It’s Devlin imagines worlds that don’t exist

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

His interdisciplinary work defies categories, as does his new monograph, “An Atlas of Es Devlin” (Thames & Hudson), an immersive and exquisitely produced work of art in itself, containing photographs, texts, fold-outs, pull-outs and overlays translucent. and cut pages that reflect the complexity and imaginative scope of Devlin’s processes, from concept to final iteration.

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

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

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

Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, said Devlin’s gift is not only to bring together “so many different talents, of design, architecture, writing, drawing, but that he has created a collaborative art form. He creates a community space for theater rituals, pop concerts or art.”

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

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

I was very attracted to rhetorical figures that evoke unstable and impossible matter, where matter and language do not coexist. All the great poets live in this place. As he read and wrote, he wanted to draw more and more. I resisted going to art school because the people who went there knew what I wanted to say and I didn’t. I wanted to learn.

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

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

At the time, I was working on a project called “Come Home Again”, for which I drew 243 endangered non-human species living in London. I was inspired by environmental activist Joanna Macy and other writers who talk about 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 would not harm them.

He drew insects, fish, plants, mammals, sometimes 18 hours a day, and in a slightly hallucinatory mood. When Hans Ulrich called, I simply put my hand on the paper, drew around it, took photographs of some of the drawings and placed them around the outline. When I did that, I felt that continuity between me and the species I was drawing: between my knuckle and the edge of a bird’s wing, the veins in my hand and a leaf. The species is a kind of tattoo composition on the hand. This drawing, which is a DIY pop-up, is placed inside the book, as a gift.

This is a photograph I took, around 2016, of a line of sunlight coming 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 it. 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 big influence here. The first film I worked on, in 2008, with composer Nitin Sawhney and choreographer Dam Van Huynh, was a story about a person who walks into a line of light; In art you can! I have 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 will continue to do so.

In 2016, Hans Ulrich Obrist invited me to give a talk at the Serpentine. He considered me a set designer, so I was excited to be welcomed. [the art] world, which frankly can be quite exclusive. I talked about the mechanics of suspension of disbelief, and while I was talking, I built a box on stage, all very basic, Velcro and duct tape. But when I finished building it, the lights went out, the music came on, and the box spun, covered in projections of my hands trying in various ways (cutting clay, paper, and mirrored board) to access a light that seemed to be in place. rotating cube heart.

I’ve done a version of this in many different ways. 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 movies, give people, but on a scale of gladiators and sporting arenas. When I first spoke to Beyoncé, she had written a poem that said “an electric current humming through me.” I think what she expressed in the poem was the feeling that she was a medium for her songs.

When I was flying to meet her, I did some sketches on the plane. I hadn’t heard the album “Lemonade” yet, but I knew it was about a relationship and a crisis. She wanted to show something between the poster icon and [King Lear’s] “Naked and forked” creature, a small figure, in constant movement, enlarged in the rotating cube.

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

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

It’s really hard to work on a barge on a lake, making the cards look like they’re floating. One of the reasons the set is so nice is that there are no visible speakers. Here, entire pieces of hands are made of gauze and are filled with speakers, just like the cards. It is a large sound emitting device 25 meters high.

During the pandemic, when so much cultural work became extinct, I received an invitation to make a piece from the Champagne house, Moët & Chandon. If a project of this type is not approached sincerely, it can end up becoming an advertisement.

I wanted to collaborate with the Endangered Language Alliance, which Brian Eno had introduced me to. Anthropologist Wade Davis said, “Every language is an ancient 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 home to the most languages: 637 at last count. I used a compass as the basis for designing an illuminated kinetic sculpture in the plaza, mapping the languages ​​of the city and then stretching the 637 lines along the arch to connect them to each other. You could be inside the object and it was like being inside a musical instrument. At the same time, you listened to recordings of the endangered languages ​​around you reciting EM Forster’s 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.

This figure appears a lot in my work and is the inaugural piece of the exhibition. It is based on a series of eight openings cut into circular layers at the beginning of the book. In the exhibition, the room is filled with a replica of these pages with holes in the center, built at the height of the room. The visitor walks through them and becomes part of the structure.

In a circle around each hole are the names of all the people I have worked with; It is an atlas of participation. Any collaboration is about seeing through the lens of the designer, composer, choreographer, playwright and director. What I quite like is that the shape of the iris is not stable; There are many currents that collide with each other and are maintained centrifugally. It’s about trying to develop a muscle to see through the lens of others.

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