Nick Cave Goes Underground – The New York Times


For an artist best known for “Soundsuits” that produce a variety of percussive effects when worn, Nick Cave’s public project, “Each, each, equal to all”, found a suitably noisy house in the New York subway.

Earlier this month, during a preview of the completed project, a saxophone echoed through the tunnels of Times Square and the 42 Street subway station, its sound almost overwhelmed by the clank and roar of trains. Here, the artist’s wearable works, which fuse dance with sculpture, have been dramatically transformed into mosaic tiles over nearly 4,600 square feet, at three nearby underground sites – the first phase was completed on last year – making it the largest such project to date in the New York City Transit System. (It was commissioned by MTA Arts & Design.)

I will admit that I was initially skeptical of how Cave’s wearable sculptures could effectively translate to glass mosaic. I once heard Cave tick off inspirations for a costume saying he was thinking of shapes for a miter (like a bishop might wear), a condom, and a klansman robe – disparate sources that suggest devotion and power, sex and care, hatred and terror. He has a knack for combining the eccentric and the mundane, the painful and the ugly, and making something joyful and beautiful on the other side.

Cave’s Soundsuits share the eerily relatable and friendly energy of Jim Henson’s Muppets, though the puppets had been influenced by the traditions of African dance, ballroom culture and New Orleans carnival. The variety of their textures and materials accounts for much of their power – from airy faux fur in a rainbow of colors to brown porcupine twig coats. This range of plumages and their changing visual and auditory characteristics are part of the reason why Soundsuits remain interesting 30 years on and several hundred copies later. In the Subway project, fur, sticks, hair extensions, sequins, buttons, embroidery, festive masks and even birds and flowers are wonderfully and convincingly achieved through the glasswork crafted by Franz Mayer from Munich.

This marks a great moment for the three-dimensional work of Nick Cave to appear in the two-dimensional urban public space. The unveiling at the Times Square-42nd Street station begins almost simultaneously with a major showing of Cave’s work in his hometown of Chicago. Video of a choreographed performance by his Soundsuits will light up the 2.5-acre facade of the building formerly known as Merchandise Mart (now known as “MART”), which sits in plain view of the other side of the Chicago River from the downtown loop. Also on May 14, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, opened “Nick Cave: For something else», his first career retrospective.

In New York, the underground spectacle is best started with “Every One,” the largest and first completed phase of the project, which opened in September 2021. Enter at 42nd Street—Bryant Park/Fifth Avenue Station and go to the deep B, D, F, and M trains to reach the new pedestrian tunnel to the Times Square Shuttle. As you ascend the stairs to the Connector, Cave characters appear in front and above you.

A clever perspective trick collapses the space between the catwalk and the Cave procession on the right wall. While most of the characters are rendered human-scale, a few of the more than two dozen are enlarged, so they seem to invade your space, as if you’re brushing past another commuter in your peripheral vision. In an extreme example, a torso fragment, just below the outstretched arms, spans approximately 20 feet. In the middle of the corridor, the procession is interrupted by a set of screens which broadcast every quarter of an hour a 3-minute video work showing the movements of dancers wearing the tiled Soundsuits on the adjacent walls.

I used to work in Midtown and took the commute often, but haven’t been back in years. The platform was unrecognizable to me, a vast improvement, with an art where before I only remembered the I-beams of corroded steel. Heading towards the exit under One Times Square, “Equal All” features a regiment of figures standing in orderly bays, composing a life-size catalog of some of Cave’s most notable sculptures translated into tilework, such as a bullseye face in feathered fur on top of a body. entirely covered with ivory colored buttons with red thread.

Two take the form of worn mobiles: in the first, the legs and the torso act as a tree trunk and a headdress wraps the rest of a set of branches inside which a porcelain bird aviary stands. is perched. In the second, the branching headdress contains a collection of metal spinning tops and old-fashioned noisemakers. Elsewhere, a figure resembles a humanoid bouquet of flowers. Another wears a costume made entirely of brown sticks, his head hidden inside a dark hole that looks like a periscope fashioned from a tree trunk. All tiled.

On the other side and near the exit to the skyscrapers and flashing lights of One Times Square, “Each One” picks up the horizontal movement of “Every One”, moving it vertically in a burst of kinetic energy. The MTA says the 14.5ft-tall mosaic mural references the falling New Year’s ball just above – but more concretely, ‘Each One’ prepares an outgoing rider for the sensory overload that awaits every other day of the year.

The Soundsuits appear to be in motion, creating visual vortices, spinning and rising or falling in various ways, conveying different weights and textures of character skins, and exaggerating the movements of the wearer. Even in facsimile tiles, they feel more alive than when I’ve seen the actual sculptures displayed on mannequins in the near-silence of museums and galleries.

How do they measure up to the many works of art in the New York subway? Near the sprawling Cave project, you can find “Times Square muraldepicting a futuristic cartoon subway car in Dick Tracy yellow, in a geometric tunnel that nods to Piet Mondrian. In enamelled porcelain, installed in 2002, it looks a bit like the modern art museum lent to the MTA. It’s big compared to a painting, even if in the context of a station it gets lost. The Cave project is much more effective in making its presence known.

His cheerful figures contrast with “The revellersa diffuse mosaic from 2008 by Jane Dickson along the Port Authority’s underground walkway at Times Square Station. His characters, both generic and idealized like characters from a Norman Rockwell painting, wear hats and hold horns also nodding at New Year’s festivities. But they don’t look much like subway riders and their celebration seems stuck in another time. Cave’s friendly monsters are otherworldly: there’s a natural kinship with the underground crowd in their ostentatious fashion and wanderlust anonymity. “Each One, Every One, Equal All” feels like a much needed correction, right at home amid the noise and abundance.


Each, each, equal to all: permanent installation by Nick Cave

Spanning Times Square-42nd Street and Bryant Park stations, and the 42nd Street shuttle connector.

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