Putting on the Kitsch

July 3, 2013

There’s a weird, Christmas tree-looking thing with legs and a bunny topper haunting the Hirshhorn. Missouri-born artist Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit” is one of the more experimental works in the museum’s “Over, Under, Next: Experiments in Mixed Media, 1913–Present” group show, on view through Sept. 18. The show features artwork from Smithsonian collections that “examine how mixed-media art has evolved since 1913, when French painter and sculptor [Georges] Braque and Picasso first experimented with collage,” says associate curator Evelyn Hankins. The Cave sculpture, from 2009, is one of the most recent mixed-media works added to the museum’s collection.

1. Cave has been working with suits like this since the late ’80s. They are made to be worn, even danced in. (Cave, 54, trained as a dancer at Alvin Ailey’s school in New York, and he has worked with dancers and choreographers to stage performances featuring his works in galleries.) The piece generates noise via jingling components — including dozens of vintage baskets, each one made of tiny, beaded safety pins. “When it becomes activated, the sound component comes in,” Hankins says. “Imagine each one of those pins and beaded baskets beginning to jangle.” (The suit is not “activated” on display.) It rests on a mannequin wearing a bodysuit festooned with sequins. That — or a human wearer — supports the metal frame.

2. The Easter bunny is only sort of cute. “There is something ominous about it,” Hankins says. “It’s over-the-top and kitschy, but it has this scary undertone to it. There is always something creepy about the associations we can have with Easter.”

3. In spite of the suit’s yikes factor, “people love this piece,” Hankins says. “The array of materials used and the idea that someone could wear it and move in it is compelling. People want to walk around the piece to get a whole sense of it.”

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW; through Sept. 18, free; 202-633-1000 (L’Enfant Plaza)
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