‘I Was Building a Suit of Armor’: Watch Artist Nick Cave Explain the Origins of His Signature ‘Soundsuit’ Sculptures

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 8 episode, "Chicago," 2016. © Art21, Inc. 2016.

For the Chicago-based artist Nick Cave, trash is treasure. In his hands, the discarded detritus of everyday life becomes the foundational element of intricately layered artworks he calls Soundsuits. The works are part sculpture and part instrument, meant to be worn (often by Cave himself), and often completely obscure the person inside.

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series back in 2016, Cave described creating a work to honor the slain African American teenager Trayvon Martin. The Soundsuit, in this case, consists of a hoodie, sneakers, and jeans flanked by giant gold-beaded figures.

From a distance, it looks like this amazing sort of gold sculptural form,” he tells Art21. “Until you get up close and you realize that there is someone trapped inside.”

The homage to Martin is in keeping with the origins of the Soundsuits, which Cave first debuted in 1992 following the beating of Rodney King. With his immersive installations and raucous performances, Cave sees himself giving back to the community as a sort of “change agent.”

Right now, as much of the world remains in a state of lockdown, Cave is uploading short videos to his Instagram account as an extension of an exhibition of his work meant to be on view at the University of Virginia’s Ruffin Gallery.

Despite the show’s abrupt closure, Cave is still finding ways to use his art to help people through difficult circumstances. “I want to change our way of engaging with one another,” he tells Art21“I want to use art as a form of diplomacy.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s PBS series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. Check out Nick Cave’s “Cultural Stimulus” video series on Instagram. “Nick Cave: Spot On” at the University of Virginia’s Ruffin Gallery. is online now. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch episodes of other series like “New York Close Up” and “Extended Play” and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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