The Peabody Essex Museum has continued its dynamic contemporary art series, FreePort, now in its sixth iteration, with an installation of Nick Cave's famed soundsuits. This exhibition goes beyond merely placing the suits themselves in the galleries as sculpture, and brings them to life in an immersive video and sound installation, showing how in spite of their apparent fragility, they exist to be in motion.
In Drive-by, Cave uses the spatial and temporal properties of video to create a world that upsets laws of gravity and movement. It is a pulsing, primal place, devoid of any identifiable space or time, inhabited by characters who can multiply, merge, and disappear. Cave, who trained with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, brings us a celebration of movement and color, part pageant, party, and ritual. Unavoidably, one thinks of Carnival, and how its transgressive nature allows for role-reversal, shape-shifting, and trickery. Cave's characters have masked features and limbs. The human shape is enlarged, extended by colorful line and texture, mutated into animal hybrids, with unpredictable movements and abilities. But in this piece, it is the video software itself that creates the greatest impact—its flexible effects, like magic tricks, allow images to undergo compositing, mirroring, slicing. The dancers can be conjured up, thrown through space, slowed down or sped up, in time with rhythmic, almost tactile, sound.
The title Drive-By is the one surprising allusion to a darker meaning, and reminds us that Cave's first soundsuit, one constructed of twigs and sticks, was created in response to Rodney King's beating by LAPD officers in 1991. The suits on view at PEM, which the artists claims will be his last, offer delicate parallels to the collections of exquisite porcelain, glass, and ivory objects found throughout the Museum.
Isolated in its own gallery, Cave's installation doesn't enchant the overall experience, in the way Susan Phillipsz's site-specific song once haunted the building. Nonetheless, it is a powerful and pleasurable detour to make as one wanders through the exhibition halls. With Japanese photographer Toshio Shibata's exhibition Constructed Landscapes opening April 20, now is the perfect time to pay a return visit to this gem of a museum.
FreePort [No. 006]: Nick Cave runs through May 27, 2013.
Thumbnail photograph by James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of Nick Cave and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.