The Art of Sound

Nick Cave's curious creation

HUMANITIES, Fall 2021, Volume 42, Number 4

In 1992, in the wake of the Rodney King beating, African-American artist Nick Cave fashioned a head-to-toe bodysuit from twigs found in a local park. Conceived as modern-day armor, the garment’s purpose was to protect the wearer by concealing his or her identity—race, ethnicity, gender, age, and class—from public view. However, when Cave tried on the finished outfit, he realized that he had created more than just an article of clothing: “The moment I put it on and started to move, it made sound,” he recalled in a 2011 interview. In honor of its musical quality, Cave dubbed the piece Soundsuit.

The artist has since created over five hundred soundsuits, each with a unique appearance and theme. Cave draws design inspiration from a variety of sources—including West African sacred dress, natural landscapes, and handcrafts—and manufactures his suits from an equally diverse range of recycled materials, among them, synthetic and natural fabrics, ceramic wares, beads, wigs, and used toys. This 2009 soundsuit adopts a botanical motif, featuring a vibrant knit under-layer adorned by painted metal leaves and flowers, and is owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, whose exhibitions and programs have been supported by numerous NEH grants.

Cave’s striking suits are not only displayed as sculptures in galleries around the world, but also used as costumes and instruments in live performances. For their multipurpose nature as works of art, couture fashion, and noisemakers, the soundsuits are (delightfully and deliberately) impossible to define according to the parameters of any single genre.