Nick Cave Reflects on 30 Years of Making Art as a Vehicle for Change

Salomé Gómez-Upegui
May 12, 2022 9:41PM

Nick Cave with his Art on theMART Projection. Courtesy of Art on theMART.

Nick Cave does not remember a time when he wasn’t drawn to art. Growing up in Fulton, Missouri, he constantly participated in theater clubs, art cliques, and talent shows. The third brother of seven children, he remembers his childhood home as a rambunctious place where authenticity was fostered and celebrated. “I’ve always been creative, and I think my parents never really got in the way of that,” the 63-year-old artist recently told Artsy.

Still, despite always knowing he would devote his life to art, Cave didn’t fully understand the magnitude of his calling until later on.

Nick Cave, Still from Drive-By, 2010. Photo by James Prinz. © Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


In 1991, as the United States bore witness to the brutal beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the trajectory of Cave’s artistic career was altered forever. Growing up as a queer Black man during the 1960s, Cave encountered trauma innumerable times, but only became truly aware of it after Rodney King. “That woke my consciousness,” he said. “That’s when I became an artist with a civic responsibility and began looking at my work as a social practice.”

In the aftermath of Rodney King, Cave created the first piece in his “Soundsuits” series, for which he has become widely known. Cave’s Soundsuits are wearable sculptures molded after his own body, oftentimes brought to life in performances and video works where dance, playfulness, and joy give way to urgent underlying themes such as civil rights, racial injustice, and gun violence. He’s now created more than 500 such works, using countless unexpected materials, including vintage textiles, dyed human hair, feathers, plastic beads, and harlequin sequins.

Cave’s works frequently present a palpable duality. For instance, in his sculptures Unarmed (2016) and Arm Peace (2018), dismembered body parts cast in bronze are adorned with bright-colored flowers that instantly instill hope into otherwise heart-wrenching imagery. The Chicago-based artist employs exuberance as a mode of resistance to a society that “insists on perceiving him as a threat,” he said. “[My art] gives viewers no other choice than to see me, to recognize that I am human. I am here, just as much as you are here.”

Cave’s deep appreciation for seeing the “other,” is at the center of “Forothermore,” his first retrospective of the artist, which is set to run from May 14th to October 2nd at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Curated by Naomi Beckwith, former senior curator at MCA Chicago and current deputy director and chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum, the survey is set to be an “immersive journey” into Cave’s oeuvre that will honor and celebrate those who are often othered due to bigotry.

The expansive exhibition includes 26 of Cave’s Soundsuits along with Spinner Forest (2022), a site-specific installation built of thousands of colorful kinetic spinners. The piece is meant to be a new version of Cave’s renowned MASS MoCA installation, Until (2016), and will hang from the museum’s fourth-floor lobby and two-story atrium. Later this year, “Forothermore” will travel to the Guggenheim in New York, where it will be on view from November 18, 2022, to April 10, 2023.

Also in Chicago, Cave recently debuted Ba Boom Boom Pa Pop Pop (2022), a video work made specifically for the city’s Art on theMART initiative, which projects digital art on theMART building’s 2.5-acre façade, making it the largest exhibition of its kind in the world. Cave’s video—set to be projected twice nightly until September 7th—melds original footage with remastered scenes from his film Drive-By (2011) and features his renowned kaleidoscopic Soundsuits gleefully moving with freedom. Most notably, the piece features a figure decorated with a stop sign meant to remind the audience about the indubitable urgency of addressing social justice.

Nick Cave’s Art on theMART Projection. Courtesy of Art on theMART.

Cave is adamant about the importance of community-centered initiatives that bring art to those who would otherwise rarely encounter it. “I’m always thinking about what happens outside of the institution. How do we bring art to the public realm?” he said. “There is still a large population that doesn’t frequent museums, so I’m all about putting art out into the world, creating accessibility, and sharing the love.”

More than 30 years after Rodney King, as the U.S. continues to grapple with racism and police brutality, Cave’s work is as current as ever. Less than two years ago, as George Floyd was brutally murdered by Minneapolis police, Cave found himself experiencing an eerie déjà vu. “When George Floyd happened, I was at home in Missouri visiting my mother,” the artist recalled. “And I felt that I somehow needed to respond. I just had to get to my studio and figure out how to say something.”

Nick Cave, Wall Relief, 2013. © Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Within three weeks, Cave and his partner Bob Faust had put together Amends (2020), a community-centered art project that sought to “eradicate racism—starting with the self.” Community leaders and activists were invited to write letters of repentance on the façade of Facility, a Chicago-based multidisciplinary space that Cave and Faust founded in 2018, with intentions to harness “art and design as a means to empowerment and social change.”

Speaking of his ability to bring light and optimism into painful conversations, Cave concedes that it’s not always an easy task. “I have been existing in a space of trauma my entire life, and so I am grateful and humbled to have this outlet,” he said. “I don’t even know what I would do if I didn’t have art as a way of expressing my emotions.”

Nick Cave, Speak Louder, 2011. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, purchased jointly by Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago with funds provided by the Zell Family Foundation and by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2018.1 Photo by James Prinz Photography. © Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Yet beyond seeing art as a personal practice, Cave believes his increasingly expansive platform carries with it great responsibility. “I look at my art as a vehicle for change. It’s never really for me. It’s for others,” he said. “I can get these expressions out into the world. I can ignite these conversations and create safe spaces for difficult emotions.”

Moreover, Cave insists that his oeuvre is driven by a profoundly spiritual force. “I’m not always in control of what I have to do,” he said. “It’s bigger than me, you know. There’s a higher power in charge. I’m just the messenger, here to deliver this deed. And then I move on to my next assignment.”

Salomé Gómez-Upegui