I needed this. That’s what I told myself as I walked into the Park Avenue Armory on Wednesday, June 6, to see the premiere of performance artist Nick Cave’s newest installation: The Let Go.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew that there would be music and, obviously, dance, considering Cave’s background as a dancer for Alvin Ailey. I knew that he would utilize his famous, colorful “soundsuits” as part of the performance, but I had no idea what I was in for when I entered the spacious, grand facility to witness a show that was one part Black Lives Matter, one part surrealism and one part church revival.
Welcome to Antisocial, the society column for people afraid of society—namely, those of us with social anxiety disorders, like me. I went to Cave’s exhibit (which runs at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City through July 1) looking for something I didn’t know I needed.
From watching the construction of Cave’s soundsuits to a performance told entirely through song and movement, I was mesmerized by the use of color, light and some very active Mylar streamers to tell a story of what it means to be black today in America.
At the exhibit June 6, I chatted with Cave—a fellow Missourian and a graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute—about his creation.
He pretty much sums up himself, the performance—everything—in two words after I ask him how he’s doing: “I’m fabulous,” Cave says with a smile.
“When this project came about, politically what was going around the country [were] all of these town halls,” Cave said. “Communities were looking for venues and places to speak their mind and have a point of view that could be heard. A town hall.”
With this inspiration, Cave set out to create his own town hall-meets-dance hall at the armory.
“How can I sort of look at this venue as another place to express oneself?” he asked. “And then I thought about [how] I wanted to do that through dance. So there is no verbal communication [in The Let Go]. It’s safe. It doesn’t hurt you. And you can work out those frustrations, the animosity, through movement on the dance floor, and dance has always been my savior. When I need to let go, dance was everything. You can work it out. That’s what I created here.”
If you witness The Let Go and pick up on the political undertones—a chorus of black people enter with their hands up, various individuals remove their “street” clothes, as if shedding an identity, to become living art in the form of the soundsuits—all of this was by design.
“The original soundsuit came out of the Rodney King incident in ’92,” Cave said. “[It was] me trying to come to terms with that situation that was really the first time that we were able to showcase the violence that has been going on in this world for years. That was the first time we were able to take that [camera] and document that moment. It rebuilt everything.
“As s black male, I was struggling with what does it feel like to be discarded, less than, dismissed. I was in the park one day trying to process what I was feeling, trying to understand my place in the world as a black male, and I saw a twig—discarded, less than, dismissed—and proceeded to collect all these twigs in the park.”
Cave would construct a piece of art from the twigs but didn’t realize he’d made an outfit until he put it on.
“An alternative way to protest was through this armor. A suit of armor, something to protect me, yet it hid gender, race and class,” said Cave, adding that the soundsuit allows “for the viewer to look at me without judgment.”
“When you are confronted with this hybrid, this unfamiliar object, being, that’s larger than life, then you have to somehow, how do you come up to that?” Cave said. “How do you open yourself up to ask who are you, what are you and why are you here?”
Cave’s The Let Go is the political as the personal, the personal as movement, light, sound and art. One of the highlights is what he calls “the Chase,” two 40-foot-high, 11-foot-long Mylar-streamer curtains that move and “occupy the entire space.” The streamers go from red, black and green, followed by blue, black, blue, black, symbolizing the oft fraught and deadly relationship between African Americans and the police.
Of “the Chase,” Cave says, “Either you’re in it, getting out of the way or dancing with it.”
The construction of a soundsuit, if Cave is working with three assistants, takes about three weeks to a month to complete, and the development of The Let Go started more than a year ago, when Cave was first invited by the Park Armory.
As much as this project is about movement, the personal and the political, for Cave this project was also about location, location, location. The vastness and scale of the Park Armory lent itself to something larger than life.
“Why would someone travel here and what does that mean? If it was reverse and I was traveling here to see a project, it better be fucking spectacular,” Cave said, later adding, “The space is so vast that it’s wide open and it’s inviting in that sort of capacity. Just being here in the armory, the Park Armory, and being in that space is so extraordinary and liberating because of the scale and the vastness of it. ... If I was here every day, I would come here snd sit for two hours because the sound is so meditative and calming, and yet you’re sort of surrounded by vivid color and visceral texture. Motion.”
Cave invites all to “surrender” to the space, to “take it all in.” His vision—which he was sure would not be “tampered with or diluted in any way whatsoever”—is a fully realized experience, an immersive experience that each viewer will leave with a different takeaway.
And Cave had only one question for me before I wandered into The Let Go:
“Are you ready to dance?”