It’s kind of wonderful that Nick Cave’s art—like the work of Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak—is so accessible to children and adults alike. And it’s the reason, one might imagine, why Mr. Cave was chosen to present his wild and whimsical work in Grand Central Terminal as part of the building’s centennial celebration.
Mr. Cave’s “Heard NY,” a public art performance that ran twice daily last week, featured 30 horses frolicking through Vanderbilt Hall. The horses weren’t real, as some children who showed up had been led to believe; they were costumes—or Soundsuits, as Mr. Cave (not to be confused with the Australian singer-songwriter, who performed at the Beacon Theatre over the weekend) calls them. Each fit two people.
The horses were decorated with colorful strands of raffia, which rustled softy. They shuffled about as a harpist plucked out lilting notes, kicking out their legs, stomping their feet, shaking their behinds, bowing to the crowd and nuzzling up to the children. When a hand drummer began pounding out a beat, the people inside the horses, students from The Ailey School, separated and broke out into a planned dance routine; half of the dancers looked like Mardi Gras Indians with horse heads as they lumbered about, while the rest, covered entirely in raffia, resembled a small army of Cousin Itts run amok.
“It’s a choreography of movement, of people and of sound, which in some ways mimics the already existing activity of the station itself,” said Nato Thompson, the chief curator at Creative Time, which commissioned Mr. Cave’s project in association with MTA Arts for Transit. “I love when it’s unexpected, when it’s just like this ‘What’s going on here?’ Kind of like when you’re in the subway and people are doing the breakdancing.”
At the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts the Friday before the “Heard NY” premiere, Mr. Cave, who is based in Chicago, explained how he came up with the horse costumes, which were originally shown about a year ago at the University of North Texas.
“As a kid, how did you create images?” he mused. “And how did you identify with characters?”
Mr. Cave told the Transom that he looked at early puppetry for ideas. Was Dr. Seuss an inspiration, we wondered? Yes, he said, and Haitian and West African dress. George Clinton, too, he added.
Mr. Cave made his first Soundsuit in 1992 in the wake of the Rodney King beating, which deeply disturbed him. His costumes are made of discarded materials; he spends a lot of time in flea markets and secondhand stores looking for items that “have a pulse,” as he put it.
“What does it feel like to be discarded?” he asked. The suits are big—they tower over you—and mask any signs of race, gender, age or class. Their anonymity can be quite terrifying, though Mr. Cave said that children are not usually afraid of them.
It was hard to find any somber traces in the “Heard NY” performances we saw. People snapped photos with their iPhones as a fugue of oohs and ahhs filled the room. Children gasped, reaching out to touch the horses as if at a petting zoo.
“She wants to see it again,” one mother said, pulling her daughter away from the crowd after the first performance at 11 a.m. on Tuesday.
Near the exit, a boy asked his parents, “Where are we going?” It was clear from the tone of his voice that he wanted to stay for the second routine, three hours later. That’s when we found Mr. Cave, who was quietly hanging out on the sidelines. We asked him if the performances had been meeting his expectations. They were, he said.
“As the days go by,” he explained, “the dancers get more accustomed to the routine.”
Mr. Cave seemed reserved—perhaps it was the nerves of an artist on display—but when we told him how much the kids seemed to be loving his creations, his eyes widened.
“Oh, my God,” he said, grabbing our arm with delight.