Personal stories of coronavirus

Chicago artist Nick Cave has found a way to keep performing during quarantine

In a new video series called Cultural Stimulus, the artist aims to share “sparks of happiness” with a public sheltering at home

A still from Cultural Stimulus: Old Irving Park (2020) by Nick Cave

In response to the tectonic uncertainty of the Covid-19 era, when the public looks for sources of artistic experience from the safety of home as museums and galleries remain shut, and artists must recast their creative process in social isolation, the artist Nick Cave is launching a new video series called Cultural Stimulus that he hopes will recreate some of the feeling of visiting a public art performance. Prepared while sheltering in place, with available artworks, the pieces are staged and filmed in Chicago’s now empty public places, as well as Facility, Cave’s 20,000 sq-ft studio.

“I spent the first couple of weeks taking in what the pandemic meant,” Cave says of how the lockdown affected his practice, which often involves building and wearing elaborate costumes that serve as a form of armour against social injustice. “Very quickly, it turned into: ‘How can I contribute to our collective well-being?’” He began by presenting The Cultural Contribution, a vitrine-like installation on Facility’s ground floor, as well as a pick-up site for free face masks, designed to share happiness and safety with the neighbourhood, Cave says. But after creating three over-sized, sparkly yellow smiley faces for the building’s street level window and a myriad of face masks, Cave realised that videos could deliver a similar energy to a larger community and stimulate broader creative senses.

Four short, easily shareable clips (some only a minute long), have been released so far on Instagram and Vimeo, and Cave anticipates making 6-12 performances in all. In the first piece, Old Irving Park, Cave evokes his well-known mixed-media Tondo sculptures with a joyful twist, carrying a circular piece with a colour wheel on one side and a smiley face on the reverse across a snowy landscape. And Dance Party features a unicorn Soundsuit, extending the artist’s tradition of using dance as a cathartic release. “I chose to work with the unicorn for its magic and mysticism,” Cave says. “It is both a dream-state vision, as well as about the imaginative world of play. The video itself is simple, but that’s its intent. Simple. Lovely. Sparks of Happiness.”

However, Cave is reticent to label this moment a creative opportunity. “It is just our time to survive. As artists, we are particularly suited to finding beauty in the most challenging of circumstances,” he says, adding: “Make no mistake: everyone, artists included, are struggling. For some of us, making work is a survival mechanism.”