One truly astonishing story last week concerned Sandra Parks, a 13-year-old in Milwaukee who was killed by a random bullet fired into her house from the street. What made this pointless crime even more bizarre was that two years ago the same girl had written an award-winning essay called Our Truth, on the problem of gun violence in America.
No novelist would venture such a merciless irony. It shows, yet again, how reality has a habit of outstripping our worst imaginings. Not just any innocent teen, but one who had spoken out about gun violence. No premeditated murder but a shot fired by someone just larking around with a gun.
The death of Sandra Parks is a small paragraph in the blood-spattered saga of her nation’s gun culture. She is one of more than 11,000 people who lost their lives to firearms this year in America. Many have died in so-called “mass shootings”, defined by the Gun Violence Archive as an incident in which at least four people are killed or injured. By this standard there have been more than 300 mass shootings during 2018. In the media nowadays incidents with less than ten fatalities are considered barely newsworthy.
The right to bear arms is one of the most jealously defended parts of the US Constitution, even though it’s a legacy of the wild west. “Outsiders look at us,” writes singer, David Byrne, “and wonder what kind of crazy savages we must be.”
American multi-media artist, Nick Cave, appears to have had the same thought, although his response has been completely unconventional. Rather than hammer away at the public conscience in the manner of so many self-consciously ‘political’ artists, Cave has created one of the most outlandish, extravagant spectacles ever seen in Sydney.
Two years ago Cave presented a performance piece called Heard at Carriageworks and in Brisbane, which featured thirty dancers in irridescent horse costumes stomping up a storm. His new Carriageworks installation is titled Until. It’s a work of many parts that incorporates thousands of shiny, ornamental ‘spinners’ and millions of coloured beads. The centrepiece is a “cloud” raised high off the floor, that displays a cornucopia of kitsch: china animals, artificial flowers, and a set of diminutive, black “lawn jockeys” – the southern American equivalent of those painted plaster Aborigines that used to adorn Australian suburban gardens. There’s even a full-sized crocodile.
The underside of the cloud is a cluster of glass chandeliers that would make Liberace envious. But wait, there’s more! A room facing the cloud features a 360-degree video projection of the artist dancing in one of his ‘soundsuits’, along with a little figurine that might have auditioned unsuccessfully for a role in Trilogy of Terror. The floor is a projection of waves rushing to the shore at Little Bay.
To complete the piece, Carriageworks’ cavernous end gallery is draped, floor to ceiling, in webs made from coloured beads threaded onto shoe laces. In one corner air is being puffed through metallic blue, white and black curtains. I could go on and on, filling this entire column with futile descriptions of a show that really needs to be experienced at first-hand.
If you’re wondering what all this has to do with gun violence in the United States the answer is not immediately obvious. Cave may be deeply concerned with the carnage on the streets of his homeland, especially the shootings of unarmed black men by trigger-happy police, but he has avoided any hint of tragedy. His ostensible subject is death and violence but he has created a mardi gras atmosphere.
One has to look more closely at the details before underlying themes begin to emerge. Amid the thousands of spinners descending from the ceiling there are specially designed ones featuring a handgun, a bullet or a teardrop. There are also discreet effigies of bronze hands raised in prayer. The cloud, which looks like the contents of a junk shop emptied into a tray, is full of mementos of the casual racism of a bygone era.
Nothing is quite what it seems at first glance. Beneath the surface glitz of this hyperdecorative installation there’s a sad, sinister undercurrent. With Until Cave is trying to get us to think, then think again. Are we innocent until proven guilty, or guilty until proven innocent?
How long will the gun madness continue? Until we work together to force some sensible solution. The message is reinforced by a program whereby local artists will collaborate with Cave, using his installation as a site (and a stimulus) for their own creative efforts throughout the course of the exhibition.
If nowhere in America today is safe from gun crime, what’s the best response? To stay cowering at home? Cave asks us to defy the unseen threats, to get out and embrace life. A society ruled by fear is a place in which paranoia and xenophobia flourish. These fears play into the hands of opportunistic politicians eager to beat the drum on issues such as law and order, or border protection – congenial themes for homocidal misfits ready to take out their anger on anyone and everyone.
Cave’s over-the-top artwork is an attempt to break the endless cycle of call and response rehearsed in the media whenever there is another mass shooting or case of police brutality. Politicians send their thoughts and prayers but do nothing to address the causes of violence. The sheer frequency of such crimes has a desensitizing effect on readers and viewers who find it increasingly hard to look beyond their own small worlds.
Until is a strident appeal to all of us to look outward rather than inward, to pursue collective solutions to intractable problems. The entire show may be read as a magical journey. We enter through a sparkling forest, and ascend a peak to gaze upon a cloud. The video room casts us adrift on the ocean. The final gallery resembles a vast cave, perhaps punning on the artist’s name.
It’s a fantasy that pits itself against the brutal statistic of 11,000 deaths per year. Cave doesn’t have the solution to the gun problem but he does have a response – to stay positive, be active, and connect with others. The demons of hatred that breed in darkness are dispelled in shared celebration.
Nick Cave: Until
Carriageworks, 23 November, 2018 – 3 March, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 1 December, 2018