Is there racism in heaven?

It’s a question that provoked celebrated American visual artist Nick Cave into action four years ago, resulting in the most extraordinarily beautiful large-scale exhibition Nick Cave: Until.

Ask him that question directly, though, and you may be surprised by the response.

“I’m not sure, because I’m not sure that’s what I mean – that there is a heaven. It’s a question that came about when I was working in the studio and the Michael Brown [police shooting] transpired. As I was working that thought, ‘Is there racism in heaven?’, was so profound [it became] the catalyst for the show,” says Cave, who is in Sydney. “It led me to think about the things I need to become [as an] activist in terms of building these experiences; what role I play in shifting [public perception] and being proactive.”

This is the Chicago-based artist’s most ambitious visual-arts project to date and its title, Until, is a play on the phrase “innocent until proven guilty”. But here it’s presented as “guilty until proven innocent”.

Presented by Carriageworks in collaboration with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Until responds to the spate of race-related violence that resulted in the deaths of Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, confronting issues of racism and gun violence in America, and the broader effect on communities globally.

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Until is about the urgency I feel as an artist, as an African American, as a citizen of the United States of America, and as a resident of Chicago. All too often we are faced with a history that keeps repeating, one in which gun violence pervades in our streets in the hands of both civilians and law enforcement,” says Cave.

The works are surprisingly beautiful, breathtaking even, and provocative.

From the moment you enter the space you are immersed in 16,000 gently twirling hypnotic metallic mobiles that catch the light and cast off rainbow hues and shadows. The piece Kinetic Spinner Forest, which appears from a distance to be playful objects, in fact contains shapes of handguns, bullets and tears.

“There’s so much going on around us we think it’s removed from our existence but in reality it’s in our backyard. That’s how I came to the spinner [piece], the sorts of decorative objects that are placed in our gardens … but as you get closer you realise they’re handguns, they’re bullets, they’re teardrops, so that shifts the whole way you see them. Yet there’s still optimism and beauty and belief and hope,” Cave tells Broadsheet.

The exhibition centrepiece is Crystal Cloudscape, a 12-metre-long, six-metre-wide hanging sculpture weighing 5.4 tonnes and made from 24,000 crystals, beads and chandeliers. Above that is a mind-boggling collection of found objects, from birds to candelabras, gold-gilded pigs, a life-sized crocodile, huge dandelion flowers and 17 cast-iron “Jocko”-style lawn jockeys (their cringingly racist roots date back to the Jim Crow era of legislated segregation). Four ladders take you to platforms that allow you to view the installation from above.

An immersive sound and 14-channel video work Hy-Dyve takes you inside one of Cave’s famous “soundsuits”, which were first built in 1992 in response to the brutal beating of Rodney King and subsequent LA riots. The wearable sculpture conceals Cave’s gender, race, religion and politics.

A much smaller, quieter piece, Unarmed, features Cave’s hand positioned as if holding a handgun, cast in bronze and metal and surrounded by vintage beaded flowers.

Interestingly, one of the most important aspects of the exhibition hasn’t been crafted yet. An integral part of Cave’s oeuvre is creating safe spaces where artists, individuals and communities can come together to explore and make sense of the world.

Until was built around the extremes of brutality that’s been happening in the US. I felt we needed spaces to be heard, venues to come to, to collectively try to bring an understanding of all this violence. I think I’m a messenger first and artist second ... So yes, Until is a work of art but it also knows how to set itself back for call and response. That’s something I’ve always done, it’s my outreach.”

Over the next few weeks and months public and community workshops will take place inside Cave’s Beaded Cliff Wall installation. It will include talks with Romance Was Born’s designers, Luke Sales and Anna Plunkett, chef Kylie Kwong and dancer and visual artist Bhenji Ra. There will also be youth-program representatives from The Wayside Chapel, the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence and local artist Tony Albert, among others.

“Nick Cave has created a very special opportunity to step outside our everyday lives, to be in a place where more is possible, to dream, and then to act,” says Carriageworks outgoing director Lisa Havilah.

Nick Cave: Until is showing at Carriageworks from November 23 until March 3, 2019. Entry is free.

carriageworks.com.au