- Meet Me at the Center of the Earth by Nick Cave
Meet Me at the Center of the Earth omits the standard guideposts that lead us through an exhibition. In the absence of identifying labels for individual works and any designated order, the viewer is set free to meander.1 With the standard organizing structure thus suspended, we immediately feel pulled in by the irresistible attraction and festive elation of Nick Cave's playfully imaginative and intricate designs.
Part of the curiosity, pleasure, and laughter comes from seeing ordinary misplaced or discarded objects reused by the artist to make something new and shiny and beautiful. Cave is an avid collector of disposable and recycled items, which constitute the material basis of his creations. In this regard there is a strong connection with the materiality of El Anatsui's sculptures: for example, Cave's buttons correspond to Anatsui's bottle caps.2 Only in retrospect, however, do we begin to understand the parallel that Cave proposes between leftover things (one wall text has the heading "Leftovers as Lifesavers") and leftover human beings. Just as discarded things can be recovered and validated, so the humanity of discarded people can be redeemed and uplifted by acts of artistic re-creation.
In Seattle the celebratory exuberance of Cave's art reached its height in the final room of videos at the end of the central artery of galleries. Here, in free-form choreography, figures in bedazzling costumes leaped in flying postures as though completely unrestricted. This festive release in an airborne medium is directly traceable to Cave's professional experience as a member of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.3 In the cross-media transfer of dance techniques to Cave's artistic creation of soundsuits, we enter the presence of the artist.
Yet how are we to find the center where the title Meet Me at the Center of the Earth invites us to gather? And how can we locate the artist, the specific "me" that the title encourages us to expect? It was deep in the exhibition, in a remote side gallery displaying the very first soundsuit made of twigs, that I found the center where my meeting with the artist began.4 Direct quotations from Cave shift from the overall joyous tone toward a somber mood that reveals a different side of the artist. In the context of this room, Cave explicitly refers to his work as both "political" and "dark."
The emotional force of Cave's statements come in part from their representing an originating moment, a starting point for the artist that indicates his personal investment, what is at stake for him in the work. Even more evocative is their extraordinary imagistic resonance, because the twig soundsuits bring us back down to earth, quite literally to "the center of the earth," our meeting place with the artist. We move from a vertical axis that rises upward into the heights to a plunging verticality toward rock bottom. Cave's account focuses on what he calls "a traumatic emotional experience for me" — the video clip of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1991.5
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Both the political problem and the artistic response are registered in downward vectors. Cave notes with horror the amount of pressure needed to crush King and to keep him flattened: "It took six men to bring him down." On the same ground Cave finds a resource to create new energy to oppose this routine exercise in the imposition of systematic dominance. He recounts that while sitting in a park, he looked down and saw these twigs on the ground. The location of the twigs corresponds to the ground on which King lay, and from the same ground Cave draws the humble material with which to lift the spirit. Using the twigs to construct a sculpture, Cave realizes that the object can become a suit: "The moment...