Visual Arts

"Meet Me at the Center of the Earth" at SMoCA Lets Visitors See and Hear Nick Cave’s “Soundsuits”

We've got a monster problem in Scotts­dale.

These gigantic creatures are over seven feet tall. They look like humanoid aliens that sprout heavy coats of fluorescent-colored fur, break out in full-body rashes of beads, and shoulder elaborate headdresses of thrift-store bric-a-brac. It's as if an atomic bomb hit your neighborhood craft store and spawned a legion of mutants.

We can blame artist Nick Cave (no relation to the musician) for the monster situation. Or maybe I should say we could thank Nick Cave. These monsters are actually mannequins donning his series of sculptural suits at "Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth" at Scotts­dale Museum of Contemporary Art.

In 1991, in response to the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, the African-American artist fashioned a full-body suit. It covers its wearer from head to toe and explodes with a thick coat of dried sticks and twigs. The suit was merely supposed to obscure the wearer's identity and experiment with anonymity. When Cave climbed in, he discovered the suit scraped and grated with his every gesture. Cave became a new creature with a whole new language of sounds.

This transformation led to more creations of what he calls "soundsuits." And there are more than 30 on display at SMoCA. Unfortunately, the original suit isn't there. Though I was a little sad about that, I quickly forgot the disappointment. I was instantly charmed by the lively display of other creatures.

The suits stand on a handful of raised catwalks throughout the spacious gallery. And though they are immobile on their mannequin hosts, you can hear sounds from a neighboring room that displays projected videos of the suits in action. Most suits made gentle noises. One, covered in a thick coat of raffia strands, rustled and swished as the wearer hopped around. Another suit, covered in buttons, made a soft crackling as the host writhed his body.

The most offensive noise came from a suit with an elaborate headdress. This one seemed a total burden to put on. First, the wearer is covered from head to toe in a tight-fitting, knitted body suit. It's a thick hide made from layers of crocheted and knitted granny pot holders. Then the wearer's shoulders bear a metal framework with welded branches tangling around his head. A vintage metal toy is attached to the end of each rod. The tops, spinners, bells, and noise makers are decorated with colorful — although faded — paint jobs.

It looks painful. And when you see it in the video, the thing comes alive as every step elicits the clanking and clonking of the toys. The endless and unstructured reverberations sound like a wicked-toddler jam band. With that kind of noise being made so close to the wearer's ears, this costume would make anyone turn into a meek and slow-moving creature.

With this piece, I realized that wearing some of the sound suits would offer an emotional experience. I wouldn't enjoy feeling as though my every move disturbed the people around me. I'd feel ostracized and alone. Sure, this new body would wipe away my normal sense of self, and I'm sure there's liberation in that. But I was surprised to understand just how much each suit, depending on its material and design, would drastically affect my behavior.

The suit covered in buttons was less elaborate than the toy suit (the suits don't have titles, by the way), but I couldn't stop mentally flirting with it. The outfit is in two pieces: a pair of pants and a hooded top with sleeves. The entire piece is made from black fabric with an embroidered floral pattern that peeks out between the buttons. Every inch of the suit is covered with the little buttons and all are attached with bright turquoise thread. The craftsmanship alone is astounding. But I couldn't stop staring at the suit's headpiece. The shirt has a hood that swoops from the shoulders, right over the top of the mannequin's head to open at the face. But instead of lying limp, the fabric latches onto the rectangular wooden frame of an old, warped abacus.

I looked into the abacus face of the suit with trepidation — even though I knew I would only see the vacant stare of a mannequin looking back at me through the rungs, I was nervous. The shrouded figure, with its peripheral vision blocked, seemed as ominous as the Grim Reaper. This suit, while much more manageable than some of the others, made me the most uncomfortable. I can see myself in this thing, suffering from the tunnel vision and stumbling around like an oaf. You wouldn't recognize me, but if you grabbed me by the shoulders and looked straight into my abacus, you would see my face. The intimacy of the physical interaction paired with my bizarre new movements would embarrass me. I would be caught between my world and the world of this new body, terribly self-conscious about my new, strange behavior.

Of course, such scenarios are all in my mind. And as I was lost in Imaginationland, I found I wanted nothing more than to try one on. Because I'm sure that actually putting one on would set off an avalanche of unexpected reactions and emotions that I would be unable to anticipate.

There's no dressing room, but the exhibition offers video of people wearing the suits, and a live performance is scheduled to take place November 4. In one of the videos, a handful of suited performers invade the streets of Chicago. This group of lucky souls dons the ridiculously woolly, raffia straw suits. They look as if they'd be a ton of fun to wear. The performers have painted faces and sport clown wigs as they jump, glide, wiggle, and dance along the sidewalk. They stir curious stares from onlookers and fellow pedestrians as they roam the streets. Soon, an entire crowd is following, bopping along with the rhythmic noises of the suits. It ends with a full-on street party as the costumed performers dance with the crowd. It's impossible not to smile and giggle as you watch the video. I was envious I couldn't join in.

Nick Cave opens up a world to his audience. One in which we abandon our daily definition of self and take on new identities. And he does this by asking us to use his creations as a springboard for our imaginations.

Meet you in the center of the Earth, you say? I am so there.