At first glance, Nick Cave’s Until is a charm offensive: a crowd-pleasing, selfie-backdrop, colour-and-movement spectacle complete with accompanying gift shop, but there are tougher meanings here too. The Chicago-based artist and his studio team have filled the expansive spaces of Carriageworks with artworks ranging from epic material constructions and assemblages to kaleidoscopic filmed performance.
Light playing across their rotating surfaces creates optical illusions of changing colours and tones. It’s here that a darker register first appears, with shapes of guns, bullets, and tears gradually emerging alongside more innocuous stars and circles. Unarmed, 2016, is a bronze cast of Cave’s hand framed by a wreath of beaded flowers. Fingers curled around an absent gun, the hand’s horseshoe-shaped wreath is both funerary and cheery.
Tone-shifting continues in Crystal Cloudscape, 2015-2016. From below, its chandeliers and crystal beads are all camp excess. (It’s possibly better viewed at night to achieve true fabulousness). From above (a view gained by either climbing ladders or taking a lift to the top floor) it becomes clear that the work is a result of some next-level op-shopping. The profusion of repurposed ornaments and bric-a-brac begins to acquire a sharper, more critical tone as individual objects become apparent. Like his fellow collector, the Indigenous artist Tony Albert, Cave deploys kitsch knick-knacks to connect to the recent past and signal the bigoted legacy that in this installation literally hovers over our heads. Among the retro tchotchkes are ‘lawn jockeys’: grotesquely racist garden ornaments in the form of servile black men. Golden pigs nearby call back to Black Power anti-police graphics from the 1960s, a pointed reminder of the increasing presence of racism half a century on.
Beaded Cliff Wall, 2015-2016, is a gigantic double-layered piece hung around three sides, handcrafted from beads, shoelaces and netting. For Cave’s studio team to have realised the epic scale of this work using such fine motor skills is no small feat. (Why doesn’t the art world routinely credit all contributors like the film industry does?) Its rich individuation of forms speaks to this collective achievement more eloquently than the street slogans and symbols that were its partial inspiration.
Hy-Dyve, 2016, is where the spectacle finally drops the charm. It’s an uncompromising articulation of besieged, vulnerable, angry African-American male experience. Accompanied by vertiginous floor projections of swirling seas, filmed performances pattern the space. Cave’s unnervingly multiplied eye meets the viewer’s gaze through his performance mask; a one-legged blackface doll performs a thunderous, manic tap dance. A full-scale wooden structure is both diving platform and gallows, below performance costume and doll lie lifeless.
It’s enjoyable enough to skim the fun surfaces and patterns of Until and splash among the gleeful accumulations of forms and textures. But its purposeful anchor is Cave’s critique of racism and urgent call for understanding that resonates, all too strongly, with the Australian context Until currently occupies.
Nick Cave’s Until is part of the 2019 Sydney Festival.