Fresh off two transcendent nights at Place des Arts in Montreal this past weekend, legendary Australian musician and writer Nick Cave held court at Galerie de la Maison du Festival on Tuesday afternoon, in anticipation of the opening of Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition. This career spanning exhibition for one of the most prolific artists of the past half century is set to open April 8 and will run for the next three months. Unlike many rock and roll museum exhibitions, this is not merely a display of stage worn jackets and sparkly high heeled boots (nor, as Cave quipped, “piles and piles of rubbish”), but a well curated exploration into the mind of one of the world’s great storytellers.
Dressed in a grey pinstripe suit, Cave entered the room and joked, “What are you all doing in my office?” to the two dozen or so journalists gathered. Then he took a seat at his desk, and did what he does best, he told stories. Anyone who has ever seen Cave perform live can speak to his larger-than-life stage presence, which commands the attention of everyone in the room. While seated behind his desk he carried that same magnetic energy, albeit from a much calmer place. For the next 50 minutes Cave answered questions with an openness about the emotional journey that the exhibition represents to him. He describes the exhibition as “quite strange to walk through because I think it shows very clearly, the life of a very self absorbed, creative person, that’s had a series of violent ruptures in their life.” He went on to explain that while proud of the work he has created over the past 40 plus years, and understanding the importance it has amongst his fans, there is a definitive split between his old life and the new one, that was brought about by the tragic death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur. “This particular room [the office] is like the end of something, it’s representative of artistic self absorption without paying much attention to anything else. Then you go through that door [pointing to a door behind his desk with the words “I MARRIED MY WIFE ON THE DAY OF THE ECLIPSE” printed on it], and everything changes. I live on the other side of that door. I’m personally very proud of the fact that we’ve continued to make art, to follow the truth of things, wherever that may lead. And I think this exhibition does that really beautifully, it just gets quieter and more reflective”.
With over 300 meticulously chosen pieces spread out across eight rooms, each representing a different stage of Cave’s life, the exhibition lays bare the creative process that fuelled Cave, “a weird kid” from an Australian country town, to the world conquering rock icon. Recurring themes of religion and sex, music and literature, creation and death, weave throughout the stories told by the objects.
The first room starts off with photographs of an idyllic childhood in the rural Australian countryside that moves on to adolescent years in a Melbourne boarding school. Literature takes a very important role in these formative years, with personal copies of Nabokov’s Lolita and a biography of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly prominently displayed amongst the family photos. While a letter from the Headmaster who was “somewhat concerned about aspects of Nicolas’s attitude and conduct” foreshadows the rebellious side that would begin to take over and lead him into the next stage of his life.
In the second room, a sensory explosion awaits with the room dressed in a big-top circus tent, with images of fire and a live performance of his early post-punk band The Birthday Party projected onto the walls, with “Junkyard” by The Birthday Party playing over the speakers only adding to the menacing feeling. It is a portrait of the artist as a young man, fighting to be heard and fiercely committed to his art.
Next up is the move to Berlin, where Cave’s work ethic and obsession with his craft take on an even greater role. Part of the room is a lofted recreation of his Berlin apartment, with a mattress on the floor, books stacked all around and papers strewn everywhere. Religious iconography shares equal billing with pin-up girls. Curiosity fuelling his creativity, the writing would become prolific with both his debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, being written at this time, along with the formation of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, whose early albums would share many of the themes of the novel. Delicately constructed art books that make up a display in the centre of the room show that a visual outlet for his creativity was needed as well during this incredibly fertile time in his art.
Following the Berlin room is a video installation with 12 screens embedded into the walls recounting the oral history of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This was the one room that could not get its proper viewing during the press conference’s walk through and one that will surely be worth the time spent sitting on the bench, listening to the story as told by the people who were fortunate enough to be there and had a hand in the creative process.
A floor to ceiling bookcase showcasing books pulled from Cave’s own personal collection runs the length of the hallway that leads into the office space, the most cluttered of all the rooms but a fascinating collection of items. The sounds of a typewriter clicking away and the music composed for the exhibit blends overhead to give the room the feeling of work that needs to be finished. From the Monica Lewinsky portrait, gifted to Cave from his friend, photographer Polly Borland, to the old wooden piano placed beside the desk, it is as you would have found it in Cave’s home. There are also what Cave calls “little recreations of important moments” from his life, like the turntable set up in a corner with Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, that represents the moment he first heard that album at 14 years old. “It’s very difficult to measure how important Leonard Cohen was for me,” Cave stated, and described hearing “Avalanche” for the first time as a seismic change in his life. However, unlike most museum installations, this room is an ongoing curation piece, a room that can continue to grow, as the letter from Tom Waits received only a few weeks ago proves. The room represents both the way Cave once worked, alone and obsessively, and the reason he knew that he needed to change that. This is why it is both the end of one phase of life and the beginning of the new one.
Entering through the door behind the desk you find yourself on the other side of tragedy, where love reveals itself as the most important quality of life. The two rooms that end the exhibition are sparse, yet beautiful. There is a calmness to them that is palpable. What Cave calls “the hallway of gratitude” is a handful of pieces that represent Cave’s most cherished possessions, described as having “massive importance” to him.
Understanding all of this now, it is not a shock that he had such a calming presence when he first greeted the press. The religious overtones that carried through his entire life and are very present in every room of the exhibition make sense when Cave described what he now thinks about religion. He describes it as having “spent his entire life wrestling with the idea of God and religion and eventually came to understand that this struggle was the religious experience itself and that the idea ‘If God exists?’ was almost like a technicality.” He is finally in a happy place, born out of tragedy, but having found answers that he has been searching for his entire life. Just as the office is an ongoing curation, he added that “hopefully the hallway of gratitude can grow too.”
Written by Paul Brown
Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition runs from April 8 until August 7 at Galerie de la Maison du Festival, located on the 2nd floor (305 Ste. Catherine West). Tickets and show time information can be found at https://nickcavemtl.com/.