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Over the past decade, the Soundsuits have also been entering museums and galleries as art objects in their own right. Last fall, Cave had two Manhattan gallery shows simultaneously. Three years ago, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco launched a traveling exhibition of more than 40 suits called "Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth." Now at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the exhibition moves in May to the Boise Art Museum. In October he will open a big show in Lille, France, featuring some 50 Soundsuits as well as wall and video works.
Cave was born in Fulton, Mo., one of six boys. His father, a factory worker, died of cancer when Cave was 17; his mother worked as a secretary at the University of Missouri. As a kid, he entertained himself with a world of his own devising. "I was always a gatherer," he says, "collecting and assembling things, making shrines. I would make stuff for my mom all the time. She was my critic and also my supporter. With five brothers, I had hand-me-downs, so I'd try to reinvent my clothes."
In 1982 he graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute, having also trained as a dancer in Alvin Ailey programs in Kansas City, Mo., and New York City. "I knew I was going to be a studio artist, so I looked at dance the way I looked at other disciplines as something I could dabble in. But I felt it was incredibly important to the future of my work." (Cave hopes at some point in the future to produce ensembles of Soundsuits 90 or more for use in collaborations with dance companies.)
The Art Institute was also where Cave learned to sew. Though he doesn't think of the Soundsuits as fashion per se, his knowledge of the field not just silhouettes but questions of structure, of how clothing is made informs his work as an artist. "Japanese designers like Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo flip structure upside down and transform the body to a point where it becomes abstract," he says. "And of course, you think of Alexander McQueen and Missoni in terms of pattern and color. But then I might also look at Haitian voodoo flags."
The idea of the human body transformed is an ancient fascination at the heart of all cultures, from Ovid's Metamorphoses to McQueen attaching antlers to the shoulders of a woman's gown. Cave reaches deep into that same strange psychological territory the same pools of anxiety, desire and extravagant possibility. "What can I do to get our minds back to that dream state?" he asks. "We don't tend to dream anymore as a society. Right now, we're just trying to survive."