From theatre sets to Trafalgar Square (and an Olympic ceremony thrown in for good measure), Es Devlin has had a whirlwind of a career. As part of our love letters to London series, she talks to Tom Ellen about the work she’s created in the capital throughout the years.
Stormzy at the BRIT Awards (2018)
"Stormzy was clear from the start that he wanted to talk about Grenfell, so I was intent on making sure that message came across. The BRITs has a remit not to be too political, though, so in rehearsals he had to perform a ‘decoy’ rap that didn’t even mention Theresa May or Grenfell. I liked the idea of rain during that section: Stormzy is a big, powerful man, but to rain on him immediately throws him into a position of vulnerability - it’s very moving. He is very religious, too, so we wanted that choral aspect behind him: the scale of a cathedral, but seen through his particular south London cultural lens."
Memory Palace (2019)
"This piece was a massive model city, mapping moments and locations in which human perspective has shifted over 75 millennia. It was inspired by anxiety over the climate crisis - a comforting reminder that humans can change their minds. One of the locations I included was the house in Clarendon Square where Mary Wollstonecraft wrote . The impact she had on culture and gender politics is huge, and I love the idea that she sat down one day at that particular desk in London, and we now understand the world differently as a result."
The Singing Tree (2017)
"The British tradition of Christmas trees really comes from Queen Victoria - she was so in love with Prince Albert that she wanted to incorporate his German traditions, one of which was the tree. So, for this installation at the Victoria & Albert Museum I wanted to harness that sense of community and collective gathering we associate with the Christmas tree. Visitors wrote down words, which were projected onto tiny bits of plywood and then fed through an algorithm to be ‘sung’. A constantly evolving Christmas carol, written by Londoners."
Please Feed The Lions (2018)
"Trafalgar Square is so interesting because historically it’s always been the meeting point of the affluent west and the working class east. It’s been a site of protest and riots, but also of celebration - and those lions have sat there for 150 years, witnessing it all. They were originally designed to be rampant - roaring - but apparently Queen Victoria found that too shocking. It made me think: ‘If they could talk, what would they say?’ We created a new lion, in high-vis orange, and the public typed in words that were projected into its mouth, and then whooshed up Nelson’s Column as a collective poem."
I Saw The World End (2020)
"I made this film with [long time collaborator] Machiko Weston for the Imperial War Museum, memorialising Hiroshima. It was made during lockdown, but eventually shown on the big screen at Piccadilly Circus, which was really extraordinary. During lockdown, advertising budgets were being slashed and it got a lot of people thinking, ‘Can we not use these huge screens across the city to show art, rather than constantly selling us stuff?’ That’s how our piece got up there, and hopefully there’s a lot more where that came from in terms of the Piccadilly screen being used for art moments, not just adverts."
Forest For Change (2021)
"Somerset House has a super interesting history, and one of the stipulations its designer, William Chambers, made was that the courtyard should have trees in it. When I was asked to be artistic director of the London Design Biennale, I was told: ‘You can do anything, except bring trees in.’ So, of course, I said: ‘Let’s do a forest’ [laughs]. It was related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: we planted 400 trees, which have since been reforested around Southwark. Brian Eno, who’s a hero of mine, and made the birdsong soundtrack for the piece, told me: ‘For years I’ve walked through this courtyard it was forest’. So, that was lovely to hear."
"This was a model city piece: very specifically about the part of London where Somerset House is located. It’s a sort of reverie on the river, the city and memory. I grew up in a rural town [Rye, Sussex], so my first memories of visiting London are very clear: going to see Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, and the bright lights through the car window in the rain. When I was older, I learned London a bit like a mole: I’d go into the Underground, and then pop up at the Hayward Gallery, then go back down, and pop up at a jumble sale in Neasden, or something [laughs]."
"I got an email back in 2016 asking if I wanted to work on a perfume ad for Chanel. But I decided it said: ‘Do you want to make your first art installation?’ That’s a piece of advice I always give people: just misread the email and do what want to do [laughs]. My studio was in Peckham at the time, so I found a space in the Bussey Building nearby - 12,000 sq. ft. to create a maze made of mirrors. We referenced Peckham with the perfume, too: Chanel created a one-off scent for the installation, which we called ‘Chanel SE15’".
Orange MiracleBox (2019)
"The Serpentine Gallery’s [annual] party is a real London ‘moment’, and two years ago I was invited to make a work for it. Moving cubes are fascinating to me, so I designed a bright orange box that’s constantly changing as it spins. That high-vis orange usually gets people’s attention - particularly in London, where it’s so grey and miserable [laughs]. The Serpentine is a great example of how London is pushing boundaries in art: they’ve had FKA twigs taking over the gallery, as well as poets, fashion designers, and all sorts of people from diverse backgrounds."
London Olympics Closing Ceremony (2012)
"I think as Londoners we all went into those Olympics thinking, ‘Oh, it’s going to be shit’. And you know what: it really wasn’t. It was wonderful. I was so pleased to be part of it. That said, we had 16 hours to set the Closing Ceremony up, and for a show that size you’d usually need at least four days. I remember running round and round that stadium looking for the final piece of Damien Hirst’s huge Union Jack flag. It turned out someone had put it in the bin [laughs]. When we were done, I was exhausted, my hands bleeding from sticking down that flag. But I went to my seat, boogied to the Spice Girls, and had the best night."
"[This piece] is based on the Byron poem ‘Darkness’ - which was written in the wake of a volcanic eruption in 1815 whose ash cloud led to a ‘year without summer’ across Europe and America. Some contemporary geo-engineers are using temperature-reducing volcanic ash clouds as a reference point in their proposals to limit global heating with a shield of reflective particles in the earth’s atmosphere - it’s generally viewed as an extreme intervention which would likely turn the skies a permanent white. In London we are particularly appreciative of blue skies when we are lucky enough to experience them, so the prospect of never witnessing blue sky again feels particularly resonant."
A Number is at The Old Vic until 19 March. oldvictheatre.com