30 Magical Horses

Suspend Traffic in Grand Central Station


Schwanda RountreeGrand Central Station. Photo: Schwanda RountreePhoto: Schwanda Rountree

Choreographer William Gill.  Photo: Schwanda RountreeFor 14 magical days, twice a day, Grand Central Station Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall, was transformed into a collective dream space by Nick Cave’s choreographed dancing horses.

Heard NY, the latest evolution of the Chicago-based artist’s colorful soundsuits, was presented March 25-31 by Creative Time and MTA Art for Transit as part of a series of events celebrating the centennial of Grand Central.

I’ve always thought “straight from the horse's mouth” is a strange way to say that information comes from an authoritative source but the axiom rang true when I had a chance to speak with the artist about Heard NY during its run.  Cave explained that a vital, dream-like state of waking consciousness is vanishing from our lives. So he’s doing what he can to “re-jump start that.” 

“Dreaming is what gives us the initiative to move forward in our lives,” he said.  “It’s so transformative.”  The audience for his rituals beome entranced and move into the psychic dream space themselves — “they set the foundation of the space.”  And the artist himself gets caught up in the act − “it’s probably one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve I ever had in my life at this point.”

Nick Cave is a fiber and performance artist who has directed the fashion program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for many years. 

For his 2011-2012 residence at the University of North Texas’s Institute for the Advancement of the Arts, Cave fabricated a horse in his Chicago studio and shipped it to the university. 

Photo: Schwanda Rountree

During four visits to campus, Cave worked with the dance, art and music departments on a masquerade incorporating 30 new soundsuits in the shape of the horse-like forms.  When worn, the suits make sounds as the materials brush together.  These rustling, tinkling forms evolved into hybrid beings as they moved through the campus.  The entire city of Denton, Texas then joined in the project.  The downtown square was the maiden “Heard” experience, followed by a performance at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. 

Photo: Schwanda Rountree

The ideas for these presentations come to Cave in dreams, so he thinks of them as “dream projects” in this regard, too.   The horses relate to a childlike period of innocence, he said, “where I can take a sock and put it on my hand and do this to it and I can make a puppet.” 

Creative Time partnered with the Alvin Ailey School for I Heard and Ailey students performed at Grand Central. Chicago-based choreographer William Gill worked with Cave to design the dancers’ movement.  During rehearsals, Gill and Cave put the students into clusters and allowed them to contribute to the choreography.

The construction of the suit − a thin armature covered in chicken wire and cotton blend with a synthetic raffia hooked in – is conducive to ease of movement.  Cave has been in every one of the horses and understands what it takes to move in The Grand Central terminal was silenced as the Ailey dancers entered and donned the suits in a preparation for the dance.  Cave described the moment:

“It’s so magical.  The room gets silence because it’s an event.  Somehow the horses on the saw horses resonate this kind of energy. They demand a certain type of attention.  The residue on the floor is evidence of something that has happened in the space. There are these conditions in the space that settles the audience because there is this moment. There is this element that there is something that is about to happen.” 

Musical accompaniment was by harpists Shelley Burgon and Mary Lattimore, and percussionists Robert Levin and Junior Wedderburn.

To kick off the final weekend performance of Heard NY, Creative Time and the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a conversation at the Met between Cave, Nato Thompson, chief curator of Creative Time and Allisa LaGamma, curator of the Met’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.  The curators discussed the relevance of masquerade, performance and dreaming in public and to Cave’s Heard NY project.“It has been said that the DNA of African art is in Nick’s soundsuit,” Lagama observed.  She also noted that the Metropolitan Museum setting with its broadly diverse collections was an ideal venue for the discussion of Cave’s work because it draws upon the widest imaginable media and sources of inspiration.  These range from runway fashion to Haitian voodoo flags and non-western masquerade traditions.

Cave, himself, found the two-week experience transformative.  “I leave Sunday after the second performance,” he said.  “I’ll wake up Monday morning and I’ll think it was a dream. It’s so profound the effect it has had on me as an artist.”

A dream about a dream, indeed.
Photo: Schwanda Rountree

Nick Cave plans to take a 10-year hiatus from making his celebrated soundsuits and will focus on doing more sculpture-based work.  

Schwanda Rountree is an attorney, art collector and principal of Rountree Art Consulting.