Nick Cave’s ‘Until’ startles to provoke change

The view under the crystal cloud in Until, surmounted by a garden of black-faced jockeys, asks if there is “racism in heaven.” Photo courtesy of MASS MoCA.
The view under the crystal cloud in Until, surmounted by a garden of black-faced jockeys, asks if there is “racism in heaven.” Photo courtesy of MASS MoCA.

Things don’t quite add up in Until, Nick Cave’s massive, darkly optimistic exhibition on view at MASS MoCA through next September. Maybe it’s because the things Cave discusses in his art — racism, violence, profiling — don’t quite add up, either. The exhibition title plays off one of the most sacred principles of our criminal justice system — presuming that a defendant is “innocent until proven guilty” — or, as we’ve seen too much of recently, “guilty until proven innocent.” Guilty of just being black in America, guilty of being unfamiliar, or different.

The exhibition begins by collapsing one’s perspective of the space, MASS MoCA’s football field-sized Building 5. You can’t see very far — there’s a forest of moving parts hanging from the ceiling, a wall of die-cut metal spinners that shine not piercingly, but with a warm glow. It’s as if the parts are used, personally assembled. And they were — each concentric shape of each spinner was lined up by hand, strung with airplane cable — each of the 14,000 dazzling, kinetic sculptures.

Walking through, what’s really fantastic is how these spinners twirl such that you get brief glints of colored light. They’re illusionistic, too, moving between flatness, when their images line up for a brief second, and 3D, when they take a spherical shape. The spinners surround you, spinning randomly. The effect is awesome, until you realize the spinners take the form of guns — guns that are threatening because they are hidden at first, because they are spinning and pointed on a whim, because they don’t seem to have a clear target, or a reason for being pointed.

Cave said he wanted Until to make visitors feel as if they were placed within one of his iconic Soundsuits, wearable sculptures that he began making in 1992 after the Rodney King incident. The Soundsuits came from Cave thinking about what it felt like to be profiled, and what he needed to do to protect himself. Made from feathers, beads and found objects, they celebrate material but also mask identity, camouflaging the body.

This idea echoes in the burnished spinners and mirrored floor extending from the entrance to the exhibition. Their surfaces are reflective, but only partially so. Your shape and form are there, but your identifying features are effectively distorted, blurred, gone. On the wall near the entrance, a pattern of dappled light is projected off the spinners and the metallic floor. It’s something of a stain, a splatter, something violent that reflects off the work. But walk further several feet, and the ground beneath you breaks, the metallic, semi-reflective tiling existing only in pieces now.

Cave’s work helps us look without judgment, concealing race, gender and class, identity, making us all “equal” for the time being. It’s refreshing, but scary to think about, too. Doesn’t that mean we, the viewers, are equally susceptible to the same treatment, maybe the same racism, the same violence? The spinner guns pointed at us certainly make us realize that.

We hold onto our identity because it defines us, but it’s upsetting when we realize it might privilege some of us and not others. Until asks the question: Do we want to be innocent until proven guilty, or guilty until proven innocent? Probably the former, but why do some get the latter? Masking one’s identity is a double-edged sword — there’s something about the mirrored floor, perhaps a metaphor for some system, being complete, then suddenly breaking — there’s no more reflection. A sense of self is gone, disarray in its place — Until asks us if we can be unique and treated equally.

Moving through the forest of metallic lawn ornaments, we are led to a magnificent, arresting crystal cloud — a garden laced with ceramic birds, wrought iron flowers and lawn jockeys, all floating on chandeliers interspersed with crystal garlands.

Cave began Until with a question: “Is there racism in heaven?” Definitions of heaven vary, but this cloud seems to embody one of them. Then again, things don’t quite add up. Once you scale the ladders to see the garden atop the cloud, you can see that the lawn jockeys are painted in black-faced caricature, with a stooping posture. These jockeys are found, likely from the Jim Crow era, but what’s scary is that they are still manufactured and sold. Fatted golden pigs — we’re past calves — symbolize the worst of our worshipped decadence, and hide among the garden. Tribal beads are woven into a thick tree trunk that divides the garden.

So it seems unfortunately that racism is alive and well in heaven, but a question still stands: Why would Cave try to make this image beautiful? Why make it something glittery, bright and breathtaking? Or, why would he want to imagine racism in heaven? Because maybe as good as it gets, as close as we think we are to “heaven” today, it still isn’t that good for some people.

There’s a steady hope in Until — Cave uses the lawn jockeys to take them out of circulation; here, they hold dream catchers, suppressed no longer. But there’s still tension in seeing the jockeys nestled in a cloud of crystal and ceramic Old South extravagance. It’s beautiful, but disturbing. From under the cloud, you can see through the garlands to the tribal beads. From above looking down, you can’t.

Perhaps Cave is hinting at a rich excess that shrouds our understanding of racism’s real threats, or perhaps he’s calling attention to how little we notice. Hearing of, and now seeing, African Americans repeatedly being killed in the streets for no reason — are we desensitized to the violence?

At this point, however, we are not even halfway through the exhibition. There is a considered spatial experience to Until, as we move through the works. Next up is a cliff wall of beads, more than 10 million of them, that form nets that echo the dream catchers wielded by the jockeys. The collective, handmade quality to this exhibition stands out here — Cave worked alongside a community of 22 studio assistants, MASS MoCA staff and interns over six weeks to make this important installation a reality.

An immersive video installation in the back gallery receives us next. It’s unclear what exactly is being projected on the walls but it is some sort of repeated, tessellated pattern — a kaleidoscope of eyes, hands, bodies, creatures. Loud clacking sounds permeate the room, and the figures on the wall morph into blackface puppets tap dancing in top hats. We avert our eyes uncomfortably — but why would art be harder to look at than society?

The puppets act like caryatids, holding up the height of the building, but precariously dancing faster and faster until suddenly the room floods and is projected with water. The room can stand for many things, but the question is if it will topple.

The exhibition continues up the stairs, where we pass by a simple, beautiful rainbow projected on the wall, created byshining a light on several CDs. Until concludes with a Mylar waterfall behind a comically small white picket fence, a quintessential American symbol going back to a not-so-proud colonial past. But Until does not end.

There is an irresolvable tension to all the work, a beauty that doesn’t feel right. Until is warm and inviting, but dangerous and provocative. The show frustrates me. But Until is not individual. Cave’s work asks us to come together, to think about why certain groups get an unfair share. The work eulogizes victims with its slow, sustained beauty — it is a hopeful platform for thinking about change, about putting an end to the absurd racism and violence in our country today.

Until doesn’t add up — yet.