Sound and “Furry” at the Taubman

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The Soundsuit dancers, choreographed by the Southwest Virginia Ballet, entertained spectators on opening night.
The Soundsuit dancers, choreographed by the Southwest Virginia Ballet, entertained spectators on opening night.

by Gene Marrano

There’s something very different in Gallery 1 and in the second floor hallway at the Taubman Museum of Art these days. Nick Cave’s “Soundsuits” are wearable art, brightly colored and heavily adorned full length costumes that, in Cave’s mind, each create certain types of unique sounds when they are worn and danced in.

Southwest Virginia Ballet artistic director Pedro Szalay did just that at the 2011-2012 Taubman kickoff last Thursday, choreographing a dance number for students of his school, Radford University and Roanoke Ballet Theatre, as they whirled and twirled in Cave’s soundsuits for invited friends of the museum in the Taubman’s atrium.

The 2011-2012 season at the Taubman debuts with Nick Cave: Meet me at the Center of the Earth, which runs through December 31.

Cave, who lives in Chicago, was on hand for opening night. Schooled in fashion as well as art, his soundsuits appear in New York, Washington and Chicago museums. Meet me at the Center of the Earth is currently on a three-year national tour. Getting it to schedule a stop in Roanoke was significant, according to Taubman executive director David Mickenberg, who called Cave “one of America’s most important artists.”

The opening of the Taubman exhibit featuring Cave’s arresting soundsuits “was the culmination of two years’ work,” added Mickenberg, who opened the reception lecture by again mentioning the “new partnerships” the Taubman is attempting to forge with local artists and the community at large. He also praised “the best museum staff in the state of Virginia.”

Adjunct curator Leah Stoddard called Cave’s work “incredibly inspirational,” also noting that the soundsuits traveling exhibit had been in much larger cities like Seattle and San Francisco, with a stop in South Africa soon. “We’re fortunate to be a part of this tour,” said Stoddard. Cave, who has created more than 500 soundsuits, just opened two other shows in New York galleries.

He started out as a painter, but said the Rodney King incident, where Los Angeles policemen were videotaped beating an unarmed black man lying prone on the ground, “profoundly affected” him. Cave said he then realized that art “was a vehicle for expression.” His first sculpture was made from twigs – and it dawned on him then that he could wear it.

Cave has gone abroad, studying Carnivale costumes in Haiti for instance, taking notes on texture and fabrics. Many of his soundsuits are adorned with items he’s picked up at flea markets, vintage stores and yard sales. Cave admitted, to laughter from the audience, that he is addicted to flea markets. “I don’t know when something will trigger my interest,” said Cave, who termed it “the impulse of objects.”

One soundsuit he showed on a PowerPoint presentation was festooned with Barbie dolls that had been painted, and then covered in dryer lint. “How did I come to that, I don’t know,” he admitted. Others on display at the Taubman feature thousands of buttons and dyed human hair.

“What is the potential within an object?” asked Cave. Taubman patrons can make up their own minds as to what those objects evoke in them if they visit the museum before the end of the year.  “You’ve got to look at the world as a canvas,” implored Cave.