Imagining Worlds That Don’t Exist

Es Devlin is a British designer of memories and psychologies, ideas and dreams. She has created environments for operas, dance works and plays (her scenic design for “The Lehman Trilogy” won the Tony); designed concert tours for Beyoncé, U2, Kanye West, Adele and Miley Cyrus; worked on the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games and the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games; imagined fashion shows for Louis Vuitton; and invented huge installations, centered around endangered species and endangered languages.

Her cross-disciplinary work is category-defying, and so is her new monograph, “An Atlas of Es Devlin” (Thames & Hudson) — an exquisitely produced and immersive artwork in itself, containing photographs, texts, foldouts, pullouts, translucent overlays and cutout pages that reflect the intricacy and imaginative extent of Devlin’s processes, from concept to final iteration.

Pop concerts, like Beyoncé’s 2016 Formation World Tour, are about achieving the intimacy of television “on a gladiatorial, sports arena scale,” said Es Devlin, the tour’s stage designer.Credit…Kevin Mazur/WireImage, via Getty Images

An example of Es Devlin’s scenic design, using the box motif, was “The Lehman Trilogy,” shown here at the National Theater in London in 2018.Credit…via Es Devlin Studio

An exhibition of the same name, based on “An Atlas,” opens at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum on Saturday, Devlin’s first major solo show in the United States. “In many aspects, it’s a three-dimensional manifestation of the book,” Devlin said in a recent interview at her home in south London, where a long refectory table in front of floor-to-ceiling glass windows was laden with books on climate change, economics and art.

“There is no presumption that you know what my work is,” Devlin, 52, said, describing the exhibition, which will begin in a replica of her studio before a wall opens to reveal a series of apertures, inscribed with the names of everyone she has worked with.

Devlin has “reinvented the wheel in every field she has been part of, whether theater, poetry, sculpture, climate or installation,” the art historian Katy Hessel said. She added, “I would define her as a visionary.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, said that Devlin’s gift is not just to unite “so many different talents, of design, architecture, writing, drawing, but that she has created an art form of collaboration. She creates a communal space for the rituals of theater, pop concerts or art.”

Over several hours and a vegetable curry, Devlin picked favorite works in the book and the exhibition, speaking with characteristic verve about her past, her partnerships and her passions. “For me,” she said, “there is no hierarchy between the value of the opera ‘Carmen’ and Beyoncé.” Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

1. A series of teenage sketches

A sequence of drawings by Es Devlin, 1989: Studies of a female figure constrained within a box. She later translated the box into theatrical space.Credit…Es Devlin

This sequence shows six drawings of a female figure with a box or a cube, made when I was 18 years old, in 1989. I had just started an English literature degree at University of Bristol, and I would have been reading “Beowulf” and living in the library.

I was very attracted to figures of speech that conjure unstable and impossible matter, where matter and language won’t sit together. All the great poets live in this place. As I was reading and writing, I became more and more eager to draw. I resisted going to art school because the people going there knew what they wanted to say, and I didn’t. I wanted to learn.

In these drawings, a person is constrained within a box that is too small, or is static within the box, or manipulating it. The person holds on to it like an iceberg, uses it like a lookout post or a climbing frame. Of course the box translates into the theatrical space. I have made several works, like “Don Giovanni,” or “The Lehman Trilogy,” using a box as a structure for design. These sketches are a map or atlas of everything I have made since.

2. A hand map

Es Devlin, “Redraw the Edges of Yourself,” 2023. After making observational drawings of endangered species in London, she made a poster that shows the porosity between her hand and their form, her knuckle and the edge of a bird wing.Credit…Es Devlin

Last year, Hans Ulrich Obrist, who has been a real mentor for me, called to ask me to design a poster for a project at the Serpentine called “Back to Earth.” By the next day.

At the time, I was working on a project called “Come Home Again,” for which I drew 243 endangered, nonhuman species living in London. I was inspired by the environmental activist Joanna Macy and other writers who speak to the continuity of the biosphere and the self. In other words, if you saw other species and the rest of the world as a continuation of yourself, you wouldn’t harm it.

I was drawing insects, fish, plants, mammals, sometimes 18 hours a day, and in a slightly hallucinatory frame of mind. When Hans Ulrich called, I just put my hand on paper, drew around it, took photos of some of the drawings, and plunked them around the outline. When I did that, I felt that continuity between myself and the species I was drawing — between my knuckle and the edge of a bird wing, the veins on my hand and on a leaf. The species are a sort of tattoo composition on the hand. This drawing, which is a D.I.Y. pop-up, is placed inside the book, as a gift.

3. A line of light

Es Devlin, “Morning I,” 2009. Photograph of a line of light between curtains.Credit…Es Devlin

This is a photograph I took, around 2016, of a line of sunlight coming in through curtains or blinds. Now, every day, when I wake up, I photograph the line of light and spend about 20 quiet minutes meditating on this. In the exhibition there is a voice-over about this, with the image.

Lucio Fontana, whose work I saw at the Tate as a teenager, is obviously a huge influence here. The first film I worked on, in 2008, with the composer Nitin Sawhney and the choreographer Dam Van Huynh, was a story about a person entering a line of light; in art you can! I’ve used it in many other pieces — Alastair Marriott’s “Connectome” at the Royal Ballet, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Howie the Rookie” — and I know I’ll continue to do so.

4. ‘Miracle Box’

Es Devlin, “Miracle Box,” 2016. She built a box covered with projections of her hands trying in various ways to access a light at the heart of the rotating cube. The work was part of a series of revolving box sculptures including Beyoncé’s Formation Tour and “The Lehman Trilogy.”Credit…Es Devlin

In 2016, Hans Ulrich Obrist invited me to give a talk at the Serpentine. I thought of myself as a set designer, so I was excited to be welcomed in [the art] world, which can frankly be quite exclusive. I talked about the mechanics of the suspension of disbelief, and while I was talking, I built a box onstage — all very basic, Velcro and tape. But when I finished building it, the lights went off, music came on and the box turned, covered with projections of my hands trying in various ways — cutting through clay, paper and mirrored board — to access a light that appeared to be at the heart of the rotating cube.

I have made a version of this in lots of different modes. For Beyoncé’s 2016 Formation Tour, I thought about how the art form of the pop concert is an attempt to achieve the intimacy that television, and now films, give to people, but on a gladiatorial, sports arena scale. When I first talked to Beyoncé, she had written a poem that had the line “an electric current humming through me.” I think what she was expressing in the poem was the sensation that she was a medium for her songs.

When I was flying over to meet her, I made some sketches on the plane. I hadn’t heard the “Lemonade” album yet, but knew it was about a relationship and a crisis. I wanted to show something between the poster icon and [King Lear’s] “bare, forked” creature, a small figure, constantly in motion, magnified in the revolving cube.

5. ‘Carmen’: The suspension of disbelief

Devlin’s opera set for “Carmen” in Bregenz, Austria, in 2017 was based on a scene where Carmen throws cards into the air.Credit…Es Devlin

Hands suspended between sea and sky, magic, illusion, the suspension of disbelief. This is one of my favorite things, the backdrop for the opera “Carmen,” in 2017 in Bregenz, Austria. This is an extraordinary venue for an opera festival. After the Second World War, Maria Wanda Milliore, a young set designer, suggested performances on a barge on the lake because the concert hall had been bombed. My design was the first by a woman in that spot since 1946.

I was watching bull fights, wanted a big bull, but the director, Kasper Holten, said no. So we went back to the text and were looking at the scene when Carmen throws the cards into the air. As I imitated that action, Kasper said, “That’s it!”

It’s really difficult to make work on a barge in a lake, to make the cards look like they are floating. One of the reasons the set is so beautiful is that there are no visible speakers. Here, whole chunks of the hands are made of gauze and are full of speakers, as are the cards. The whole thing is a big, 25-meter-high sound-emitting device.

6. ‘Your Voices’

Es Devlin, “Your Voices,” 2022, an installation at Lincoln Center created in collaboration with the Endangered Language Alliance.Credit…Es Devlin

During the pandemic, when so much cultural work was extinct, I had an invitation to make a piece from the Champagne house, Moët & Chandon. If this sort of project is not truthfully approached, it can end up as an advert.

I wanted to collaborate with the Endangered Language Alliance, which Brian Eno had introduced me to. The anthropologist Wade Davis said, “Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind”: When we lose a language we lose a library of cultural, historical and biological references.

I felt the installation should be at Lincoln Center because New York is the city that is home to the most languages — 637 at last count. I used a compass as the basis of the design for an illuminated kinetic sculpture on the plaza, mapping the languages across the city, then stretching the 637 lines across the arc to connect with one another. You could stand inside the object and it was like being inside a musical instrument. At the same time, you heard recordings of the endangered languages all around you, speaking the E.M. Forster text, “Only connect,” and other poems. There were choirs from the Bronx, a Ukrainian and Russian choir, Japanese and African choirs. It was a deeply condensed version of being in New York City.

7. The iris

“An Atlas of Es Devlin” opens with several layered pages with circular apertures, an iris shape, with the names of collaborators.Credit…Es Devlin

This figure turns up a lot in my work, and it is the opening piece in the exhibition. It is based on a series of eight cutout, circular layered apertures at the start of the book. In the exhibition, the room is filled with a replica of these pages with holes through the center, built to the height of the room. The visitor walks through them, and becomes part the structure.

In a circle around each hole are the names of all the people who I have worked with; it’s an atlas of participation. Any collaboration is about seeing through the lens of the designer, the composer, the choreographer, the playwright, the director. What I quite like is that the iris shape isn’t stable; there are a lot of currents clashing together and centrifugally holding. This is about trying to develop a muscle to see through the lens of others.

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