On a sunny afternoon in May, a group of people stood on the sidewalk in Dorchester's Upham's Corner, interrupting pedestrians as they hurried by. In a nice way.
“How’s it going?” Ayako Maruyama asked one passerby. “Do you want to write down what brings you joy?”
Maruyama was part of a street team deployed by the arts nonprofit Design Studio for Social Intervention, or DS4SI; it had set up a bicycle-drawn cart with art supplies in the shade of the Strand Theater. The group was asking residents to contribute to a project organized by the visual and performance artist Nick Cave, (not to be confused with the musician), who would incorporate some of their creations into a public art piece.
Michelle Ruge, of Dorchester, stopped to check out the display. She liked the idea of public art coming to her neighborhood in Boston. The city needed more color.
“The day is gray, the buildings are gray, the streets are gray, it makes people’s attitudes gray,” Ruge said. Bending over a red slip of paper, she wrote some of the things that bring her joy: Art. Color. Love.
Ruge didn’t know it at the time, but her words would later find their way into one of Cave's fantastical creations, part of a joy-themed project he calls “Augment.”
“Augment,” which opened Aug. 8, was commissioned by the Boston public art presenter Now + There. It involves two main components: a trippy-looking vinyl building wrap (functionally, a mural) stuck to the side of an empty bank building in Upham’s Corner, and a collection of huge inflatable sculptures, which currently reside in the Cyclorama in the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End.
I met up with Cave at the Cyclorama a few days before “Augment” was set to open. Standing in the building’s vast atrium, he gazed up at one of the largest sculptures, which was suspended from a grid on the ceiling. It's a puffy riot of mutilated holiday lawn ornaments — the Easter bunny, Frankenstein’s monster, a birthday cake with candles — all twisted up in a grotesque bouquet.
“A number of people were like, ‘God, Nick, there is so much violence in this work.’ And I'm like, ‘I don't — really?’ ” Cave said. “And they were like, ‘Well yeah, you know, the dinosaur’s eating the bunny.’ ... They’re like, ‘It's so violent … but it's very sexual at the same time.’ ”
There is something disarming about the piece, which is bright and humorous, even if it’s a little creepy. The installation, which contains five such sculptures, is kind of an ode to joy, an emotion that seems less simple the more Cave talks about it. He was at once fascinated and repelled by those inflatable lawn decorations, which evoke the holidays, in all their optimism and anguish.
“How do we go into the holidays with these great intentions, everyone having a joyous and unbelievable time, yet it becomes a catastrophe for a lot of people,” Cave said. “And I sort of love just the contrast of all of that.”
It’s a classic Cave juxtaposition. The Chicago-based artist tends to create work that dazzles the eye while confronting issues like racism and police violence. He is best known for his popular soundsuits: ornate, wearable sculptures that obscure the wearer’s identity; the first was created in response to the beating of Rodney King. Cave has used the soundsuits in performances and a number have made their way into museum collections around the world.
The soundsuits are heavy, both in weight in symbolism, but at the same time whimsical, otherworldly. It was Cave’s ability to combine these qualities that prompted Now + There to commission a project from the artist. “We're always trying to present something that's immediately recognizable to the public ... that doesn't smack with any kind of elitism,” said Now + There’s executive director Kate Gilbert. “And then once the public engages with the work, they can find a deeper meaning.”
That’s why for this project, two sites were chosen — the Cyclorama in the South End and the bank building in Upham's Corner, a neighborhood where you might not expect to see installations from internationally-renowned artists. Both exhibitions are free and open to the public.
“At every shop I stop in, I'm like, ‘Hey, we're having this thing,’ and they're like, ‘Wait, we can go see Nick Cave — and it's free?' ” Gilbert said. “And I'm like, ‘Yeah. And you [can] come back multiple times and you can run around and you can touch it.’”
That idea of breaking the barrier between art-world elite and community arts is very on-brand for Cave, who often invites the public to participate in his work. For “Augment,” Now + There partnered with DS4SI. The group helped facilitate more than a dozen collage-making workshops and deployed street teams to solicit community input. Cave used some of the images created at those events in the building wrap that adorns the empty bank in Upham’s Corner, a surreal, kaleidoscopic mural that radiates against its drab brick surroundings.
The inflatable sculptures will eventually end up at the bank, too. For now, they're on view at the Cyclorama through mid-September. To get to their new home, they'll be loaded onto flatbed trucks and paraded through the streets of Boston. (There is still an open call for paid parade performers.) It’s probably the purest expression of joy in Cave's project.
“We need this kind of work right now,” Cave said. “We need to be able to just sort of, be able to just get away from it all.”
Not that you can ever really get away from it all. But in Cave’s weird, bright, open-hearted world, it almost seems possible.
After our interview, Cave returned to the atrium, and his sculptures. One of them — a nightmarish cornucopia festooned with inflatable turkey feathers — needed adjusting. Ducking his head, the artist wedged himself into the sculpture’s soft crevices. In a moment, he was enveloped completely — devoured by his own monstrous creation, or maybe just getting closer to bliss.
This segment aired on August 9, 2019.