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On Exhibit: Soundsuits


By Bethania Palma Markus

Published Jan 1, 2010 9:05 AM


When Fowler Museum director Marla Berns '73, M.A. '76, Ph.D. '86 first saw artist Nick Cave's Soundsuits on exhibit in San Francisco, she was awed and knew they were destined for Los Angeles.

Cave's brightly colored Soundsuits are made from materials like twigs, human hair, buttons, beads and metal odds and ends. They often stand well over the height of an average person, and some cover the face and head completely. To many, they may look like creatures from a strange, fascinating and beautiful dimension. To others, they might echo ritual African traditions, with a modern edge.

The traveling exhibit, Meet Me at the Center of the Earth, organized by San Francisco-based Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, will bring 35 of the artist's creations to UCLA's Fowler Museum in January.

"I was just staggered by their creativity and their uniqueness," Berns says, "the ways he's combined materials, and the artistry of how the suits are produced."

Berns describes the pieces as inter-disciplinary, reflecting Cave's background in art and fashion design. He also trained in contemporary dance with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the nation's premier modern dance ensembles. So while some of the suits are meant for exhibit only, others can actually be danced in.


When worn, they produce sounds resembling anything from wind rushing over wheat fields to dozens of tin cans tumbling and banging together at once.

But novel beauty aside, Cave's Soundsuits have special relevance for Los Angeles, Berns says. Cave, a Missouri native, first came up with the idea for the Soundsuits on the heels of the Rodney King beating.

The infamous, videotaped beating of the African-American King by a group of white Los Angeles police officers and their subsequent acquittal, which sparked the massive L.A. riots, made him think of his identity as an African-American man and drove him to create his first Soundsuit.

"The artist became acutely aware of how people are judged based on how they look," Berns explains. "So by creating art that completely transformed him, he could move beyond those types of stereotypes and prejudices. That makes the Soundsuits particularly relevant to L.A."

Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth. Jan. 10-May 30, 2010. Fowler Museum. Admission is free. For more information, call (310) 825-4361 or visit