Inside the arch of Es Devlin
Networks, systems, models, connections – these are the constant concerns of Es Devlin, whether she designs a setting for Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch, a spectacular stage for Kanye West, Adele, U2 or Beyoncé, or even the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. The writer Andrew O’Hagan described it as “the Jung of scenography”; her regular theater collaborator, director Lyndsey Turner, explains it this way: “She conceives the ideas, the structures of thought, the systems in which the characters operate.
So it’s no surprise that when she lets me into her Victorian home in Dulwich, which doubles as her design studio, the first thing she does is show me around the rooms. Here I find members of his team sitting in front of laptops or 3D printing cute little chairs for a model of the set for a new production of the crucible at the National Theatre. A sprawling open-plan living/dining/workroom/kitchen opens up to a garden oasis – at one point during our interview, her young son is strolling on a trampoline. Devlin loves the fact that her two children (she’s married to costume designer Jack Galloway) are growing up with no distinction between their mother’s job and family life. “The membrane between work and life is very porous,” she says. “I really like the fact that they know what I’m doing.”
Devlin’s current project shows exactly how clear the porosity is, sheet after sheet of beautiful detailed pencil drawings of mammals, birds, fish, insects, spiders and plants that take up the entire surface of its dining tables look like a refectory, and overflow on the walls of the living room. In all, there are 243 drawings depicting the species which, according to the London Wildlife Trust, “are most at risk of extinction. So what I’ve been doing over the past year is drawing these 243 species – careful, careful drawing, late at night for many months, because it takes time. And because my kids saw me doing them, they’ve now started sending me pictures of moths. I mean, it’s a result.
In person, Devlin is relaxed, dressed casually in a black cotton top, soft white sweatpants, her long black hair pulled up in a bun secured with a pencil and two gobstopper-sized rings at the middle finger of his right hand. Inside, she overflows with energy, weaving conversational tangents, with a thirst for knowledge. While much of Devlin’s career has been devoted to finding ways to interpret the texts of other artists, whether by playwrights such as Shakespeare and Pinter or pop and rock stars, she began in recent years to create a significant body of self-written works, including films. , immersive installations and interactive sculptures. Concern for the planet and the threat of extinction run through them, whether in his film I saw the end of the world (2020) on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his installation entitled Memory Palace (2019), which told the story of the world through a 3D mini-map (its reward: “Remember the low deltas where the rising seas are first felt”), or the 197 trees it installed at COP26 to witness the 197 decisions countries would make for our future.
This latest project is a collaboration with Cartier on London’s endangered species. It is called Come back home (September 16-25), taking its title from a line in the 1991 book World as lover, world as self by 93-year-old climate activist Joanna Macy. Macy’s “Great Turning” initiative focused on moving from a society driven by industrial growth to a more sustainable civilization. “Now it can appear to us: we are the world knowing itself. As we let go of our isolation, we come home… We come home to our belonging to each other,” she wrote. Macy’s call for us to come to a deeper understanding of our interconnectedness with nature resonated with Devlin, whose 2021 installation The forest of usstill playing in Miami, deals with how our internal bodily structures are reflected in the natural world.
“I was interested in the correlation between the geometry of what’s inside of us and the geometry of what’s outside of us,” says Devlin. “Look at your lungs, look at a tree, understand the connection. I wanted people to feel that the limits of yourself need to be considered in a much broader way, to take into account the whole network that you are part of. I thought, ‘If there’s one thing I could do that might be helpful, a little acupuncture point that I could help lightly press on, maybe it’s just this consideration of ‘Where you are you finishing?’ thought, ‘Where do I start? London: let’s think about London. It is estimated that nearly 70% of us will live in cities by 2060. Nature cannot be outside the city. This whole process I’m talking about, the expanding of boundaries, has to be what city dwellers do. So I went to the London Wildlife Trust and looked up all their data. And I found the list of 243 species at risk and I thought, “I can pay close attention to 243. I can remove them. So that’s what Come back home is.”
In fact, the drawings are just the beginning, as each depiction is enlarged and printed on a sustainably sourced 2m panel, which will be hung, lit and projected around a scale model of the dome. of St. Paul’s Cathedral in front of the Tate Modern. Inside the dome there will be choir stalls where, during the day, visitors can sit listening to a soundscape of Devlin saying, and a choir singing, each of the 243 species names. Instead of hymnals, QR codes will provide access to information on all species mentioned. Each evening, a London choir will sing live from the dome.
Devlin hopes the simple act of giving endangered species a voice will be transformative. There are well-known names such as the swift and the house swallow, but most of us are less likely to know the olive spit, the depressed river mussel or the German hairy snail intimately. ” There is a book, Revive yourself, by Simon Barnes, and he says, ‘Learn their names. The name changes everything. You will no longer listen to a vague thing or a bird song. You’ll listen to music you know and love. So it seems to me that the most useful thing I can do is to invite people to learn the names of the animals closest to them. I want them to think, ‘Actually, this network of animals in my town is completely continuous with the network that I’m a part of. Any harm I do to her or any way I ignore her hurts me. This is the change we all need to, quite quickly, make in our brains.
Around us is a library of books from which Devlin has drawn for his research. She quotes Richard Powers Pulitzer Prize winner Rebecca Solnit The dominant storyand regale me with the story behind Robert Hooke creating his micrography. It’s a leap between all that and the huge cubes showing projections of sharks and tigers that Devlin created for Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne tour in 2011; but surfing between high and pop culture is one of Devlin’s superpowers. How different does she find working on a solo project like Come back home and organize a mega-concert? ” You know what ? These great artists that I’ve been ridiculously lucky to have worked closely with, many over a long period of time now… they’re lightning rods, I think, they’re conductors. Their music resonates, much like the choirs that will perform in Come back home; it finds a vibration in all of us and that is why everyone wants to connect to it.
Opera director Keith Warner described Devlin as “the most driven person I have ever met in my life”. It is therefore not surprising that Come back home is just one of many projects she has rotated between: in February, she designed the halftime show for the Superbowl; she has just created a monolithic ring for Saint Laurent’s SS23 men’s show in the Moroccan desert; then there is the crucible in September and a collaboration with Sam Mendes and Jack Thorne, also for the National, on a new piece The motive and the signal; it is also contributing to COP27 in Egypt in November. But one thing she won’t be working on is Adele’s rescheduled performances in Vegas. Devlin was the designer for the original shows that were canceled in January and there were rumors that this may partly be due to on-set disagreements. Was there any truth in them? “The reason I didn’t say anything is that there’s nothing to say,” she said. “If there was more than one story, I’d honestly love to tell you, but there’s nothing. It was a pleasure working with her throughout. She’s a friend.”
As for the future, she is aware that as a designer creating monumental global installations while speaking about the importance of avoiding climate change, she exposes herself to accusations of hypocrisy. She nods and quotes a line from a U2 song, “I must be an acrobat, to talk like that and act like that.” But, “On the plus side, it’s my direct experience that every zoom I’m in, every room I walk into, I feel a lot more emboldened to open my mouth and say, ‘How do we audit the carbon emissions on this project?’ It was not a question that would have been asked consistently, even two years ago. Now you can open your mouth.
She hopes that Come back home might have a life beyond its September tenure outside Tate Modern, but if it doesn’t, nothing will go to landfill: “All of its particles will go back into circulation.” More importantly, Londoners and visitors from elsewhere will learn a little more about these 243 species, from the swift that flies the equivalent of seven times to the moon and back in its lifetime, to the 450-year-old sea lamprey. million years ago (“When I googled him to find a picture of him, you find him, most often, depicted on toast, which is really unfortunate”) and the streaky bombardier beetle clinging to his existence in the UK by a wire in Tower Hamlets.