Something to Hold Onto
The Let Go
June 7 – July 1, 2018
In Constance Rourke’s 1931 American Humor: a Study of the National Character, the writer and folklorist presents America as an itinerant nation in search of an identity. Amidst this apparent flux, she identifies three distinct American archetypes: the Yankee peddler, the frontiersman, and the blackface minstrel. Each member of “the trio,” she argues, wears a mask for his own protection. He allows his social superior to think he is deferential and submissive; through this masquerade, he gains some degree of freedom and power.
Nick Cave is no stranger to these characters: for over twenty years, the multidisciplinary artist has studied self-presentation and self-preservation—the masks we wear, what they hide, and what they reveal. He is best known for his wearable sculptures, known as Soundsuits. Built from found objects—wire, sisal, dyed human hair, plastic ornaments—these towering costumes fully conceal those who wear them. Though the pieces resemble African ceremonial attire—Nigeria’s Afikpo masks, Liberia’s Vai Sande Society’s raffia skirts—their roots are distinctly American: Cave built his first Soundsuit in response to the beating of Rodney King. That rudimentary costume—made of sticks and twigs—served, for Cave, as a sort of armor, a dual bulwark against violence and racism.
In his latest project The Let Go, which debuts at the Park Avenue Armory this June, Cave reinforces costume’s power to transform. The series features artist talkbacks, a fashion-forward “Freedom Ball,” and movement “activations.” For this last component, more than ninety community groups descend on the space each day, including yoga instructors, hula hoopers, and line dancers. Its centerpiece, though, is “Up Right,” Cave’s signature Soundsuit performance, a full-evening work with choreography by Cave and Francesca Harper, in collaboration with Cave’s special projects director Bob Faust.
To enter the Wade Thompson Drill Hall for “Up Right,” patrons must first pass the Armory’s first-floor galleries; peppered among the elk heads, grandfather clocks, and battalion silver are the deconstructed materials for the Soundsuits, piled onto foam blocks and dollies. Inside the drill hall, though, is a scaled-up scene: rainbow streamers cascade from two looping tracks. As these Mylar strands, which the production team refers to as “The Chase,” slink across the drill hall, they are beautiful but also threatening—on a collision course with passing patrons. This is intentional: the disco curtains double as a metaphorical nod to minorities being chased by police. Those bold enough to hover in their path, though, are enveloped in a lush, electric rain forest; Cave is masterful at rewarding confidence in the face of fear.
For such a high-gloss space, “Up Right” has an unassuming start: a single keyboard player launches into a light classical tune—enough to make you sway but not knock you off your feet. Then come the voices—echoes that quickly become roars. An entire youth choir spills into the drill hall, their hands pointedly raised, singing the phrase “walking home.” Vy Higginsen’s Sing Harlem Choir members set the tone for the evening: though “Up Right” might look like a disco celebration, it does not shy away from questions of racial inequality, gun violence, and police brutality.
The next shock is more subtle: a man emerges from a cluster of audience members, his raised arms mirroring the young adult’s. He’s easy to miss in the cavernous hall, and a skeptical patron might momentarily take him for one of their own, now a rogue interrupter. It soon becomes clear that the man does not wander solo; Twelve men march towards the stools that punctuate the stage. They peel off their street clothes—flared jeans and a silky tie dyed shirt for one, sweats for another, plaid for a third—to reveal a uniform of black shorts and tank tops. Stripped of their distinct styles, the men speak to the relationship between uniformity and deindividualization. On the one hand, this assumed outfit strips the performers of their personal styles. On the other, it provides a clearer sense of what unites them: they are all men—specifically, men of color.
Unlike Cave’s static exhibitions, “Up Right” guides patrons through the construction of the Soundsuits and, in turn, the transformations of the men they envelop. Twelve attendants in lab vests and gloves aide this process. When they enter the drill hall, pushing the disassembled soundsuits on dollies, they turn the space into a costume shop of sorts, each spotlight circle now a workstation. These men and women proceed to dress the men; they rifle through the wisps of hair, the straw-like skirts, the plastic knick-knacks.
There’s a private nature to what audiences witness in “Up Right.” Near the back of the drill hall, for instance, one of the attendants tenderly lays her hands on her charge’s shoulders, assessing her work. He rests his hands on her shoulders before stepping into a floor-length skirt. These exchanges—light touches, silent check-ins—thread a more nuanced, emotional narrative through what is, on its surface, an extravagant scene. The choir, too, joins this gentle support. In breakout groups, they congregate around each of the men for a minute or two, waving their hands and rocking their bodies as if blessing the transformation process.
As the attendants transform the men into living sculptures, the bodies beneath the materials shift in and out of focus. One must scan for a glimpse of skin and bone—a resting hand, the top of a head; when found, these body parts become all the more visible and, at the same time, out of place among the wire rings and beaded layers. Even when the Soundsuits cover these slivers of humanity, though, the sheer hulking mass of the costumes are a reminder of who they protect. When the attendants roll their bare dollies out of the drill hall, they leave behind twelve men masked as colorful glaciers.
With headdresses resembling a platter-sized dream catcher, beaded basketball mesh, and a small white Christmas tree—how can one move in such armor? The transformation from skeleton to Soundsuit is a structural wonder; the second trick of the performance is the men’s transformation from static sculptures to pulsing, breathing, dancing titans. Like elders at a summit, the men march across the vast stage; as they pass one of their counterparts, he, too, joins the group, until all twelve men walk in unison. The singers, gathered at the center of the room, give voice to the men in the suits: “when you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark,” they sing. “You’ll never walk alone.” There’s a distinct intensity here: when the men start to shout and then sprint—still in their Soundsuit armor—they call to mind one of the Armory’s military drills. There’s a sense of urgency, of warning in their voices and movements.
There’s also a sense of joy. The Soundsuits are protective, yes, but they are also somewhat liberating. In them, the men’s appearance is obscured—their race, height, any features that breed hate or insecurity. They depart from the drill hall only after twirling, shaking, and skipping across the performance space, which they have turned into a runway (in one of The Let Go’s more overt homages to ball culture). The choir, too, backs this energy shift: they clap and sing, transforming the space into a gospel church, before departing the space like a cheer squad after a season win. These associations reinforce the place masks have in American culture.
Though it has been nearly ninety years since Rourke published her study of American popular culture, her claims are still trenchant. Masks hide and masks reveal; playfulness is a powerful tool; independence is accessible, if one knows how to construct it. Cave’s The Let Go does not merely echo this narrative; rather, it builds on it. In Cave’s world, those who wear masks do so alongside peers and allies: they may fall into the tradition of pioneering rebels, but they never walk alone.