Es Devlin’s Next Stage
LONDON — Es Devlin was sitting in her garden communing with nature. Or rather, she was waving her phone, trying to get a bird song identification app to pick up chirrups from the surrounding trees. “Definitely two birds talking to each other, isn’t it?” she said. “I always want to know what they are. I’ve got a bit obsessed.”
Obsessed is one way of putting it. For the past few years, Devlin, one of the world’s most in-demand stage designers, has been moonlighting as a conservationist. Most recently, she has been getting to know the birds, bats, moths and fungi that are most at risk in London from threats including the climate crisis and habitat loss.
Those creatures will be celebrated in “Come Home Again,” a “choral sculpture” created by Devlin and her studio that will be unveiled on Wednesday. Installed outside Tate Modern until Oct. 1, it will be filled with the sounds of birds, bats and insects and decorated with Devlin’s black-and-white drawings of 243 species on an endangered list prepared by the London authorities. Devlin had been sketching for almost four months, she said, sometimes for 18 hours a day.
Her work ethic is relentless. She reckoned that, since beginning as a theater designer in the mid-1990s, she had worked on “about 380” projects — but also that she’d done “a few since I last counted.” And while plenty of visual artists have made cameo appearances as stage designers (Chagall, Dalí, Picasso, Indiana, Hockney), Devlin is rare in having traveled in the opposite direction. These days, you’re as likely to encounter her work in art galleries, stadium gigs, fashion shows or architecture expos as in theaters or opera houses.
Early on, she developed a reputation for crafting stage visuals that became the talking point of a show. In 1996, for her first professional job at a regional English theater — Christopher Marlowe’s murderous “Edward II” — she studied plumbing to create a bathhouse-style set whose showers ran with blood. Two years later, at the National Theater, a ghostly set for Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” impressed the famously cantankerous playwright. According to newspaper reports, he asked during an opening night meet-and-greet, “Have you met Es Devlin? She wrote the play.”
One reason Devlin drew so much attention was that she rejected the English theater orthodoxy that designs should be attractive décor that would blend into the background. “I wasn’t ever afraid for the objects I made to be the protagonists,” she said. “Not everyone thought like that.”
When one of Kanye West’s assistants called, in 2005, and asked Devlin to help save his ailing “Touch the Sky” arena tour, she was on a plane to New York 24 hours later, with books about James Turrell and Wagner to inspire the rapper, with whom she collaborated on new designs. Her most recent large-scale triumph, a set for the Super Bowl halftime show, last February, involved a larger-than-life-size model of part of Dr. Dre’s hometown, Compton, Calif.
“Whatever she’s working in, Es does it with absolute commitment,” said Alex Poots, the artistic director of The Shed, in a phone interview. He first spotted Devlin’s work at a fringe London theater in the early 2000s and convinced her to design a gig for the British art punk band Wire, her first foray into music. “There are so many different sides to what she can do. That was obvious even then.”
The work at Tate Modern is a case in point. Like many of Devlin’s projects, “Come Home Again” has many layers and teems with references: From outside, it resembles the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which it faces across the River Thames. Inside, the audience will be invited to sit down and enjoy performances by London-based choirs. When they aren’t performing, the space will be filled with recorded bird song and animal noises.
Devlin explained that visitors would also be able to scan QR codes inside the installation that will bring up information about the endangered species. “If we give something a name, we give it a place in our imagination,” she said. “The piece is all about imagination.”
When it was suggested that this sounded complicated, Devlin grinned. “I really like complexity,” she said.
Though more and more of her work is taken up by self-initiated projects, rather than commissions, Devlin said she still sees herself as a collaborative artist; well-funded gigs in fashion and music help her maintain a small studio of architects and designers. “I will often have an idea, but I really lean on my studio to help me evolve it,” she said, adding that concurrent projects often fed into each other, even if they’re wildly different.
A “rain box” — a glass enclosure onto which images of rain were projected — cropped up in both a London production of Brian Friel’s play “Faith Healer,” in 2016, and a stadium tour by Adele that same year. Boxes, indeed, have become something of a Devlin signature: A spinning cube stood in for a Manhattan gallery and a Beijing police interrogation room in her design for Lucy Kirkwood’s 2013 play “Chimerica,” and the action of Stefano Massini’s “The Lehman Trilogy,” which came to Broadway earlier this year, took place inside an airless, rotating glass tank.
The curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who has collaborated with Devlin several times, said that her determination to work in several fields had opened a path for younger artists. “You see that happening more and more,” he said. “People are working in poetry, but also visual art. They’re making music as well as tech. The thing that’s impressive about Es is that she’s been doing it a long time, and that her work is taken seriously in all these different places.”
Devlin had broken ground, Poots agreed. “I’m not sure she’d have been able to have this kind of career 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s like the world is finally ready for her.”
The fall is turning into something of a Devlin retrospective in London. Last week, revivals of two operas she designed for the Royal Opera House, “Salome” and “Don Giovanni,” returned to the company’s stage. On Wednesday, a new production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” directed by another longtime collaborator, Lyndsey Turner, opens at the National Theater.
Alongside the drama and opera work that still occupies much of her time, she is planning an art show in New York with Pace gallery, exhibiting her drawings. Oh, and there is a book for Thames and Hudson in the works — highlights from her vast back catalog. It was meant to come out a few years ago, but she hasn’t had time. “I should really finish it,” she said, grimacing.
How does she describe herself these days? Designer? Artist? Something else? She laughed, and said she drew inspiration from Christopher Wren, the polymathic astronomer-turned-architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral: “Multi-hyphenate is fine.”