Last Week a Soundsuit Saved My Life

Last week was rough.

After the marathon, everything felt surreal. As I sat at my desk overlooking Dewey Square, I found it difficult to go about my daily business with bomb squads in and out of Greenway shrubbery and armored vehicles blocking off roads by South Station. I watched as police shooed pedestrians from the area and wondered from my Ivory Tower if I should be fleeing the scene as well. While my week on edge pales in comparison to what others have had to endure, this perpetual state of high anxiety and disrupted sleep certainly took a toll on me.

..and then I remembered a bright spot on my calendar, Nick Cave was coming to the Peabody Essex Museum.


I put an unreasonable amount of stock in last Thursday’s PEM/PM, but I needed something to look forward to; something to help me forget. And after missing Cave’s Soundsuits in Grand Central this past March, I made it a point to structure my April around this fortuitous occasion.

For those unfamiliar, Nick Cave is a fabric sculptor, dancer, and performance artist who creates “Soundsuits” that are concisely described by Wikipedia as “wearable fabric sculptures that are bright, whimsical, and other-worldly”.

However, beneath the electrifying plumage and bravado of Cave’s creations, the origins of the series actually stem from a somber and reflective place:

“Cave created his first Soundsuit in 1992 from twigs he spotted lying on the ground in a Chicago park. It was his response to the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department. The twigs looked discarded, just like he felt as an African-American man, and he felt compelled to show they had value.” (via)

Since its first incarnation, the artist has gone on to create larger-than-life outfits from found materials including dyed hair, toys, figurines, rugs, discarded items from Ru Paul’s closet, buttons and sequins; forever scouring flea markets and thrift stores for “one weird thing” that provokes possibility.

Desperate for my own suit of armor to shield me from the onslaught of negativity, noise and uncertainty that streamed from the television, I welcomed this momentary escape through the looking glass.

When I entered the museum, I immediately subscribed to the sounds of Cave’s tribal beats, finding myself lost in the sights and caught up in the swell. I looked down to see a young boy skittering past in a homemade costume, flailing white tail in tow, and overheard an onlooker’s explanation that the child’s father was one of the costumed performers for the evening. So naturally, the son wanted a suit of his own.

As I put my reservations about flailing children on hold, I continued to embrace the atmosphere unfolding before me; falling in love with my surroundings. The outside world didn’t seem to matter. Soundsuit creatures hung over balconies, shaking their shaggy heads to the beat, and attendees swirled around in clasped handed circles to the sounds of primal drumming that managed to drive out the nagging thoughts of my worried mind.

I was in Heaven. After taking in the scene, my better half and I made our way upstairs to the related Freeport exhibit. Along the way I was nudged by a shimmying snuffaluffagus, an interaction which strangely felt natural by this point, who quickly darted ahead and disappeared into the gallery.

Upon entering, we were greeted by three inhabitant-less Soundsuits. Constructed with Cave’s signature eclectic flair, these pieces became even more beautiful once I had the chance to examine them close-up without the threat of “boo!”. Painstakingly ornate and finely crafted, I looked upon these creations with a reverence normally reserved for Rodin.

As I, and those around me, tried to capture an achingly artsy cellphone picture of the suits, a throng of fluffy creatures galloped past, heading towards the far corner of the room where a performance was about to begin. In front of a video screen that displayed an array of costumed dancers, who through the magic of technology seemed to multiply and divide on a whim, I spotted the tailed boy from earlier prancing around with his enchanted counterparts. As if by effortless improvisation, the swirling suits undulated like waves that crashed into a spectrum of colors once another performer was near, coalescing to form an even larger species than before. All rolling, running and playing to the rhythm of a mesmerizing beat; the crowd was transfixed.

Once the performers had finally dispersed, I headed back downstairs to queue to meet Cave.

When introducing myself to people I admire, I always hope they live up to the unrealistic hype I’ve assigned to them in my head. Fortunately for my tender psyche, the artist delivered.

I’d like to think my approach was a bit more polished than the time in college I told Rufus Wainwright I loved him since I was a fetus, but I wanted to convey to Cave how thankful I was that he came to the Boston area–at this moment, during this trying time. But of course, I couldn’t end it there. I also had to mention the fact that I first learned of his suits a few years ago, not from a museum, but from some friends in DC who designed a bathroom in their home (The Nick Cave Bathroom™) to celebrate his work.

To which Nick (we’re friends now) exclaimed, “Oh my! What exactly goes on in the Nick Cave bathroom?


I don’t know if it was the WC dedication, or my heartfelt thanks, but Nick was unbelievably warm and gracious to girl no.18 of 500 in line. And I could see in his face that he truly understood how therapeutic his visit had been for so many people.

As we celebrated the suits, I think we were all celebrating each other in a way–embracing the good in the world. We were able to spend an evening blissfully unaware of a citywide lockdown that would later cause us to question the safety of a morning’s dog walk. Within the sanctuary of the PEM, the Soundsuits provided the perfect reprieve from a week-long onslaught of “wrong place wrong time” stories–allowing each of us to catch our breaths and, even if just for a moment, feel as though we were finally in the right place at the right time.

“The arts are our salvation—the only thing that allows us to heal and also helps us dream about what will make the world a better place.”

FreePort [No. 006] is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through May 27th, 2013. Learn more about the exhibition here. Learn more about Nick here. ♥

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