By Rune Skyum-Nielsen, journalist and writer
After his 62 years on the planet, Nick Cave has felt the urge to examine his past and earlier artistic stages via an exhibition. The exhibition architect Christina Back from The Black Diamond gives an account of their collaboration, one that has resulted in an innovative and strongly sensual total experience
The morning after the evening before had arrived. The concert at the Roskilde Festival had circled a great deal around death and departure, to such an extent that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds had thrilled and chilled the dark-clad sea of people in front of the Orange Scene.
Here on the day after, a Saturday in July 2018, things were different. If one just happened to pass by The Great Thomas Winding Exhibition at The Black Diamond, a completely otherwise cheering, but also surrealistic sight lay in store. For right there, in a gem-eldorado from the golden age of Danish children’s films, stood the lanky wily bird and murderous troublemaker sticking his sorely tried snitch into The Little Bear’s cupboard, one of the many cosy creations of the children’s TV host.
Nick Cave gave free rein to his unqualified enthusiasm: ‘This is simply marvellous!’ the then 60-year-old songwriter, author, musician and performer shouted, so everything shook and resounded.
When he had taken a long look, the group preferred to go to a meeting room. A workshop was waiting for them, and it was to develop productively. For the Australian was in no doubt, not any longer. He was ready to create a comprehensive exhibition about himself and his strangely twist-and-turn career that are inextricably entwined.
‘It sounds of course a bit strange when one says it out loud, but in a way it was Thomas Winding who prepared the way for Nick Cave here at The Black Diamond,’ the exhibition architect Christina Back states.
After three years of persistent effort, her vision – and a small world sensation – has become a reality. Stranger Than Kindness. The Nick Cave Exhibition has The Royal Library (in a cooperation with Arts Centre Melbourne) and Nick Cave as equal senders and curators. This partnership has mainly been forged because the ambiguous world star allowed himself to be captivated at any early stage by the Danish exhibition architect’s way of handling the archive material.
‘When I successfully managed to get through to Nick’s folk, I explained that ideally he should be sender as regards both form and content – so that the rooms could be the communicative technique that could unfold an incredible content, i.e. the artist’s objects. And if everything were to form a complete synthesis, we would be able to create a fluid transition between content and room. This seemed to appeal to him, and after his visit to The Black Diamond he started to assume an increasing level of ownership,’ Christina Back relates.
Visual biography in several stages
Stranger Than Kindness will spread out over 800 sqm and give a more sensual feeling of the multi-artist’s background, creative approach and sources of inspiration over half a century. The exhibited object comprise Nick Cave’s handwritten lyrics, literature, photography, videos, scenery, requisites – and much more besides.
Large sections of the considerable amount of memorabilia have not seen the light of day before now, and it has been transported to Copenhagen from his home in Brighton, England. Other items have come all the way from Arts Centre Melbourne, which back in 2006 was donated a series of the items and objects that Nick Cave had gathered together until then.
"One can really say that Nick Cave has invested himself in the exhibition about himself".
It has been up to the curators and the main character himself to select the right objects and to create a sequence that takes visitors through the eight rooms of the exhibition – a task that they really have taken on. At least ten times, Christina Back has visited him in his English habitat. And then there are all the telephone calls.
The exhibition is not only thematic, it has also been constructed as a kind of visual biography where visitors with a few overlaps move forwards in time. In addition, there is a fourth dimension involved in Nick Cave and his working partner Warren Ellis’ tailormade sound landscape, which spreads out over all of the 800 sqm.
The first room deals with his formative years in and around Melbourne, and here one finds among other things a letter from a worried head teacher. In writing to Nick’s parents concern is expressed about the layabouts the teenager is beginning to hang out with. But a hope is also planted, for the school has a hold on young Nick and the warning seems to have percolated through.
‘It’s rather amusing,’ says Christina Back, ‘for from here on thing just get wilder. It was this group of people he formed his first bands from.’
A second room deals with Nick Cave’s storm-tossed period in the early 80s in Australia and London, a third with his hyper-productive years in West Berlin. That time it had become the turn of amphetamines to pump away in the slight figure.
Elsewhere, a video installation takes Nick Cave’s long-lived band The Bad Seed under fragmentary treatment, and the visitors end in a room where Shattered History – a newly composed piece with newly written lyrics – can be heard.
One can really say that Nick Cave has invested himself in the exhibition about himself. That might sound self-evident, but not in his case. Until now he has been in no hurry whatsoever to dwell in the past, but the hour-long telephone conversations with Christina Back – calls across time zones, when it was night in Denmark and morning in the much-travel world of Nick Cave – changed all that. As the exhibition architect sees it, their shared filtering has opened up a retrospective curiosity that has only become more pronounced as the trust between them increased:
‘Nick is not nostalgic. He has unsentimentally thought that one leaves tracks behind one through life, and that was how it was. Neither more nor less. Now he is doing something he has never done before. “Remembering became the creative act,” as he said at one point.’
Visually a one-off
In her 20 years as an exhibition architect – first in New York and since 2006 working at The Black Diamond – Christina Back has sparred with a number of creative powerhouses, including the performance artist Marina Abramovic, the dramatic artist Robert Wilson, the author Klaus Rifbjerg – and, of course, Thomas Winding. But it is Nick Cave who has made the greatest impact. Quite without comparison. She talks about the singer with a striking tenderness and says ‘Nick’, so one is in no doubt whatsoever. But the warm feelings are based on something else than sympathy and chemistry. The professional respect is if possible even more profound.
‘I’ve actually never experienced anything like it,’ as she puts it. ‘Even though Nick went to an art school before becoming a musician, I am very surprised at how visually inclined he is. As if he thinks in constructed narratives.’
About "Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition"
The exhibition was developed and designed by Christina Back, Det Kgl. Bibliotek, and Janine Barrand, Arts Centre Melbourne, in collaboration with Nick Cave. It was curated and produced by Det Kgl. Bibliotek in collaboration with Australian Music Vault at Arts Center Melbourne.
The exhibition is connected with our work and obligations with national collections and archives, literature and storytelling.
Main sponsors are Gucci and the Beckett Foundation.
Read the book
The exhibition is accompanied by the book Stranger Than Kindness published by Canongate. The book which was developed and curated by Nick Cave in collaboration with Christina Back, presents more than 130 pictures of original artwork, handwritten lyrics, photos, and objects from Nick Cave's personal archives with comments by Nick Cave and Janine Barrand along with an extensive essay by award-winning American writer Darcey Steinke. The book is on the Sunday Times' bestseller list.