ArtBeat: Nick Cave’s work leaves you feeling inspired, unsafe

  • Nets made of millions of colorful beads create a massive cliff with a network of tunnels through it, part of Nick Cave’s installation “Until,” at MASS MoCA in North Adams. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • In Nick Cave’s heavenly garden of kitsch, cast-iron lawn jockeys hold dream-catchers, nets woven to protect dreamers from nightmares. For The Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Prompted by the police killings of black men, Nick Cave poses the question, in his installation entitled “Until,” “Is there racism in heaven?” For The Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Nick Cave’s installation, “Until,” creates a world of spinning color and extravagent excess that asks us to pay attention. For The Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Dazzling wind ornaments in Nick Cave’s installation, “Until,” are punctuated by startling images such as a gun, a bullet and a teardrop. For The Recorder/Trish Crapo

For The Recorder
Published: 2/1/2017 1:18:11 PM

The largest exhibition space at MASS MoCA in North Adams is the size of a football field. That’s a lot of art. Or room for some big art. Right now, the front of that space, known as Building 5, is strung ceiling to floor with strands of twirling multi-colored aluminum wind ornaments that sparkle and wink, enticing you into a magical forest of color and light.

Part of Chicago-based artist Nick Cave’s installation entitled “Until,” that forest seems innocent, awe-inspiring. You descend the stairs at the front of the gallery, where the long view has impressed upon you Cave’s sheer and wonderful audacity, and follow a winding path into the strands, mesmerized. Every adult I saw walk into the strands had a smile on their face that was most likely exactly how they smiled in third grade.

“Wow,” people murmured.


Once you are among them, the ornaments create a beautiful, pulsing world that stretches above, in front of and behind you. Part Disney technicolor cartoon, part 1960s psychedelic album cover imagery — this world is fun. It’s cool. It’s so over-the- top you laugh.

But stand still.

Every now and again, one of those 16,000 spinning disks whirls around to reveal the silhouette cut-out of a gun. Pointing right at you.

It was a terrifying moment, the first time I recognized a glinting gold handgun swinging towards me, right at heart level. I froze. Wait — I thought this was supposed to be fun? I thought I was safe.

In the summer of 2016, while working on the installation at MASS MoCA, Cave told New York Times writer Ted Loos that the title, “Until,” comes from the phrase, “Innocent until proven guilty.”

For black men in America, Cave explained, it’s more often the other way around: “Guilty until proven innocent.”

“Until” is the word that changes everything, the hinge into the unknown. As in: I thought I was safe until I saw the gun.

According to Mass MoCA’s website, Cave’s new installation was in part a response to the police killings of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and other black men. Cave has been best known — until now — for his “Soundsuits,” wearable sculptures made of twigs, found objects, raffia, elaborate beadwork and other materials that challenge viewers to question their assumptions about human identity.

An exhibit of the Soundsuits that I saw at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem in 2013 featured a weird and wonderful video of Cave, an Alvin Ailey-trained dancer, and assistants dancing inside some of the suits. The Soundsuits are part armor, part protest, Cave told WBUR’s Andrea Shea in March of 2013.

“In order to be heard you’ve got to be aggressive, you’ve got to speak louder,” Cave told Shea, which explains the “sound” part of the suit.

This past summer, Cave told Loos of the New York Times that he means for “Until” to be like stepping inside one of his Soundsuits. Because here’s the thing: you’re a mere observer until you step in. Once you step in, you’re no longer an outsider; you’re implicated. You’re involved.

Is there racism in heaven?

You exit Cave’s magical spinning forest into a large open space. The tall windows on both sides of the long room were originally designed to allow natural light to illuminate factory worktables. The buildings on the MASS MoCA campus have housed factories and mills since the late 1700s, ending with Sprague Electric Company in 1985.

Today, sunlight glances off what must be thousands of crystals hanging from chandeliers and mounted in a solid mass in between them, dangling from the underside of a massive cloud-shaped structure that looms overhead. MASS MoCA’s website states that there are 24 chandeliers and over 10 miles of crystals, but I don’t know how to even think about 10 miles of crystals. However many that is, the effect is dazzling.

Four bright yellow, 10-foot-tall ladders lead to small viewing platforms from which you can ogle the dizzying array of ceramic birds and animals, large gold pig statues, metal flowers, glass fruit, old phonograph horns and, most significantly, 17 cast-iron lawn jockeys — those blatantly racist statues that depict a black stable boy holding out a lantern or a ring through which a horse’s reins could presumably be tied.

Back in September, during MASS MoCA’s FreshGrass Festival, I’d peeked into Building 5 to see this part of the installation being assembled on the ground. I’d thought then that viewers would walk through this unlikely garden of kitsch at floor level, much the same way you’d walk through any garden. Instead, viewers are asked to climb the 10-foot ladders one at a time, advised not to turn around as they ascend and to, “Keep three points of contact.”

I didn’t have to be warned. I’m not sure anything could have stopped me from gripping the rails with both hands, especially as I neared the top. When I used the term “dizzying array” earlier, I meant just the sheer number and variety of objects in the installation. But the physical effect of standing so near the ceiling was literally dizzying.

Again, I felt unsafe. And Cave had wanted me to feel that way.

A statement on the opening wall of the exhibit states that one of the questions that ran through Cave’s mind as he was working on “Until” was, “Is there racism in heaven?”

I didn’t know how to answer. If what I had just done had been to climb to heaven, I could attest that there were certainly lawn jockeys there, grinning Uncle Tom grins. But Cave had given them “dream-catchers,” nets woven to protect sleepers from nightmares. The dream-catcher the lawn jockey closest to me was holding seemed to have been devised from a badminton racket. The smiles the lawn jockeys were smiling were the same ones they’d always smiled. But were they changed by the context Cave had placed them in? Were the lawn jockeys free now? Were they happy?

I clambered back down and met the friend I’d traveled out with at the back wall, where Cave had strung millions of plastic beads into nets, creating a bright cliff with several cave-like openings you could wander through. In crayon-bright beads, Cave had created smiley faces and peace signs in one section.

MASS MoCA Director of Communications Jodi Joseph told me later that this section was meant to reference the graffiti-marred cliffs Cave would see from the train as he traveled from Penn Station in New York City. Some of that graffiti was hateful, Joseph said, and Cave was re-framing the experience “more hopefully and more optimistically.”

At the very back of the room, kaleidoscope patterns delineated the hallway to a small, darkened gallery. Inside, video of rushing water covered the floor and repeating projected images jumped up the walls. I sat on a bench in the middle of the room and watched as what seemed to be a wooden toy figure danced in jerky motions. Was it a soldier? The Nutcracker? A sign had warned of the strobe effects of the video and I did feel disoriented by it. And, as often happens to me in museums, I felt suddenly full.

In our follow-up phone call, Joseph told me that Cave appears in this video presentation, dressed in one of his Soundsuits, and that there was a final area of the installation that I missed — an upstairs gallery beyond the video room where a “waterfall” made of Mylar created a peaceful environment that Cave intended as a place for viewers to sit and absorb everything they’d just seen. Cave then intended viewers to walk back through the exhibit, hopefully changed by their journey, Joseph continued.

At first I regretted not having stayed for the entire video and having inadvertently missed this last gallery. Now, I understand those are great reasons to go back.

Two other great reasons to return to the Nick Cave exhibit, or to go for the first time, are two performances planned for the spring.

On Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m., iconic choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones will perform a solo work in Cave’s installation. Co-presented by Jacob’s Pillow Dance, the performance is a direct response to Cave’s work.

Tickets are currently sold out. Call the MASS MoCA box office at 413-662-2111, ext. 1, to add your name to a waiting list, should more tickets be released.

On Friday, April 7 at 5 p.m., choreographer, writer, and actress Okwui Okpokwasili brings her kinesthetically powerful movement style to a site-specific dance that responds to Nick Cave’s “Until.” Tickets are $40 day of performance; $30 in advance; $20 for students.

Full listings of many other exhibits and events at MASS MoCA can be found online at :

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