Preview: Nick Cave's Soundsuits Fill SAM with Exquisite Color, Craft and Curiosity

Crocheted potholders, vintage tin tops, stripey wool sweaters, pipe cleaners, sequins, hooked rugs, porcelain birds, god's eyes, Beanie Babies, synthetic hair, candy wrapper chains, unfurled cassette tapes and a million white pearl buttons. Such are the materials of Nick Cave's delicious madness, on view starting today at SAM in the stunning exhibit, "Meet Me at the Center of the Earth." You might be familiar with Cave's otherworldly "soundsuits," as SAM has had two in its collection for some time, usually positioned near the African art exhibit, recalling as they do ceremonial African costumes. But they also bring to mind haute couture, Liberace, imaginary monsters and magical realism. Seeing more than 50 of these suits on display—some on long white runways resembling fashion show catwalks—makes you feel as if you've just stumbled into the most fabulous cocktail party every thrown.

Though Cave says his first soundsuit (made of draped twigs) was inspired by watching the Rodney King beatings (he wanted to create an "ogre" suit to represent the image the LA police painted of King and other black men involved in the riots), most of the works on display inspire joy—largely because of Cave's inspired use of the flea-market-found objects sewn onto the garments. The suits consume the wearer to the point of obliterating gender, race and class—a very deliberate aim of Cave's design. At the preview, when asked about the suits' phallic shape, Cave answered that it comes from klan outfits, condoms, missile heads and bishop's mitres. (You get the idea.) But the artist was also adamant that his inspiration for and thoughts about the suits need not affect the viewer's interpretation in the least.

What amazed me most (and there are so many amazements) while walking through the show was that not only do these suits appear fun and funny and mysterious and wondrous, they're also made to be worn—which means they're crafted to hold up under actual movement. Local dancers (from Cornish and Spectrum Dance) will in fact be testing them out this evening at SAM, as well as at Friday night's REMIX event. And watch for guerilla "soundsuit invasions" around the city when you least expect it.

A note to those thinking they "get the basic idea" from the press photos around town: no, you don't. You simply have no idea how glorious these artworks are until you're standing right up next to them, spellbound.

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