Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 13, No. 5, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
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David Solway
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Louis René Beres
Daniel Charchuk
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Nick Catalano
Farzana Hassan
Betsy L. Chunko
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
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Serge Gamache
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Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
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Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


reviewed by


Anthony Merino, renowned independent art critic, has published over 70 reviews. He is a ceramic artist and has lectured internationally on contemporary ceramics.


Contrary to modern canons, the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world.
It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits.
The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world,
that is, the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it.
Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World

Nick Cave sews, weaves and fastens together debris and fabrics to create fanciful suits of armor called Soundsuits (2004-2014). Fibrous multi-hue conglomerations explode out of these outfits’ torso. On the surface the pieces read as festive; like erudite Mardi Gras costumes. Held on the Tuesday before the Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras is one last hedonistic ritual prior to the imposed austerity of Lent. Both Cave’s Soundsuits and Mardi Gras costumes are flamboyant and overtly sexual. The carnival we know today is a mere fossil of its origin. In his introduction to Rabelais and His World, noted Russian literary theorist Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin writes -- “[A]ll were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age.” All shared characteristics: surface frivolity, an unreal quality and a subversive egalitarian intent are consistent with a distinctly American music form -- Funk.

One of the leaders of the American funk movement was bandleader George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic. Perhaps the most meaningful stylistic connection between the two is the sheer virtuosity of their creations. Both artists construct the appearance chaos through menageries of excess sensations. This takes extraordinary skill. Both Cave and Clinton indulge the more base human appetite. This seemingly superficial glee camouflages a far more subversive intent of their work.

Cave’s Soundsuits come from great pain. He made his first Soundsuit in response to the Rodney King beating. On the 3rd of March 1991, Mr. King was pulled over by the Los Angeles police. A video surfaced that showed Mr. King being beaten on the ground by several of the officers. Cave describes his response to this video stating, “I started thinking about myself more and more as a black man -- as someone who was discarded, devalued, viewed as less than.” This tactic of coopting a caustic reality into a defiant expression of joy transcends disciplines links Cave and Clinton’s work with a fundamental archetype.

The harlequin, a stock character in Italian commedia del’arte plays -- also embodies this archetype. Superficially both the Soundsuits and the harlequin’s outfit are brightly coloured and highly detailed. Slightly deeper, they are both constructed from other’s debris. The original Harlequin costume consisted of a peasant’s shirt. Torn and worn, the outfit was mended with multi-coloured patches. This later got magnified and become the multi-hued diamond grid. In talking about his work in a March 31st, 2009 profile published in the New York Times, Mr. Cave stated:

When you’re raised by a single mother with six brothers and lots of hand-me-downs, you have to figure out how to make those clothes your own. That’s how I started off, using things around the house.

This ethic of repurposing becomes both the literal and metaphoric theme of his work. Cave takes what the world gives him.

Going deeper into the parallels, another linkage to the American Funk music movement emerges. On a psychological level -- like the harlequin character, Cave and Clinton embrace their status as the magical and mysterious outsider. Being part of a society involves an inherent conformity. Cave’s Soundsuits and Clinton’s music both employ a garish horror vacui aesthetic. Each artist loves to litter his works with flamboyant artificiality. This is evidenced by Cave’s preference for bright hues and metallic colors. Clinton furiously peppers his music with synthesized notes, falsetto voices and deep base riffs. In part, each form celebrates an appetite that would be considered best restrained in a polite society. Cave and Clinton infuse their work with a Neo-primitivism. Modernism is streamlined, economic and efficient. Their work embraces the irrational and fanciful. While the branches split in different directions -- both artists create work derived from African music and dance. In doing so they ground their work in a pre-modern period.

Two dynamics come into play here. First, they are asserting the spiritual and illogical. The experience of life goes far beyond the borders of either system, however. So the promotion of celebrating the unknown is subversive. In speaking about the social function of his work, Mr. Cave stated, “I was really thinking of getting us back to this dream state, a place where we imagine and think about now and how we exist and function in the world. With the state of affairs of the world, I think we tend not to take the time out to create that dream space in our heads.” Cave suggests the realm of the subconscious and the imagination can help us grasp our position in the world. The quote infers that knowing how your fit in the world empowers you to change how your fit in the world. This idea is a signature of George Clinton’s lyrics. The sixth album released by Funkadelic, Standing on the Verge of Getting it On, included the song “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts,” in which Clinton, along with co-writer Eddie Hazel, articulate an argument that the subconscious is the place of appetites and imagination drives truth.

Every thought felt as true
Or allowed to be accepted as true by your conscious mind
Take roots in your subconscious
Blossoms sooner or later into an act
And bears its own fruit
Good thoughts bring forth good fruit
Bullshit thoughts rot your meat
Think right, and you can fly
The kingdom of heaven is within
Free your mind, and your ass will follow

Clinton’s observation that reality is not only rooted in your mind but your subconscious uncovers a psychological link between his and Cave’s work and the archetype of the Harlequin.

There is one deeper -- almost primal strata in which Cave’s process parallels the archetype of the harlequin. Carl Jung wrote about this archetype in looking at the work of another artist, Pablo Picasso. In a 1932 article on the painter, Carl Jung referred to the harlequin as a “ancient chthonic god.” The underworld represents the subconscious, hence where the power of Cave’s warriors comes from. Jung parallels Picasso’s use of the harlequin with Jung’s Faust stating:

Faust turns back to the crazy primitive world of the witches' sabbath and to a chimerical vision of classical antiquity. Picasso conjures up crude, earthy shapes, grotesque and primitive, and resurrects the soullessness of ancient Pompeii in a cold, glittering light -- even Giulio Romano could not have done worse! Seldom or never have I had a patient who did not go back to neolithic art forms or revel in evocations of Dionysian orgies. Harlequin wanders like Faust through all these forms, though sometimes nothing betrays his presence but his wine, his lute, or the bright lozenges of his jester's costume.

This analysis highlights the strength of Cave’s process. In response to the video of King’s beating, he did not just delve into his subconscious. Cave engages the underworld of his society.

Concluding his essay on the archetype of the harlequin, Jung quotes Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, who in chastising another character states “Your soul will be dead even sooner than your body. Fear nothing more.” This lamentation provides a context for the true heroic nature of Cave and Clinton’s work. When faced with the prospect of being “discarded, devalued, viewed as less than” they choose defiance. After which, both artists create works bold and defiant.

Images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

By Anthony Merino:
Foucault for Dummies


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