The Chicago-based artist and educator Nick Cave is best known for his majestic “Soundsuits”—wearable, sculptural forms meticulously assembled from beads, buttons, fabric, sequins, twigs, and other materials. Trained as both a visual artist and dancer, Cave activates these creations by having local dancers stage exuberant public performances in cities around the world.
You may have caught one of these performances if you were passing through Grand Central Terminal in New York in the spring of 2013. On the centennial of the New York City landmark, Cave partnered with Creative Time and MTA Arts for Transit and Urban Design to produce HEARD•NY, a weeklong, site-specific installation that transformed Vanderbilt Hall into a pasture of 30 colorful, dancing horses.
Cave’s project was inspired by the history of mass transportation in New York, where the first rail lines (running from Prince Street up to Union Square) were originally built for horse-drawn passenger cars. Bringing this history into the present, he hoped to create a “space of dreaming” for commuters who passed through Grand Central on a daily basis—one enticing enough for them to slow down, pause, and take a look.
The life-size horses, whose colorful raffia coats were inspired by African ceremonial garb, rustled as they grazed about the station. Dancers from Alvin Ailey (where Cave himself once trained) inhabited the Soundsuits and mounted choreographed performances twice a day to the live accompaniment of percussion and harp.
“It was everything I could have possibly imagined.” said Cave, who now looks back at the project as a breakthrough moment in his career. “You're doing this collaboration, but you are also teaching. You’re teaching these artists what it takes to build a project. You’re talking to them about their role and their responsibility.”
It was also a learning experience for the artist himself, who was overwhelmed and humbled by the public reception. For Cave, HEARD•NY underscored the transformative potential of art to empower and enlighten communities. “I think I’m an artist with a civic responsibility; that’s really the foundation of my platform,” he said. “It really made me understand my purpose in life and how I wanted to use art as this vehicle for change.”