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Missouri Native Nick Cave Explores If There’s Racism In Heaven In New Exhibition At The Momentary

Stephen Ironside
Ironside Photography
Nick Cave's 'Crystal Cloudscape (2016)' is a massive mixed media work, a crystal cloud topped by a private garden.

Artist Nick Cave’s largest and most ambitious project, tackling race, gender, and gun violence, is now on view at The Momentary, a contemporary art space in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas.

MASS MoCA curator Denise Markonish first approached artist Nick Cave about seven years ago to see if he’d be willing to take on the Massachusetts art museum’s largest exhibition space. The size of a football field.

Markonish, in a virtual press preview on Thursday, said she was familiar with Cave’s Soundsuits, his wearable sculptures, and she’d also encountered his (black-faced lawn) jockeys and was curious to see more of the breadth of his work.

“I sort of let Nick stew and simmer,” she says, “and went back a year later and he presented the idea for ‘Until’.”

Cave, 61, lives and works in Chicago, where he directs the fashion design program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. An artist and dancer, he studied fiber arts as an undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Institute and earned his masters at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

“When Denise invited me to have this opportunity at MASS MoCA,” says Cave, “It was sort of a life-changing moment.”

“I knew I had to shift my way of thinking, my way of working. And I was really at that sort of pivotal point in my practice, where I was ready for that and it was happening.”

When Cave, who grew up in Fulton, Missouri, heard about Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, he knew the focus of this new work.

“Everything came together. I was in my studio working when I’d heard about that incident,” he says. “All of a sudden, I wondered if there’s racism in heaven? So that was the catalyst for ‘Until.’”

Flow Blow from Nick Cave_ Until at the Momentary, Bentonville, Arkansas.jpg
Stephen Ironside
Ironside Photography
Nick Cave's 'Flow Blow (2016)' is a "wall of shimmering party streamers that dances by blowing fans" and spells the word “flow."

Cave has tackled issues of race, gender, oppression, and identity for decades in his artwork.

His best-known work, a Soundsuit, was created in direct response to police brutality against Rodney King. These costumes, crafted from twigs, buttons, beads, sequins, and found objects, are intended to shield the body and mask identity.

Since 1992, he’s created more than 500.

When “Nick Cave: Until” first opened in 2016 at MASS MoCA, the exhibition was described as “stepping directly into the belly” of one of Cave’s Soundsuits.

The title is a nod to the phrase “innocent until proven guilty, or its reverse, “guilty until proven innocent.”

The exhibition traveled to Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia, and Tramway in Glasgow, Scotland. On September 12, it opened at the Momentary, a contemporary art space in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas, and runs through January 3, 2021.

Lauren Haynes, director of artist initiatives and curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Momentary, says Cave’s exhibition offers “a space for difficult conversations and a moment to reflect, important as ever at this moment.”

Unarmed from Nick Cave_ Until at the Momentary, Bentonville, Arkansas.jpg
Stephen Ironside
Ironside Photography
In Nick Cave's 'Unarmed (2016),' a metal hand points upward in the center of a wreath made of beaded flowers.

“Nick Cave: Until” creates an immersive environment with its six installations — changed or re-imagined with each venue.

At the Momentary, for example, Beaded Cliff Wall,
crafted from plastic beads, shoelaces, and rope, hangs within the 70-foot tower.

And the mezzanine needed to be altered so Crystal Cloudscape would fit. This installation features more than 10 miles of crystals, 24 chandeliers, and a garden of found objects.

Visitors can climb a ladder to the surface, or view it from the lower mezzanine of the Momentary.

“I was thinking about elevation, and how do I get to the top?” says Cave, describing his early drawings. “How do we get to heaven?”

A 14-channel video installation, Hy-Dyve, with images of staring eyes repeating in an eight-minute loop, was also on display in 2018 in Kansas City inside a former church as part of Open Spaces, the city-wide art festival.

Stephen Ironside
Ironside Photography
A collection of 16,000 hanging wind spinners, in Nick Cave's 'Kinetic Spinner Forest (2016),' display images of bullets, guns, and targets.

Kinetic Spinner Forest, an “otherly sort of world,” as Cave puts it, includes 16,000 hanging wind spinners. It’s the first installation visitors will walkthrough, in the first gallery off the lobby.

But, along with hummingbirds and flowers, some of these spinners are adorned with images of bullets, guns, and teardrops.

“It really hits you right in the gut,” he says. “You’re consumed with beauty and opulence, and yet you’re sort of burdened with this sort of heaviness."

"Throughout this exhibition, you’ll find yourself torn between these two emotions.”

Although the exhibition has adapted to each location, MASS MoCA curator Denise Markonish says its impact has been consistent.

“It empowers a community to uplift each other,” she says. “It provides a space, in even the darkest moments of despair, to try to find hope through the people we surround ourselves with.”

She adds, “I know that’s going to happen in Bentonville, as well.”

The Momentary, a satellite of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, presentsNick Cave: Until, organized by MASS MoCA, through January 3, 2021.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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