Nick Cave on his darkly exquisite new work: ‘Is there racism in heaven?’

The US artist’s major installation at Carriageworks in Sydney is otherworldly and deeply political – and his most ambitious piece yet

Peering through the vast glass windows at Nick Cave’s latest installation in Sydney feels festive: like staring at an elaborate Christmas display in a posh London department store. Or perhaps a giant Christmas tree, which has grown and spread like magical weeds across the cavernous floor, bauble-like discs spinning slowly.

There are millions of plastic pony beads; thousands of ceramic birds, fruits, and animals; 13 gilded pigs; more than 15km of crystals; 24 chandeliers; one crocodile; and 17 cast-iron lawn jockeys.

Yet get closer and you notice that guns are imprinted on to some of the 16,000 wind spinners. There are also bullets. And on the walls the images of lawn jockeys, the racially charged statues that Americans once put in their yards as hitching posts, are grinning grotesquely.

Until is Cave’s most ambitious work to date, and the largest work to ever be installed in Carriageworks. It may look like an old-fashioned sweet shop or an enchanted forest, but its commentary is much darker: Cave is protesting gun crime and, in particular, the black victims of police violence.

Crystal cloud by Nick Cave.
Until comprises, among other things, more than 15km of crystals, millions of plastic pony beads, 24 chandeliers – and 13 gilded pigs. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

I meet Cave the week before Until opens: it is another day, another black death. News has broken that a young African-American security guard prevented a mass shooting – only to be killed by a (white) police officer when holding down the suspect.

Cave has not yet read the headlines. But he isn’t surprised. “I am always looking over my shoulders, I’m always concerned,” he says. The title Until is derived from the too-often-ignored maxim, “innocent until proven guilty”. Or, in this case, “guilty until proven innocent”.

Indeed, for the blockbuster artist, who is African-American and a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, racial profiling is a daily indignation.

Cave vividly remembers one visit to the aquarium. One minute he was gawking at fish, the next he was being brutally tackled to the floor by two plainclothes cops. The reason? A woman’s purse had been stolen. “You’re just toeing between a rock and a hard space,” he says. “But you pick it up and you keep going.”

He looks up and adds: “I would never carry an armed weapon. Period.”

Nick Cave
‘I’ve always been given the green light to be who I needed to be.’ Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The youngest of seven brothers, Cave was raised in a household of “unconditional love”. Later he studied performance and dance in Missouri’s Kansas City Art Institute before training with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York. He grins: “I’ve always been given the green light to be who I needed to be. It’s been fabulous.”

Dressed simply in a black T-shirt, shorts and sneakers – topped off with a distinguished looking snow-white beard – Cave is both flamboyant and down to earth. When giving me a tour of the art, he stops to chat to everyone from curators to construction workers: this is a man you feel has time for people.

It was in 2014, when Cave was working in his studio, that he first heard the news unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown had been fatally shot by officer Darren Wilson (later leading to the Ferguson protests.)

“‘Is there racism in heaven?’ came to mind in that moment,” he says. The thought created the impetus, and inspiration, for Until.

Reflecting this, a shimmering floating crystal cloud, weighing five tonnes and standing at 12x6 metres, dominates the installation. Buried in the structure are everything from cast iron cockatoos to lawn jockeys: this time, they clutch hand-woven dream catchers, as if grasping at a world better than their lot.

Crystal cloud by Nick Cave.
The ‘shimmering floating crystal cloud’ weighs five tonnes, and hides everything from ceramic fruit to cast-iron cockatoos. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

To source the knick-knacks Cave and his partner, artist and designer Bob Faust, bought a cargo van and drove it from Washington to Chicago, visiting flea shops and antique markets along the way. The cloud is beatific and rapturous, a childlike view of heaven; a sort of bewitching, intoxicating magpie’s nest.

Cave is used to creating otherworldly landscapes and figures. His last work to be shown in Sydney in 2016, HEARD.SYD, featured dozens of whimsical horse-like figures galloping around Carriageworks. Then there are the famous Soundsuits, which debuted in 1992. The sculptures, sewn together from beads, feathers, human hair and even twigs, are designed to disguise the wearer. Sourced in part from African ceremonial costumes, they are often presented with dancing and drumming.

Nick Cave
Nick Cave describes his famous Soundsuits as liberating: ‘it hides gender, race, class ... it’s about getting outside of yourself.’ Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“You are liberated: it hides gender, race, class – so you’re forced to look at something without judgment,” says Cave, who has worn Soundsuits more times than he can count. “It’s about getting outside of yourself and surrendering to this other.”

Surrender is something Cave has learned the hard way. For years, he was obsessed with his work, leaving little time for anyone else in his life. It was after he had been single for the better part of a decade that one jeweller friend made him a ring. Inside the band it read: “Married to art.”

“But it was designed where there was space within the ring that if I did meet someone and were to make a commitment, I could easily slide that ring on top of the existing ring,” smiles Cave. He now travels with Faust, his partner of eight years, who has created the bold, garish and confronting wallpaper element for Until.

It is fear – not of gun crime, or violence, or even intimacy, but of being forgotten, of not making his mark in time – that drives Cave “to stay relevant”. Yet walking with this artist, I am drawn to his joie de vivre. When I mention that he could be in his 40s (he’s 59), he throws his hands up into the air with delight. “Do I look younger?” he exclaims, stroking his beard in a mock sign of authority. “I’m so happy!”

Then he gets serious: “What does age really mean? I don’t know.” For years, Cave has dedicated portions of his day to silence. No phones, no radio, no music. Just the thoughts in his own head – so very different from his busy, chaotic, wonderful, glittering, all-encompassing art.

“I think if we all gave ourselves one hour a day in silence, we would live in a different world,” he says.

Nick Cave’s Until is showing at Carriageworks from 23 November to 3 March 2019


Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

The GuardianTramp

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