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Nick Cave: Cutting-edge artist is also a messenger
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2017-02-08

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Dance, sculpting, performance, art, fashion—Nick Cave has done it all.

Cave is the chair of the Department of Fashion Design at the School of the Art Institute. ( Late last year, he was named the Stephanie and Bill Sick Professor of Fashion, Body, and Garment at the institute, thanks to a $2-million endowment. ) In a recent phone interview, this cutting-edge performance artist ( who's also known for his unique soundsuits ) talked with Windy City Times are growing up, fashion and much more.

Windy City Times: Regarding the endowment, how did you find out about it?

Nick Cave: I was literally in the middle of my MASS MoCA [Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art] installment. So I get a call from the school president's office, and there are eight people on this call. I was thinking "Oh, my God—what have I done now? Am I in trouble?" [Interviewer laughs.]

They told me about the endowment, and I was surprised and excited; at the same time, I was in MASS MoCA mode. I was thinking, "OK. I'll get to that in two days once this show opens. Then I can process and embrace it." But it was truly an honor and I was thrilled that this was created.

WCT: You're from Fulton, Missouri. What was it like growing up there?

NC: Well, I was only there until I was about 12; then, we moved to Columbia, Missouri.

Growing up was great. I had six brothers, and we were very close. We were raised to find our happiness, and there was unconditional love. It was a very accepting environment. It was easy to be expressive.

WCT: With all the art forms you've explored, which was the first that intrigued you? Was it fashion—or did your love of that come later?

NC: I remember first being fascinated by a loom and this idea that I could thread this machine to make this cloth; to me, that was magical. That was really the first attraction for me. Also, [learning to use the loom] was time-consuming so that taught me about patience, quality, focus and execution. That's what centered me and allowed me to understand the principles of making and what that involved.

WCT: When you hear the word "fashion," what does that mean to you?

NC: Fashion, to me, means self-expression.

What I mean by that is that fashion becomes our uniform and whatever that means to you. For me, it means working between contemporary to vintage. I only operate within these two worlds; for example, I only wear vintage suits. I mix vintage with contemporary ready-to-wear, so it's not always what's out right now; I hold on to history. It's about style and point of view, and being free and liberating in that sense. I like the high-end and the thrifty—but it's really about how you put it together and how you express your point of view.

WCT: I'm also curious about how you expanded from fashion into other forms of art. You experiment with paint, sound, colors and more.

NC: I'm a messenger first, and artist second. But when it comes to art, my motto is that you find the means necessary to support the idea; I might have to work with clay because that supports my concept. So I'm not limited to one particular sort of medium. I'm interested in finding language through the materials and building the work in that way. That just comes from being open to possibilties—but it's a form of exercising at the same time.

WCT: You and I have some things in common, believe it or not. [Both laugh.] We're both out, we're both African-American and we're both about the same age—and we both remember the AIDS crisis of the '80s. How did that affect you?

NC: Oh, my God! Trust me—it was at my back fucking door.

I can't tell you how many close friends I lost during that period. I don't know why I'm here today, but I am certainly an advocate and voice for many. It was really, really devastating; it was sad to have to walk through this process with family and to pack up my friends' belongings. The majority of the time, it was like a horrific dream. I think there was a period that I lost six friends in a year; it was a nightmare. I don't even know if I processed it because I was so in it; I needed to be fully engaged with my friends through the entire process. Being present in it was how I healed, I think.

The AIDS epidemic—there were no answers back then. I was just more interested the best way that I could. We just didn't have a lot of time to mourn. I became sort of numb.

WCT: You almost become desensitized after a while.

NC: Oh, totally.

WCT: The Art AIDS America exhibit at Alphawood Gallery is really hard-hitting.

NC: Oh, great—I'm going to go, for sure.

WCT: I remember speaking with writer Edmund White a while ago—and he said he lost hundreds of friends [during the AIDS crisis].

NC: [Pauses] Yeah—and how do we come through that? That's an interesting thing as well. We all have our different destinies, I guess. How do we try to understand that?

WCT: How have politics influenced you—especially during these current times?

NC: I had an amazing revelation that I had last November, when I was in Sydney. I was there when the election happened. I had to do a performance the next morning for the mayor of Sydney and all these diplomats, and I just wasn't feeling it, of course.

Then, all of a sudden, it happened—and it provided me everything I needed to move forward. It was the most exhilirating, most inspiring, most optimistic performance I had ever done. It was about the power of art when it's placed in a particular time and situation—how art can bring us together. I was having difficulties with the outcome of the election; in fact, the people of Sydney were, like, "What happened?" [Both chuckle.] Everybody looks to America.

This one woman said, "Nick, thanks so much for this performance. You've solidified this sense of urgency, and you've given us what we need to proceed forward." It changed how I'm thinking about performance in the future. Every four years, I will do a major performance the day after the election because of the importance of that.

I think, right now, we'll be fine. We tend to become complacent and, right now, it's an opportunity to get behind what we stand for. This is the time for us to come together. That will illustrate and put forth what we're made of, so I'm interested in this time right now. I'm ready to proceed with my work; it's a call for action. Our level of tolerance is zero.

The [recent] women's marches exemplify what I'm talking about. It's about us coming together and creating this social camaraderie. I'm so glad that they followed [President Trump's] inauguration. People are standing taller and they're speaking out louder. We're not what we were 10 years ago—what was "not there."

WCT: I want to conclude to ask you what you think your legacy will be.

NC: I feel that I'm working on what I'm leaving behind. I don't know what that is, but what I do know is that—as an artist, as an African-American, as a citizen of the U.S., a resident of Chicago—I have the ability to establish platforms for bringing people together. I have been blessed and gifted; if I can establish a platform for hope by giving underprivileged communities and individuals a face to experience what is possible, that is the most important thing to me.

I'm an artist, but one with a civic responsibility. That's why I'm a messenger, first—I've been chosen to deliver these deeds. I can let everyone know that they matter, that I see them. Then, we can come together to create an expression. That's the fire that gets me exhilirated.

I have to walk toward fear; that's what draws me to do what I do.

It's really humbling to be part of academia, and to have the kids look at my work as a point of reference.


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