The multi-disciplinary artist on unrealised work and collaborating with Beyoncé.
Es Devlin is a multi-hyphenate creative powerhouse – an artist who creates immersive installations, a set designer who makes iconic stage sculptures for the likes of Kanye West and The Weeknd and a curator, responsible for London’s 2021 Design Biennale. In 2021, Devlin premiered her large-scale work BLUESKYWHITE at 180 Studios as part of the LUX exhibition.
On 11 October, Devlin’s work returns to 180 Studios as part of Cosmos, an exhibition created by the artist for Gucci. To mark its opening, we’re publishing an extract from her 2021 interview with Serpentine Galleries’ artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist. Originally featured in the F/W 2021 issue of Fact’s print edition, the interview includes Devlin’s thoughts on breaking down silos and passing it on to the next generation.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Can you give us one example of a collaboration with a musician where you felt it all came together and sort of transcended into something else?
Es Devlin: The Beyoncé Formation Tour felt like a significant moment particularly because of what she was doing at that moment. She had just written Lemonade, which was such an important piece of writing — a very personal, political and musical statement. The day of the release of the album was also the first day of the tour, and the first day of her presenting herself, I would say, in quite a new way—a big turning of a page, I guess, in her personal life as well as in her practice.
HUO: You already spoke about the installation at 180, but 180 is not only a place of exhibitions, but also a space where the future of the office is being tested. I think it’s very fascinating that there is an encounter there between TikTok, Dazed and Frieze, and young artists’ studios, and artist-in-residencies and exhibitions. Whenever I am at 180, I encounter new people.
How is your office, your studio working? And how do you see the future of the office now, post-lockdown?
ED: I believe the studio is a place for people to grow; its prime purpose is as an incubator. The question to ask oneself at the end of each day, in terms of assessing the success or failure, is Did people grow?
One of the things we’ve discovered during the pandemic is people have had a chance to reflect and make decisions about what they want to do with their lives. For the people within my studio – who are each brilliant designers in their own right – to choose to devote their time and energy and life to a practice which has my name on it, is a significant choice. I feel I owe it to them to make sure that the kind of terms of that engagement are that they get to grow, and that we assess, between us, when they feel they’ve grown as much as they can within the studio, then fly, and I support them in their own practice.
HUO: That’s a great answer! Another thing is, of course, now that so many of your projects are being realised, it’s always the question of the unrealised project. I would say my work is about 50 percent unrealised. I want to do an exhibition at a big institution where all these unrealised projects are exhibited and hopefully realised.
ED: I’d say for me it’s also around 50 percent — maybe a little less, 40 percent. The one unrealised work that comes to mind today was the idea of a world tour, but in the true sense of the word. Because it struck me, having worked on these so-called world tours for a long time, that they really are not that. When an artist or musician goes on a world tour, what they really do is go on a tour between planes, buses and the corridors round the back of a stadium, or an arena, or a theatre, and the stage. That’s their tour. So my idea was, could we reset the paradigm of what a world tour could be? And this might also have something to do with musicians also resetting what it is that’s for sale.
There’s a wonderful book called The Recording Angel, which looked at all the different ways in which music makes money for others, either through the medium of vinyl, or tape, or compact disc or now streaming, whatever it is. That connection between the financial currency of an artwork and the artist has, perhaps, remained a little more streamlined.
Someone like Kendrick Lamar, for example, would be an extraordinary artist to consider offering an exhibition to. If you honour a so-called recording artist as an artist and give them the means to manifest full artistic expression, that might be a way for them to shake some of those exploitative paradigms and forge new ones.
HUO: A lot of young artists, designers, architects, might read this interview. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a wonderful little book called Letters to a Young Poet. What would be Es Devlin’s advice, on July the 19th, 2021 at 13:06 London time, to a young designer, or a young architect, a young stage designer, a young installation artist — all the many things you’re doing?
ED: Pay a lot of attention to how you name yourself. And don’t limit the naming of yourself. You can be multi-hyphenate. Anything can be encapsulated between the hyphens, of the title that you give yourself. And you can change it, daily.
Featured image: Yeezus, 2013. Early concept model
This feature was originally published in Fact’s A/W 2021 issue, which is available to buy here.
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