Chicago-based sculptor Nick Cave titled his show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Meet Me at the Center of the Earth and when you step in to the exhibit, it is immediately apparent why. The scene that unfolds in front of you is at once alien and familiar; forty figures in "soundsuits" are arranged on four platforms that extend out from the middle of the room. They vary in size, shape and constituent material -- human hair, buttons, feathers, and beads, either by themselves or woven into metal apparatuses or stitched into sequined sweaters straight out of the '80s -- but all maintain a vaguely human form, even if only apparent from the feet that peek out below each suit.
Looming over you immediately as you enter is a life-size bear (grizzly, not teddy) in shape, made entirely of old sweaters. The bear, while it is one of the few elements in the show that is not wearable, is a nice corollary to the rest of the exhibit because it highlights both Cave's love for textiles and his gift for construction. It also sets up the themes that run through the rest of the exhibit about the life taken on by the things we wear, and things we wear without showing it.
The show's curator bills Cave's soundsuits as "multi-layered, mixed media, wearable sculptures." Many of the suits are made up of found objects, some are adorned with tchotchkes of the variety you would find on the tables and bookshelves of your grandmother's house, others with yarn-and-popsicle-stick creations you'd see on a kindergarten crafts table. The variety of materials Cave uses to make the suits speaks to the diversity of human experience: he positions each figure as a net in which pieces of a personal history, the artifacts that shape our lives, are caught. From the material of their construction each suit takes on a different personality -- Abacus Face, Great Aunt Doily, Pope Dolly Parton Jacket.
But it's not what they're made of that originally intrigued Cave, but what they make themselves, specifically the sounds created when the suits are worn. Cave says the first soundsuit started as a sculpture made of twigs he drilled holes in and strung together in the shape of a person, but he became fascinated by the sounds made when he tried the sculpture on. That first suit gave rise to dozens of others, and the show at Yerba Buena is the largest assemblage of them to date (some, like the original twig soundsuit, are in private collections). The Yerba Buena Center commissioned choreographer Ronald K. Brown to create a dance that allows an audience to see and hear the suits in action. (Cave, who trained with Alvin Ailey before earning a graduate degree in fashion, has performed in the soundsuits before.)
The performance that Brown choreographed complements the variety found within the suits themselves, incorporating elements of African, ballet, hip-hop and modern dance. There is no stage for the performance, instead dancers begin their performance at the top of the stairs in the foyer of the Yerba Buena Center, and move through the building in a few rounds, hitting all of the gallery spaces, and stopping at intervals to dance-off with, and sometimes up on, the attendees. There is no music for most of the performance so the audience can listen to the sounds the suits make, but to be honest, I felt that aspect was the least interesting part of the show. They do make noise, mostly in muted tones like swishing hair and the rustling raffia, but the beauty of the suits in motion and the marvel of their construction dwarf the sensation.
A word of advice: if you make it to one of the performances: let the dancers come to you rather than battle the crowd that inevitably follows them on their parade through the Art Center. It is easier to stake out a spot in the building's foyer or the smaller gallery to see one of the longer choreographed pieces. If you can't make it to one of the performances, it is definitely still worth a trip to the Yerba Buena Center to see the soundsuits, and stand in awe of Cave's craftsmanship.
The Ronald K. Brown performance is free with admission to exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Saturday May 30 and Sunday May 31, 2009 at 3pm. Meet Me at the Center of the Earth will be on display until July 5, 2009.