Portrait

US artist Nick Cave's dance performance HEARD at QAGOMA. By Samuel Wagan Watson.

American artist Nick Cave

It was during one of those perfect Brisbane afternoons and the prickly heat of summer was not yet a distraction. I was part of a group of people being ushered into a rehearsal theatre on the bend of Brisbane’s cultural precinct, and through the thick glass a high-river gifted us winkles of quicksilver kisses.

In a far corner of a cavernous studio, three hand drummers were readying their upper limbs, opening and closing fists, flexing and flailing. In the opposing corner, 50 or so young dancers, dressed in black T-shirts and shorts, were assembling. Now, I don’t pretend to know anything about the aesthetics of contemporary movement other than what I perceive: that the noise and vibrational output of a focused dancer is the centrifuge of the dance.

A team of choreographers and curators sat at a podium and without as much as a nod the percussionists began. Loud, rhythmical and wild hand-beats erupted with dancers exploring the floor. A large physical spiral formed, of bodies circling each other in beautifully uniformed chaos. The beats arose and calmed, reminiscent of cowbells, the trampling of beasts. Some of the dancers joined, a leading head and a forceful rear becoming perfectly capable centaurs. An uncanny portrait of equine language was being shared between couplets, singles stopping to graze, others cantering in full flight. Some feet gracefully peeled from the polished timber floor while some elected to pound their wake, adding to the guise that actual animal instincts were being deployed.

Finally the spirals levelled and the drumming reached a staccato and fell. Wild beasts lost their momentum and dispersed. Several fought for, what seemed, a primal urge to have to stop. A lone couplet pranced into the centre and briefly gallant held their ground before the deviation of human form once again possessed them.

What I’d witnessed was the physical component of HEARD, the brainchild of Chicago-based dancer and fabric sculptor Nick Cave. (No, the other Nick Cave...) After a fly-by-night presence in Australia, Nick and his team were preparing to head back to Chicago, entrusting HEARD•BNE to Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, where it has found a permanent stable.

The acquisition of HEARD coincides with GOMA’s 10th birthday celebrations in December. As a young policy officer working in the Queensland arts portfolio more than a decade ago, I was privy to the battles that were waged in parliament about this institution, built by a state that could have used the money on other infrastructure. Conservatives wanted more mines, and roads to those mines; not galleries for modern art. Ironically, an original acquisition in the rear court of GOMA is a life-size sculpture of a pachyderm giving a bow of respect to a minute kuril – the small water rat indigenous to this bend of the river. For decades the creature was thought extinct but the rejuvenation of the area has allowed the rodent’s return. The excessive commission for the piece had for some time overshadowed the opening of the institution. Gentrification will continue to overshadow this part of town. Hardly any of the old school of West End’s artistic community can afford to live in the “End” any longer. The curators and patrons of the gallery deserve this birthday celebration.

What is unique about Nick’s work are the “soundsuits” designed to take the noise of human movement to another level – force majeures on the senses of both artists and audience, this performance of the horse. Nick was born in central Missouri and attributes so much of his creative devices to his single mother who kept him and his siblings together in meagre surrounds. “My mother believed in happiness in the home, and creativity…”

Nick tells his story in gentle but complex tones, in collages, as his mother had encouraged him to do as a child: collection of memory and found objects. Nick is a graduate of Michigan’s prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art. He was also the only person of colour out of more than 400 students. “I found myself escaping to Detroit on weekends … to find me again.” GOMA is situated at the end of Montague Road, which has relics of a former industrial influence in South Brisbane, like Detroit on a smaller scale, urban degradation and renewal.

It is fitting that some of his soundsuits have residency here. In one of GOMA’s larger halls, a diligent team of curators quietly tweak stylised horses firmly propped up on wooden stands. The suits seem robust, composites of coloured straw, fabric, wires and twine. So why horses?

As much as the suits are a mixture of mediums, the metaphor behind HEARD is a reflection of human race, individual and collective struggles intertwined. “When HEARD was commissioned I wanted to reflect the transaction of people in Grand Central Station,” says Cave, “… how our demeanours and interaction works … like the horses, people circle and break … go to their jobs. My mother once put a sock over her hand and taught me how to dream. People don’t dream anymore, and for me dreaming is optimism, dreaming is the future.”

Each of the intricate soundsuits represents a nation. From the ears to the snout the adornment, almost burka-esque when worn, is symbolic of the mental blinkers many of us wear on a daily basis. The last gallant steed left in the circle of dancers is the iconic “Rainbow”, grazing and defiant. “Rainbow is the hero who can bring us all together … He is also all of the isms in our society.”

Tomorrow Nick and his team leave, going back to an old America under the rise of a new political realm; but a realm maybe not that new to some? “What I try to find in my work is how you stand up to fearlessness … That is what drives me.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 26, 2016 as "The horse whisperer". Subscribe here.

Samuel Wagan Watson
is a Brisbane-based writer and poet. His latest collection is Love Poems and Death Threats.