“I thought about what it was like to be dismissed and discarded,” Nick Cave said recently when speaking at the University of New Mexico
Show of ‘Necessary Force’ Takes on Authority
BY MEGAN KAMERICK
I first discovered artist Nick Cave’s soundsuits at an exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. I was charmed but also mystified. These elaborate creations engulf the wearer in wildly colorful, playful, elaborate and bizarre decoration. What fun! Back then I had no idea that Cave first created these suits in response to Rodney King.
Video of the brutal beating of King by the Los Angeles police was a catalyst for the 1992 LA riots. And the experience was an epiphany for Cave. “I thought about what it was like to be dismissed and discarded,” Cave said recently when speaking at the University of New Mexico. That sense of vulnerability was what drove him to create his first suit entirely of twigs, signifiers of objects discarded.
The suit is one of the primary images of “Necessary Force: Art in the Police State,” which is on exhibit now at the UNM Art Museum. While the actual twig suit isn’t in the show, it’s faithfully represented by a high-resolution photo, and another of Cave’s elaborate suits is there. Each suit conceals race, gender and class, forcing viewers to look without judgment, Cave said.
The show’s curators, Kymberly Pinder and Karen Fiss, offer numerous reminders that Ferguson and Baltimore are merely the latest in a long string of tragedies emanating from what they see as a continuing police state in America. “As historians, we very much wanted to show this is a continuous history,” says Pinder, dean of the UNM School of Art and interim director of the museum. “It’s not something brand new, even though the news leads us to believe that many issues coming out now are just from three years ago.”
To reinforce this idea, the exhibit contains familiar photos of the civil rights movement by Danny Lyon and Charles Moore. One in particular, “The Line,” is especially jarring. The sheer beauty of the photo’s composition almost makes you forget you’re looking at a prison farm where young African-American men toil under the eyes of white guards on horseback.
An iconic photo of civil rights activists flattened by gushing fire hoses is juxtaposed with a video by artist Dread Scott, “On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide.” In this 2014 performance film, he walks against a fire hose wielded by far less sadistic firefighters, but it’s still a disturbing image.
In another reconfiguration, “Amelia Falling,” Hank Willis Thomas transfers a photo of civil rights activist Amelia Boynton, beaten unconscious and supported by fellow activists who tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. Thomas places the image on a mirror, and its reflection reveals an overturned police car behind you. A classic symbol of civil unrest, the upended car bears the seal “Plantation Police.” Inside the iconography is sound collage. Artists OtaBenga Jones & Associates offer up an audio mix of Richard Pryor; audio from unrest in Watts, Ferguson and Baltimore; and episodes of “Dragnet.” It’s surreal to hear Jack Webb dismissing the idea of police brutality while you gaze at Bolton’s slumped form — beaten by cops while dressed in her Sunday best.
“A lot of the artwork will distill one particular aspect of that media experience and make us relate to it differently,” Fiss says. Pinder reiterates that art is nonviolent protest, and the gallery offers a contemplative space to ponder emotional, heated issues. “We very specifically chose works of art that are very slow,” Pinder says. “You have to come up close to them, look at them for awhile and figure out what they’re about.”
In “We Own The Night,” yellow circles represent the 41 bullets that killed Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant mistaken for a rape suspect, in 1999. Diallo was gunned down in his own doorway in New York City. He reached for his wallet, and police assumed it was a gun. Adjacent work “Phantom Negro Weapons” by Nafis White features 24 photographs of objects that caused the death of
an African-American. The dossier defines the Phantom Negro Weapon as visible to law enforcement — but no one else — and possessing the power to cloak itself by changing into a soda can, wallet or cigarette.
Several New Mexico events are also part of the exhibit. “It Was Only An Indian” is about Navajo activist Larry Casuse, who died in a gun battle with police after kidnapping the mayor of Gallup to draw attention to the plight of his people. There’s also a santo for Victor Villalpando, a troubled Española teenager who was killed by police in 2014. The exhibit notes that funding cuts for mental health services have contributed to the criminalization of mental illness in the US.
Upstairs and outside the gallery, video art lends the exhibit balance and focus. Notable video by Hito Steyerl captures guards at the Art Institute of Chicago recounting harrowing stories from their days as police officers.
These issues are complex, Fiss says, as are the individuals involved. “The police who killed Victor knew him,” she notes. During the show’s opening reception, Villalpando’s mother spoke to attendees using artist Mel Chin’s microphone fashioned from a nightstick. Fiss dubs this an inversion of an object normally used as a force of repression into one that gives people voice. Other works delve into the prison-industrial complex and the massive US surveillance buildup following 9/11.
“We have this perception that a police state happens in other countries when there are military coups,” Pinder says. “The way it has happened here is that it’s been very slow and insidious through policy. We have a copy of the Patriot Act for anyone to read.” Pinder and Fiss hope to foster more community dialogue around the show. So far it’s one of the best received and most visited exhibitions in the history of UNM Art Museum, Pinder adds. “[That] speaks to the power of art when it responds to issues people care about,” Pinder says.
Watching Nick Cave’s soundsuits in action on the video reel outside the museum still makes me smile, and I also understand the artist’s impetus to meet repression with something otherworldly and disconcerting. Get moved by “Necessary Force” before it closes on Saturday, Dec. 12.
Megan Kamerick is an independent radio and print journalist and producer at New Mexico PBS.