Who is Es Devlin? A look at the works of the British artist designing the UK Pavilion for Expo 2020

She has designed stages for Beyonce, Kanye West and U2, and has also conceptualised sets for prestigious theatres around the world

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Es Devlin doesn’t just create stages or sets. She builds worlds.

The British artist and stage designer has been conceptualising stages in opera houses and theatres, performance sets for musical icons, architectural runways for fashion shows and immersive installations for the past 25 years.

In that time, she has become one of the most sought-after set designers in the world, known for fusing light, video, music and language through large-scale sculpture and installation. In her work, Devlin has the ability to create new environments that keep audiences captivated, whether they’re at a concert, a play or an art exhibition.

Last year, she was selected to develop the UK Pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai. Incredibly, this makes her the first woman to be commissioned by the UK to design a pavilion since the inaugural world exposition in 1851.

Devlin’s The Poem Pavilion marries technology and poetry in a conch-shaped sculpture. Powered by artificial intelligence, the work will generate a poem from words provided by Expo 2020 visitors. The message will be illuminated via multiple video screens jutting out of the sculpture, constantly changing as more visitors participate. For the artist, the need for collaboration to activate the piece will help transcend boundaries of nationality and language.

The project parallels a previous work for the London Design Festival in 2018 called Please Feed the Lions. Devlin installed a sculpture of a fluorescent red lion next to Landseer's Lion Statues in Trafalgar Square. The interactive installation would roar poetry based on words 'fed' to it by the public. In its mouth, an LED screen would spell out verses devised by AI.

Born in the UK, Esmeralda Devlin studied English Literature at Bristol University then went on to complete an art foundation course at Central St Martin’s in London. She was in her mid-twenties when she began doing stage design in earnest. Even then, she tried to fit her ambitious ideas into small theatres.

In 2003, she worked on her first music-related stage design for the punk band Wire's farewell performance. When Kanye West saw images of the show, he was intrigued. The two began collaborating in 2005, with Devlin working on a number of his tours, including Yeezus, Glow in the Dark and Watch the Throne with Jay-Z.

A colossal scarred mask developed from a 3D scan of The Weeknd's face is the centrepiece of Devlin's design for the musician's Coachella perfomance. Courtesy Es Devlin
A colossal scarred mask developed from a 3D scan of The Weeknd's face is the centrepiece of Devlin's design for the musician's Coachella perfomance. Courtesy Es Devlin

Her afrofuturist design for The Weeknd’s stage at Coachella in 2018 is perhaps one of her most memorable so far. A colossal scarred mask developed from a 3D scan of the musician’s face tilted precariously on stage, with lights and video projects adding to the spectacle. According to Devlin’s artist statement, the piece relates to her interest in the notion of portraiture and alter egos within the context of concert performances.

Among the list of musicians Devlin has collaborated with are Beyonce, Adele, U2, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga.

Her work in theatre has been just as spectacular. Take for example the basin-shaped stage she developed for the 2017 play Ugly Lies the Bone, held at London's National Theatre. Embedded in the basin structure is a 3D map of a town in Florida, where the story is set. A soldier returns home after three tours in Afghanistan and experiments with virtual reality therapy as a way to deal with her pain. Audiences enter this surreal VR world with the protagonist through video projections cast onto the set.

Devlin's design for the opera 'Carmen', staged at the Bregenz Festival in 2017. Courtesy Es Devlin
Devlin's design for the opera 'Carmen', staged at the Bregenz Festival in 2017. Courtesy Es Devlin

The same year, Devlin completed another work – a massive sculptural platform for the four-act opera Carmen, part of the Bregenz Festival in Austria, which takes place on a floating stage on Lake Constance. A pair of hands shuffles a deck of cards mid-air, some cascading down to the water – it was on this structure that actors performed the show. The floating cards were actually blank, but video projections brought the narrative to life at night.

Looking at her list of achievements, the award-winning artist never seems to run out of creative energy, working with luxury fashion brands such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton. In 2016, she was commissioned to create Mirror Maze. Installed inside a former warehouse, the work featured a mirrored staircase and a room filled with lights, smoke and the scent of a Chanel perfume.

For the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics Games in London, Devlin covered the stadium floor with the reproduction of a Damien Hirst spin painting – red, white and blue streaks that represented British culture, but also gave a nod to British Pop Art. Titled Beautiful Union Jack Celebratory Patriotic Olympic Explosion in an Electric Storm, the colossal work measured 130 meters wide.

In a more recent piece, she defied the typical real estate diorama by creating Egg, a large-scale oval-shaped sculptural map of lower Manhattan that rotated over a water feature. The piece was to promote The XI, a building complex in New York's Chelsea neighbourhood.

Over the years, Devlin has begun to lean more towards her own artistic practice, outside of music acts and theatre. Her current exhibition at Pitzhanger, which runs through January 2020, lends elements from Egg, her design for Ugly Lies the Bone and another previous work titled Mask.

Commissioned by the manor-turned-gallery, Memory Palace is comprised of white architectural sculptures that chart the shifts in human perception through time. The sculptures are laid on top of a curved base cut from bamboo. They cluster together to form a map of ideas represented through fragments of cities or landmarks – the tree under which the Buddha became enlightened, the Egyptian pyramids, the Athenian Acropolis, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Adam Smith’s house in Kirkcaldy where he wrote The Wealth of Nations, and even the bus in Alabama where Rosa Parks defied racial segregation in the US.

By installing a mirror in front of the work, Devlin exaggerates this curved effect, producing a landscape that stretches to infinity.

With all this, Devlin – who has a studio in London with a team of eight (mostly women) – still has a lot lined up for the next year. In addition to Expo 2020, she is also artistic director of the 2020 London Design Biennale. Whatever she comes up with, it’s worth looking out for.