Nairne Clark Hopkinson
Cave's latest project asks, 'Is there racism in heaven?'
In what is no doubt his most ambitious work to date, Nick Cave sets out to challenge us with a charged question: is there racism in heaven?
The question came to the Chicago artist in late 2014, a year marked by the senseless murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson USA. At just 18 years old, today Brown is only one of many names on a growing list of African Americans lost to racially-charged police brutality; Sarah Bland, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Alton Sterling, Erica Harris, Trayvon Martin. These are the names we recognise for all the wrong reasons; these are the names chanted at countless protests and Black Lives Matter (BLM) rallies; and these are the names that weighed heavy on Cave’s mind when he created Until. In a Carriageworks interview, Cave explains how he pondered racism in his Chicago studio, “if it’s here, is it there?” At his “wits end”, the title of Until is inspired by the concept that you can either be innocent until proven guilty, or guilty until proven innocent.
Cave’s first European exhibition, Until is a bold contemporary installation piece held in Tramway in Pollokshields. After nearly three decades of work inspired by the personal and social impact of racism, Until is a crowning, poignant experience, a kaleidoscope of sound, movement, colour, and power.
Until is an immense work of sensory tapestry, woven with images of gun violence and countless found objects that narrate racism in America. 16,000 whirligigs on 1,800 mobiles surround anyone who steps into the exhibit in a kinetic garden of sound, light, and colour. The deeper you step into Until, the more you notice - like the countless gun and bullet shapes spinning around the room. This enchanted forest both surrounds and captures you, with at least one gun constantly spinning to aim at you, visitors to Until are constantly reminded of the place that gun violence holds in contemporary society. While the spiralling targets above me are temporary, for Cave and other people of colour, they’re a staple of the everyday in a system that has remained complacent with zero accountability, which buries the names of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Yvette Smith and Aiyana Jones. Cave tells Carriageworks, “The reality is, I’m living in a world where the colour of my skin is a threat.”
The pony beads, ordinarily used in braiding of African American hair, were handwoven in their millions over 18 months to blanket every wall of Until. The beauty is truly in the details of the beaded walls, spelling out "POWER" across from a wall of peace symbols, rainbows, and pink triangles. All of these reinstate Cave’s engagement with any community who have suffered an institutionalised injustice, and wondered if heaven will offer them a true respite. Until unites them all and calls to mind Cave’s own mantra, “Do I become a victim, or do I become part of a bigger sort of cause?”
Impossible to ignore, heaven is in the middle of the exhibit. With 10 miles worth of crystals leading you up to 24 chandeliers hovering a few feet off the ground, this great glittering gigantism dominates the room. Cave isn’t just allowing us to ponder racism in heaven, he’s going to show us. Climb the bright yellow stairway to heaven and there, nested atop the twinkling cloud, high above the field of spinning guns and floating bullets, is Cave’s Garden of Eden. And there, right in front of you, is a "Jacko" style lawn decoration, styled in Crow-era caricature. Stark and unmistakable, to the untrained eye, is Cave telling us that yes, racism exists in heaven? But Cave has made this caricature his own, replacing the lantern in its hand with an elaborate dreamcatcher net. The original "Jacko" folklore follows an African American boy who served George Washington during the American Revolution. During a night where Jacko was sent into the freezing cold to hold a lantern for the horses, he froze to death, and was immortalised in a figure of perfect servitude therefore after. Charged to stand in countless gardens, always holding that lantern. Until now. Where on earth these decorations would have been part of a racist tradition, up here they’re free, high above the gun paraphernalia, overlooking the whole exhibit. Until gives these figures what they never had on Earth - freedom and justice from the racism that froze the lantern into their hands. If there’s one thing to take away as you descend back down the stairway from heaven, it’s that, Cave says, “the exhibit is all about optimism.”
Before you leave, don’t miss Cave’s own hand, a cast-iron sculpture in lieu of a signature. The hand is poised, but the weapon is missing; instead of a gun, Cave’s arm is inverted, surrounded by flowers. The posed hand with its finger trigger-ready is no longer violent, Cave has made it into a beckoning gesture, “calling to the community to not just produce elegies, but to call for action”.
Deeply layered, deeply emotional, visitors to Until will see what they choose. Will you skim through, see only the glitter and gold? Or will you venture further and challenge your perceptions of freedom, of justice, of history? Nick Cave doesn’t believe in heaven, but he does believe that he has created a space that is “something other than what we know to be… here.”Until by Nick Cave is free to visit and open until 25 November at Tramway, Pollokshields Glasgow.