Broadcast version of this story
In 1992, artist Nick Cave picked up a twig. He then proceeded to collect all the twigs in the park. He brought them to his studio, drilled holes in them and applied them to an understructure.
Initially, this twig mass was supposed to be a sculpture, but when the whole thing was assembled, he realized he could put it on like a suit.
“And the moment I put it on, and I put it in motion,” Cave says, “sound was then generated. So that’s really the origin of the Soundsuit.”
At this point, we must clarify that this is American visual artist Nick Cave, not Australian musician Nick Cave from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. The pair have met before though.
Soundsuits have been Nick Cave’s trademark for more than two decades. They are colorful and cover the entire body, masking the wearer completely. Other than that, though, the Soundsuits are all very different. One suit looks like a huge bunny rabbit. Another, covered in sequins, is a cross between Pac-Man and a stethoscope. One resembles an elderly women’s Christmas tweed with two dozen tin toys sticking out from the face and shoulders.
Cave uses anything to make the suits: fur, buttons, hair, flowers, stuffed animals and even baskets. Some of the suits have extra appendages – making the wearer over seven feet tall. In 2013 Cave organized one of his biggest performances: a herd of Soundsuit horses at Grand Central Station in New York City. Constructed out of raffia with a fabricated horse heads, each horse had two dancers inside of it.
Cave’s Soundsuits have been displayed in museums and galleries around the country. While they are sculptures, these suits are meant to move, whether that’s in videos or in performance pieces.
This weekend, some of Cave’s Soundsuits are here in Atlanta. They are neon-colored hair and raffia suits and look almost like Wookies from “Star Wars.” When in motion, they swoosh.
Cave is in Atlanta as part of a collaboration with Flux Projects and 33 local dancers, actors and musicians. The project is called “Up Right Atlanta,” and with this title, Cave means to empower and to symbolically sit the city up right.
The symbolism can be seen on multiple levels.
For one, the performance is at Ponce City Market, which is still under construction, but the building represents a revitalization and could be a new hub for Atlantans to gather at the crossroads of four neighborhoods.
Second, though the performance starts with an “invasion” of dancers, it is focused around an “initiation.” One group of performers, the so-called “initiates,” are “revitalized” and “empowered” during the piece through the construction of their own Soundsuits. These suits will partly be made of found objects.
On the suit construction process, Cave says, “You know, it strips everyone down, and then we rebuild one’s identity up.”
The third symbolic level of the piece is that Atlanta itself has been rebuilt several times over.
“When we were talking to Nick early on,” says Anne Dennington, the executive director of Flux Projects, “we were talking about a project that would celebrate the 150th anniversary of the burning of Atlanta.”
Initially the project was called “Resurrection” to connote more of a phoenix – in this case the city of Atlanta – rising from the flames.
“We were interested in how this cycle of destruction and renewal had been part of Atlanta’s DNA,” Dennington says.
“We’re in a renaissance, here in Atlanta [with] the art scene,” Spelman dance professor and choreographer T. Lang says. Lang is the main collaborator on this project with Cave. She thought that Cave’s Soundsuit piece is perfectly timed.
Cave invited Lang to choreograph the opening number of “Up Right Atlanta.” To prepare, she visited Cave in Chicago last November, where she wore a suit for the first time.
“I was first concerned if they were fragile,” she says. “But Nick reassured me that they are crafted to move for dancers. And once I tried it on, I just went off in movement.”
For the shows this weekend at Ponce City Market, there is an elevated stage, but the performers also dance in the crowd. With as many as 750 people attending each of the six shows this weekend, it’s going to be a little tight.
With Lang’s opening number – the “invasion” – the dancers wear the Soundsuits and dance in a more frenzied way. Cave choreographed the second part of the show – the “initiation” – which is more somber and meditative.
It’s hard to know what to expect from the choreography and really from the whole performance, as the puzzle pieces of Cave’s vision were assembled just this week.
You could draw hints from the fact that Cave trained with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater early in his career. Lang grew up near Chicago, dancing at house showdowns and hanging out with b-boys and b-girls. Later, she danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York City.
Cave says, however, the point of the dance, and the SoundSuits in general, is not to categorize anything.
“I’m just trying to get us to how do you confront something that is unfamiliar,” Cave says. “You know, we always tend to categorize things to understand things. And I think what I am trying to do is, like, how can we as a people be open to difference. Now, you are forced to reckon with something without judgment.”
In this vein, the SoundSuits have always been political. The first SoundSuit made out of twigs was inspired by the brutal beating of Rodney King, which led to the 1992 LA riots.
“What motivates me is the political climate. There’s always something to address,” Cave says.
“Up Right Atlanta” has six shows this weekend: today at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday at 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. The pre-sale tickets are sold out, but non-ticket holders will be let in after ticket holders are admitted.