The medium is the messenger for an artist about to take on New York's Grand Central Station

In the aftermath of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles, sculpture artist Nick Cave (not to be mistaken with Australian punk rocker of the same name) felt compelled to go to a park in Chicago, where he spent several hours collecting twigs. Cave later used those twigs to assemble his first Soundsuit, a full-bodied, wearable sculpture that disables viewers from perceiving race, gender or class. Despite the general color-brightness of his suits, “What drives the work is definitely a dark side,” says Cave on the phone from Copenhagen, where he is finishing up a show. More than two decades on, Cave’s suits still mask the wearer, but he admits that the burden of his inspiration has been “exorcised over time.”  

"How can I get myself into the public realm and bring in work that we need?"

Cave’s Soundsuits are now collected and curated internationally, and from March 25-31*, the Missouri-born and raised artist will stage his largest spectacle yet in a takeover of the halls of New York City’s Grand Central Station. Curated by the international public art impresarios at Creative Time, Cave will present Heard NY in one of the world’s busiest public arteries. The work will involve harpists, percussionists and several Alvin Ailey dancers dressed in Soundsuit horses. For the thousands of unknowing commuters, it will be a vision in Day-Glo.

“As people come into work and as they leave to go home, they are encountering an invasion,” Cave says. “It will somehow trigger something or change the rhythm in your routine.” Anatomically, Heard NY is a departure for Cave – while the Soundsuits are normally amorphous, human-like forms, Heard NY presents a group of horses formed by humans. During the performance, Cave says, the herd will split apart and evolve.

Nick Cave artist

Nick Cave with Soundsuit in his Chicago bedroom.

Nick Cave artist

At home in partial Soundsuit.

Heard NY first developed when Cave was in residence at North Texas State University, which commissioned him to work with students, a familiar task (he has been a professor and chair of Fashion Design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1990). For his work at there, Cave directed students from the music, art, and dance department, and staged the work on the university’s grounds.

“Once it was produced and developed there, it was ready to bring into the world,” says Cave. Last fall he was approached by Creative Time, and, after successful discussions with MTA Arts for Transit, “the work fell into place perfectly.” Despite his non-stop schedule, his voice remains as bright as his Soundsuits, which he fabricates with a team in Chicago, where he lives and works when he’s not touring with a show or in residence. 

Nick Cave

Soundsuit, 2012, mixed media.

Cave’s work increasingly exits the studio to engage with the public-at-large. “I’ve been thinking of myself as an artist with a moral responsibility,” says Cave. “How can I get myself into the public realm and bring in work that we need?” Public space is quickly becoming a preferred venue for international artists, with members of the public now serving as the great communicators, whipping out their cell phones at a moment’s notice if something is worth sharing. Whenever Cave stages his work publicly, video footage goes viral, ensuring that his ideas carry weight far beyond the initial venue.

"We are so consumed by holding onto our jobs. I want us to get back to the practice of imagination."

Cave also believes that his work can help return the public to a state of playfulness. “We need to get back to the dream-state. We need to think in an imaginary way. We are so consumed by holding onto our jobs,” he says. “I want us to get back to the practice of imagination.”

There is a lot left to chance with Heard NY, which could not be fully tested at Grand Central. Cave says that the moving fiber will animate the station, but the acoustics of the space are difficult to predict, which is why he thought a lot about how to “work between the brick and mortar,” staging horses throughout the station, not just in the grand hall, which, appropriately, has a Pegasus on the famous ceiling. The horses, he says, “will start rolling in like tumbleweeds.”

That thousands of routines will be broken because radiant horses are grazing in Grand Central Station is yet another example of Nick Cave’s artistic convictions. “I don’t think I’m an artist first anyway,” he says, his voice fluorescent. “I think I’m a messenger.”

*Heard NY took place at Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal March 25-31, 2013.