Es Devlin’s Miami Mirror Maze and Forking Career
The British artist and set designer discussed her labyrinth at Superblue Miami, and her Thames-side installation that had 7,000 people singing.
Es Devlin, Forest of Us (2021). Courtesy Superblue Miami.
Helmed by Chief Executive Daniel Dolan, and Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, Superblue is showing a monumental mural by JR, a light installation by James Turrell, an immersive digital experience courtesy of teamLab, and a mirrored labyrinth by the set designer Es Devlin for Miami Art Week.
For Devlin, this marks the end of a remarkable year. Her first major solo exhibition in the U.S., An Atlas of Es Devlin, opened at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum last month at the same time her hotly-anticipated monograph, co-published with Thames & Hudson, hit the shelves.
Forest of Us is a mirror maze, something we usually associate with carnivals and fun houses. What's different about Forest of Us, and presenting it in an experiential art context?
Forest of Us begins with a short film in which I invite the audience to consider the visual symmetry between the tree-like, bifurcating bronchial structures within our lungs that allow us to breathe, and the parallel structures of trees and plants around us that make the air breathable.
Gas exchange mechanisms maximise their efficiency by bifurcating in order to increase their surface area, to maximise their exposure to the air. The surface area enfolded within our lungs is equivalent to that of a tennis court. To those of us, like me, who didn't take our biology studies too far at school, this is something of a revelation.
Once you have seen this visual symmetry, it's hard to unsee it. Once you have perceived the visual continuity between the structures within yourself and the structures of the biosphere, you begin to question the separation between world and self.
The film in Forest of Us splits apart and invites the audience to enter it. Visitors traverse the perforated film into a maze that follows the bifurcating forms they've just been viewing. My hope is that having received the information through eyes and ears, the audience now walk the story into their bones by following the outlines of bronchial forms with bodies and feet.
I learned that 14th Century Christian pilgrims who could not make the trip to the Holy Land used to walk the labyrinthine patterned pavement within Chartres Cathedral, France, reciting stories and prayers as they progressed. To me these are the roots of narrative mazes and meditative labyrinthine forms.
Hans Ulrich Obrist has praised you for spearheading 'an art form of collaboration—a communal space for the rituals of theatre, pop concerts or art'. You've worked with Sam Mendes, Beyonce and Louis Vuitton, among many others. What has been your most rewarding collaboration?
One of the projects that has been most rewarding was Come Home Again (2022), a large public choral sculpture outside the Tate Modern last October. Formerly the Bankside Power Station, a centre of industrial power, was now the Tate Modern, a locus of cultural power. It sits opposite St Paul's Cathedral, an ancient seat of ecclesiastical power, which were both conjoined by River Thames, a vein of planetary force.
Come Home Again (2022) was commissioned by Cartier to celebrate Londoners. There are more than 15,000 species of Londoner of whom only one is human. However, I was interested in the others.
London Wildlife Trust's CEO Matthew Firth advised me that while conservation groups can advance planning regulations to protect wildlife habitats, we need artists and designers to conserve a habitat for London's more-than-human species within the human imagination.
I spent four months drawing 243 of London's most endangered species. I arranged the drawings within a one third-scale replica of St Paul's Cathedral, in which choirs of the diaspora sang each evening, accompanied by the voices of some of the species. The singing carried across the River Thames to reach St Paul's Cathedral.
Seven thousand people gathered outside the work on the final evening. Each day visitors sat within the choral tiers of the work, learning the names and stories of each plant, insect, fish, fungus, bird, reptile and mammal that calls London home.
Forest of Us appears to be more of a solo work than many of your previous projects. What challenges and opportunities come with sticking to and executing your own vision?
The concerns and investigations at the root of both solo and collaborative works are often continuous with one another.
Forest of Us began with model mazes I made in 2006 in response to Mozart and Da Ponte's opera Don Giovanni and I continued to explore these labyrinthine forms when I was working on the Pet Shop Boys' Electric tour in 2013.
However, it wasn't until 2016 that I realised my first large-scale maze as a solo work called MirrorMaze for a warehouse in South East London. Later in 2017, I developed the form of a perforable film splitting into a mirrored labyrinth for Room 2022 launched during Art Basel Miami Beach that year.
So although a solo work, the form of Forest of Us has its roots in much earlier collaborative pieces, and extends its influence into more recent performance works.
I always find it enriching though to learn to see through the eyes and experiences of my collaborators and what I learn through collaboration tends to find its way into the strands of thinking I pursue within the solo works.
You've spoken about how this year—with the publication of your monograph An Atlas of Es Devlin, and your first major solo in the U.S. at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum—is a 'retrospective moment' for you. What have you learned during this time to reflect, and what projects do you have coming up?
The retrospective monographic book took seven years to make. While it is one of the smallest objects I have made, I poured more hours of labour and love into it than any giant stadium work.
It has been quite emotional to see all the works compressed together in one place. Many of the pieces are ephemeral and exist only in photographs and memories now. Seeing them gathered together has made it possible for me to discern the recurring forms and lines of enquiry. The writing of the accompanying text was also an illuminating exercise as I began to perceive the threads that conjoin seemingly diverse paths of investigation.
I think at the heart of the practice there's a growing urge to gather audiences in acts of ritual. My interest now is to create works of ritual that help us to perceive and practice continuity with one another and with the biosphere. —[O]