Artists Respond to Exhibition Exploring Racism, Gun Violence

Actors, dancers and musicians are drawing inspiration from a powerful installation.

Kinetic Spinner Forest by artist Nick Cave
Nick Cave Kinetic Spinner Forest, 2016 Photo by Ironside Photography, courtesy of the Momentary

Is there racism in heaven?

This question prompted the creation of the largest project from Chicago-based artist Nick Cave, which is on display at the Momentary in Bentonville. Nick Cave: Until consists of six installations spanning more than 24,000 square feet of space at the contemporary art venue.

The exhibition title is a reference to “innocent until proven guilty” or the reverse, “guilty until proven innocent.” Cave is a Missouri native and says a catalyst for this project was the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

“I’m interested in making work that is about service,” Cave says. “I’m an artist with a civic responsibility and how do I sort of create these opportunities where the work is of service.” 

Within the exhibition, Cave addresses gender, race and gun violence in American topics that have previously inspired his works. For example, in 1992 Chicago, Cave reflected on the Rodney King police beatings that occurred in Los Angeles. Using found objects like twigs from a park, he created his first Soundsuit, a wearable sculpture that defends the body and masks identity. He has created more than 500 Soundsuits, two of which are part of the permanent collection at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

While there are no traditional Soundsuits present in Nick Cave: Until, the exhibition does place museum guests inside the metaphorical belly of one of those suits. The exhibition is comprised of six installations that work together to create an immersive space. Installations include Beaded Cliff Wall, a netted wall constructed of millions of plastic hair pony beads, shoelaces and rope; and Crystal Cloudscape, a massive work of mixed media featuring more than 10 miles of crystals, 24 chandeliers, and a private garden filled with found objects.

Crystal Cloudscape by artist Nick Cave
Nick Cave
Crystal Cloudscape, 2016
Photo by Ironside Photography, courtesy of the Momentary

Artist Nick Cave says the concept that people don’t think racism is in their own backyard even though it is, is part of this work. In the Kinetic Spinner Forest, for example, guests may feel at home among a collection of 16,000 hanging wind spinners commonly found in backyards until they examine the spinners more closely.

Guests are exposed to images of guns, bullets and teardrops mixed in with flowers and hummingbirds. It really hits you in the gut, Cave says.

“You are consumed with beauty and opulence and yet you’re burdened with this heaviness, and so throughout the exhibition you will find yourself torn between these two emotions,” he says.

Kinetic Spinner Forest by artist Nick Cave
Nick Cave
Kinetic Spinner Forest, 2016
Photo by Ironside Photography, courtesy of the Momentary

Nick Cave: Until was organized by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and co-produced with Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia and Crystal Bridges. The exhibition was previously on view at MASS MoCA, Carriageworks and Tramway in Glasgow, Scotland. 

Even though the work sprang from a tragically American moment, Denise Markonish, senior curator and director of exhibitions at MASS MoCA, says the conflicting emotions of beauty and pain reflected in the work is a very universal idea. She says it resonated with indigenous communities in Australia and the African community in Scotland.

“It was really amazing how those messages and even just that simple idea of innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent, really transcended our American cultural moment and gained this meaning,” she says. “That to me is an amazing feat that’s not really very easy to pull off usually.”

Throughout the 16-week duration of the exhibition, the Momentary’s galleries will serve as a stage for performing artists who will create their responses to questions asked by Cave in the exhibition. 

“That was one of the very first things that Nick talked about when he proposed to make this work was that it would become a platform for us to invite performers and community members in to sort of use this space to respond to these issues,” Markonish says. “And that’s been also an incredible part of the whole tour of this show and the performers who’ve come together and made works specifically for these spaces.”

At the Momentary, artists responding to the exhibition include fashion designers, dancers and knitters. Some of this weekend’s performances include the Prison Story Project presenting a staged reading of letters written by participants on death row on Saturday afternoon.

Headshot of dancer Blake Worthey
Courtesy: Black Worthey

Dance-theater artist Blake Worthey will engage audiences in a one-person show titled “Do You Know What You’re Doing Here?” on Sunday. A complete schedule of performances planned throughout the duration of the exhibition is available here.

Having spent time with the work for a few years now, artist Nick Cave has his own thoughts about his original premise: is there racism in heaven?

“God I hope the f— not. That’s all I can say,” he says.

Nick Cave: Until is on view through Jan. 3. Admission to the exhibition as well as to the special artist performances associated with the show are free. More information is available at www.themomentary.org

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and a Northwest Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts in Arkansas for nearly 15 years.