these trips with Bob, and I know at one point you rented a cargo bay driving around the country in search of some of the most racially charged memorabilia you could find. And in much of your work, you’re using objects known as “Black kitsch.” Could you share some examples of these? I mean, I’m thinking of the one in “Sea Sick.”
NC: Well, “Sea Sick” was the catalyst for that whole body of work. I was in a flea market and there was what looked like this object on a top shelf of this bust of a black male head. And I pulled it down because it was interesting, and then it read, “Spittoon.” I literally flipped out. And so that was the beginning of a body of work titled “Made by Whites for Whites.” And it was really me traveling the country looking for the most oppressive, racist objects that I could find, such as a piano stool where this black figure was holding up the seat. I mean, just outrageous.
I never know what’s going to trigger and push me further down the road as I need to go, but those are those moments that set the bar, that move us forward. And the amazing thing is, we were seeking out these objects. We were also documenting where we found them, creating this trace of a map. And then Bob created a takeaway newspaper with the image of the artifacts’ location. That was amazing that as you walked out of the exhibition, you could take one of these newspapers with you. So, again, just thinking about education, ways to inform, ways exhibitions can continue outside of the gallery.
SB: There’s something liminal about your work, which is, while often figurative, also entirely abstract, and it engages the viewer in these multiple ways of being. And so, I find it interesting that you’ve installed several notable public art commissions in liminal spaces, particularly airports and train stations. There’s the mosaic and the subway station under One Times Square, your work at Chicago O’Hare [“Palimpsest” and at the Kansas City International Airport [“The Air Up There” (2023)] and at the Garfield Green “L” station in Chicago. There was also your 2013 [“HEARD NY”] performance in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall….
These transitory, or in-between spaces get me thinking about something I spoke about with the poet Claudia Rankine, who was on this podcast, and that she writes about a lot in her brilliant book Just Us, which is her in conversation with white men at airports.
SB: And it also leads me to thinking about Reginald Dwayne Betts, another poet and another former Time Sensitive guest, who has written, “Race is liminal in America. It is both border and veil.” With these references in mind, and just thinking about your work in these liminal spaces, I wanted to ask, how do you think about this liminal nature of work? How do you think about the liminal period?
NC: What I think about is ambassadors. And particularly to think about Times Square and these works that are in these airports and the accessibility to who’s experiencing that and how does the community become ambassadors for that work. I love the fact that the work is outside of galleries, outside of institutions, and lives within the world—the public world—and that everyone has access to that, and that it’s permanent.
That gets us back to leaving “what I’m working toward, what I’m leaving behind.” When I saw the subway piece, I was like, Whoa, this is full circle, this moment. What I wrote then is right now in this moment, and it will be here long after I am. So, it was really fascinating to recognize that and also to think about transition, to think about essence. I’m always interested in, when I’m doing public work, how do I transfer the essence of my practice into those kinds of spaces? I think that’s the most important factor, is that transition.
SB: You’re making movement. You’re surrounded by movement. You’re also creating a movement.
NC: Yeah. And when I think about Times Square and the subway, again, I’m thinking about—and particularly with the tunnel there—I’m thinking about, Okay, this is sort of a transitional moment trying to get from point A to point B. And so, I want that to be active. I want the Soundsuits to have motion. I want the audience to be in motion with that work. And so, again, choreography comes into play.
SB: Yeah. It’s a still mosaic, but it’s full of movement.
NC: And the fact that it’s a mosaic and just to be able to capture that motion in such a hard medium and a shattered medium, and yet there’s fluidity and volume and scale and color and radiance and all of that.
SB: So, to close, you’ve often said, “I’m a messenger first, artist second.” At the end of the day, I was wondering, what do you think the message you’re trying to convey is, and what do you hope listeners today come away thinking and feeling, and take with them?
NC: Ahhh, the message. You know, that we are one world that we all live collectively in. So inclusion is everything. We must unite. We must collectively stand as one. It’s about love and compassion and empathy and hope, desires, dreams, forgiveness—all of it, all of it. [Laughs] Humanity.
SB: One species.
NC: Yeah. One nation under one groove. [Laughter]
SB: I’m glad we got a P-Funk reference in there.
SB: Nick, thank you so much. This was a pleasure.
NC: You were great. Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on March 16, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Sandro Miller.