At Mass MoCA, Nick Cave's "Until" is a challenge disguised as an invitation

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Photo Gallery | Nick Cave's 'Until' at Mass MoCA

NORTH ADAMS — Nick Cave's work is going to get your attention. When it works, it invites you into a world familiar but strange, but certainly a place you've never seen before and probably won't again. In "Until," which opens this weekend at Mass MoCA, as in much of his work, the point is to lure you into engaging with realities about how we get along that we may wish to avoid. It's a challenge disguised as an invitation.

"We want to like it, but we shouldn't like it," Cave said about what is his biggest and most elaborate work to date. "We want to embrace it, but we can't avoid the political undertones there It's just sort of messing with people. We want to turn our backs on issues, say they don't pertain to us, and that's what this moment is about. From the moment you enter the space, you are asked more of yourself."

Cave pulls out all the stops to pull you there. He has filled Building 5, the football field-sized gallery that is one of the largest sites for contemporary art in the world, with a dizzying amount of — well, stuff. The kinds of items you find in antique stores, flea markets, and craft shops, all gathered and concentrated as they've been tied, twisted, and hung together. For an artist whose most iconic work has been kinetic, body-sized costume sculptures, it is at once a departure and a continuation.

"It's all about excess, surplus, breaking things apart, renegotiating how things are used, and how they function," Cave said in an interview as he and his large team of assistants were busy unpacking, hanging, and tying the objects into the vast space.

This is the first work at Building 5 in a few years that has filled it in quite this way. Xu Bing's acclaimed Phoenixes — as large and elaborate as they were — were still singular objects in a vast space. Richard Nonas' "The Man in the Empty Space" was there most recently and was a quiet, minimalist meditation of wood and stone that included empty space as an important element.

But Cave is pushing the space to its limit. "Until" opens with a forest of reflective wind spinners — about 20,000 of them — hanging from the rafters, some attached to motors. Many are cut into shapes and geometric patterns, and in the first hint that something more serious is afoot, many are shaped into handguns, targets, and bullets.

There's more than a little element of shock and awe in that first moment, and Cave is clear from the start that he doesn't simply want to inspire a moment of quiet contemplation.

"I want people to come into this space and pull out their phones and take an image and text it," he said. "That becomes another kind of outreach, of getting the word out."

The center of the work is a space Cave calls the "cloudscape," a fantastic realm elevated high above the floor and accessible by stairs. Painstakingly crafted over the course of the summer in a basement at MoCA, the installation is a dense landscape of found objects — porcelain animals, artificial flowers, butterfly nets, chandeliers, and an assortment of black-face lawn jockeys.

Which gets straight to the heart of the issue. Cave said the entire work began when he was thinking about the enduring pattern of gun violence and racism, and the simple question, "is there racism in heaven?" The work's title is a play on the notion of "innocent until proven guilty," hanging on that liminal moment between deciding what we think about how we relate to one another.

At the far end of the gallery are vast curtains of beads, which Cave said were designed to suggest the view of distant mountains, covered with graffiti as if "nature was tattooed."

The entire gallery, along with two other works in separate rooms, is designed to be a living space. Cave said he hopes it will be something of a "community space," a nod to the performative aspect of much of his previous work. But he is also clear that he aims to create an immersive experience for individual visitors as well.

"Not only is this a space for social gathering, but it's also a space to come independently, to become sort of engulfed in this experience," he said. "I'd love to be here by myself, and just be consumed by the presence of it — deciding whether to be in the cloud, or in the landscape, or upstairs."

"There are all these moments you have to negotiate," he said. "When you have to decide where your body needs to be in this space. We're on this level now, but then you have the option of climbing 18 feet in the air. There are various perspectives."

The scale of this work is a new frontier for Cave. He was born and raised in central Missouri and trained as a dancer with the Alvin Ailey company. Dance and fashion were enduring interests, but his life's work came into focus in the early 1990s, when the videotaped beating of Rodney King by police reshaped the nation's conversation about race.

"I knew at that particular moment that I was an artist with a civic responsibility and consciousness," he said. "That's when everything shifted."

That led to his best known series of work, his "Soundsuits," a collection of elaborate costume-like sculptures that pull inspiration from everything from West African dance to New Orleans street performance to George Clinton. Each one considers how we present, and sometimes distort, our identity and presence in the world.

For years his Soundsuits were his signature work, but recently he began to experiment with more traditional kinds of art. Denise Markonish, curator at MoCA, saw one of his works at an art fair three and a half years ago — a lawn jockey holding a bunch of metal flowers. She reached out to Cave and asked if he would think about creating a work for Building 5, with the condition that there would be no Soundsuits.

"He was already in this moment of wanting to move away from that," Markonish said. "Not to deny the importance of it, but as an artist you can't get stuck in those moments. You have to evolve."

For a year Cave thought about the idea, and Markonish said he was up for the challenge.

"There's a good kind of overwhelmingness [about Building 5] that makes you really want to tackle it," she said.

Markonish said they have been very careful to keep images and information about the show close to the vest, to preserve a sense of surprise and excitement about the project.

"It's not a radical departure," Markonish said. "He's still using the materials he's always been using — found objects, beads. But its a new way of using them. In the past, when you saw an exhibition of Soundsuits you were in front of them. You could walk around them on a pedestal, but they were there. Even in performance they dance around you, but you aren't in them. Here you are an active part of it. You are inside it."

Cave said he sees the work as part of MoCA being a destination and there has been talk about organizing community engagement with the work. It comes at a time when the nation is gripped by questions and arguments about gun violence and racism — which rages from places like Ferguson, Chicago, Charlotte, and echoes even here in the Berkshires, which at the last census was 92 percent white.

"The issues within the work apply to all of us," Cave said. "It's not that we can turn our backs, and it's my responsibility to bring it wherever it needs to be."

And the questions will last.

"Why do we look at something that is so beautiful and so reflective and so immersive, and why does there become this heaviness, this burden attached to it?" Cave asked. "That's how we live in the world."


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