American artist Nick Cave seen alongside one of his HEARD·SYD sound suits at Carriageworks
Credit: Zan Wimberley

American artist Nick Cave created the first of his iconic Soundsuits in 1992. Initially intended to be a sculpture, the suit was a response to an act of police brutality and racism against Rodney King in Los Angeles. It was made entirely of twigs – an unforgiving suit of armour made from discarded detritus.

“Think about the election right now in the States. We are in a state of despair,” Cave recently told GRAZIA. “How do we find ways to respond to that; to use it as a form of call and response?”

In the decades since, the Chicago-based Cave has become one of America’s eminent and most multi-dimensional artists. His Soundsuits not only camouflage but transform the body, exaggerating proportions and obliterating the identity of the wearer until they become something entirely other. The results are transcendent and now, as was the case when the first was created, they once again feel more vital than ever.

Credit: Zan Wimberley

“We’re moving through the world and we just need things [to] stimulate us every day,” Cave told me on Tuesday this week at a dress rehearsal for HEARD·SYD, the first major work the artist has presented in Australia.

Put simply, HEARD·SYD is a joyous spectacular. Imagine a stampede of 30 life-sized horse-suits inhabited by 60 Sydney-based dancers made unrecognisable under swathes of cascading, technicolour synthetic raffia and crowned with found objects inspired by African ceremonial costumes and Tibetan textiles. At first, the silent herd of horses buck and bray, trot and nuzzle, before an explosion of rhythmic percussion (courtesy of almost a dozen musicians from the Matavai Pacific Cultural Arts centre in Liverpool) causes them to erupt into a riot of colour and choreography arranged by William Gill but with space allowed for improvisation.

The site specific performance is both controlled and yet entirely untamed, and it fills whichever space it’s staged in with light, and colour, and life.

Credit: Zan Wimberley

This is the fourth time that HEARD has been reimagined for performance in public spaces, with previous iterations of the project taking place in Dallas, Texas (2012), in Grand Central Terminal, New York (2013), and in Detroit, Michigan (2015). Following its public debut yesterday evening at both Town Hall and Pitt Street Mall, the work will be performed twice this coming Saturday at 10am and 12pm at Carriageworks.

Appearing in conversation with the venue’s programming director, Lisa Havilah, Cave revealed that the performance was born from an escapist desire to stage interventions in spaces of transition, asking viewers to interrupt their daily routine and question how we use the time we’re given. HEARD was conceived as “a piece that can stop someone in their tracks” from “a place of pure innocence” inspired by a time when a sock puppet or a sheet could be used to transform the ordinary into something extraordinary.

Today, the work is an extension of that childhood naïveté, albeit on a much larger scale, and it places a great deal of emphasis on the responsibility of the artist to collaborate with local communities, allowing for infinite permutations of the piece.  

“I was sitting and watching it and for me it’s just amazing to see this piece being performed in this piece of architecture, and the contrast between that and working in Grand Central Station. [But] I think the real understanding of that will not be until its performed [in public]. That’s when we will really see, when everyone is coming out of their office buildings [on their] phones, which are the new tool today, and they’ll be able to have this piece of a moment which is then able to become a shared moment to take home and share.”

Credit: Zan Wimberley

Though the performance is ostensibly a simple one, and one Cave says is devised with the act of sharing on social media in mind, the rehearsal process is not. The artist says that he arrived in the country only three days prior to the performance and began rehearsing the next morning.

“These dancers are fabulous,” he said of the freelance performers, who come from both ballet and contemporary backgrounds and are tasked with developing both personalities for their demanding shared costume, as well as a silent language of hand gestures to communicate with underneath the hot and heavy plastic suits, which take three people a month each to make and effectively render one half (the tail half) blind.

“With dancers, the thing that is amazing is that they understand their bodies, they understand how to count, they can absorb a routine in a couple of hours and then it’s a matter of honing in and cleaning up.

“We talk about collaboration and partners coming together and identifying what kind of character you’re building. It’s interesting that 80% of these dancers didn’t even know each other. I was like, ‘are you kidding me?’ But it was amazing to see the love. The thing that’s nice is that they all now have a shared experience and they’re representing their country, honey, and that’s what it’s about right?”

Credit: Zan Wimberley

After I watched HEARD on Tuesday, I could not stop beaming. During the performance, Havilah stood behind me cackling with laughter. It was infectious, enthralling.

And after the events of this week I can’t encourage you enough to go down and see it tomorrow should you need a reminder of art’s capacity to inspire joy, whimsy and pure escapism, if only for a much needed moment. 

HEARD·SYD will be performed on Saturday November 12 at 10am and 12pm at Carriageworks, 245 Wilson Street, Redfern

Tile and cover image: Zan Wimberley