In the early moments of the new movie Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé, a stadium hums with the sound of tens of thousands of fans eager for the show to begin. All eyes are on the stage, where a monumental image of Beyoncé’s body stretches across a vast LED screen. The opening music falls silent, and the image slowly rises, giving way to a backdrop of clouds in a blue sky. The camera zooms in on concertgoers’ faces, screaming, weeping, ecstatic in anticipation of the star’s entrance.
It is a powerful visual moment, and it began with a series of sketches on paper by a British stage designer and artist named Es Devlin.
You have probably seen Devlin’s work.
Her vision helped create the 2022 Super Bowl halftime show with Dr. Dre and other hip-hop artists; the closing ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London; sets for Don Giovanni seen at opera houses in London and Los Angeles; dance performances; fashion shows; pop music spectacles by Lady Gaga, The Weeknd and U2; and now Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour. Her stage design for The Lehman Trilogy on Broadway won a Tony Award. In recent years Devlin has also been making her own large public works, often exploring the strained connections among human beings and the environment.
She has the ability “to get a thousand million eyeballs focused on one thing,” says Maria Nicanor, director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City, which recently opened a new exhibition of Devlin’s work. “She creates narratives that feel personal, that bring us back to the importance of gathering and creating ritual, which we somehow have lost.”
Devlin herself designed the exhibition, “An Atlas of Es Devlin,” in a multimedia choreography of music, video, projection mapping, animation, rotating 3D models and the drawings from which they evolved. The book accompanying the show is an 800-plus-page assemblage of her notes, sketches, conversations with her creative partners and color photographs of their finished works. Together the show and book direct our attention to the process and the teamwork by which these sensory environments come into being.
“Everything really starts on paper,” Devlin says. From her earliest stages of research—listening to a pop artist’s songs or reading a script or libretto—and throughout the process, she sketches.
“Anytime she begins a collaboration or a project, she sits down at a table, she always has a piece of paper, and she always has something to draw with, whether it’s a Sharpie or a pencil,” says Andrea Lipps, the exhibition’s curator, who is associate curator of contemporary design and head of digital collecting at the Cooper Hewitt. “That’s really how she thinks.”
As the artist’s dialogue with a director or a performer continues, it expands to include designers and architects on her staff, who add their own research and ideas, Devlin says, and “conjure things in three dimensions, either by making models or by making three-dimensional computer models and renderings.” The pool of creative partners grows further, to include video designers, sound designers, costume designers, lighting designers, engineers, prop makers, fabricators and others. Their conversations are accompanied, Devlin writes in the catalogue, by “multiple hands sketching while talking.”
Video designer Luke Halls is one of Devlin’s longtime collaborators. For more than 15 years, he and his studio have produced video, animation and projections on work ranging from Adele concerts to The Lehman Trilogy to public artworks like Devlin’s choral sculpture Come Home Again outside the Tate Modern in London last year—as well as the Cooper Hewitt’s current exhibition.
He describes a creative back-and-forth between just the two of them at first, then involving their teams as they delve into the practicalities of turning their sketches into reality. “The most interesting part,” he says, is when they move beyond sketches and models and see the project built in the space it was designed for. “When we get to the stage, when we see it physically, when we see everyone’s different parts coming together—sound and lighting and video and orchestra and whatever else—that’s when we learn what the balance is between all those different voices,” he says.
Collaboration, Devlin says, demands empathy. Navigating large teams of artists and craftspeople who have their own ideas of how things ought to be done means that “we have to look through each other’s eyes all the time,” she says. “You can’t collaborate without showing compassion for another’s point of view.”
One gallery in the exhibition is dedicated to the names of her many collaborators over the years, accompanied by her voice reading them aloud. She calls it “an invocation of gratitude.”
Together the show and book break down the creative process. Three of Devlin’s early sketches of Beyoncé on the immense screen for the Renaissance tour, for example, can be seen in the book along with photos of that screen from the concert tour, and the exhibition includes a recreated 3D model of it, with its own miniature projection.
Contradictions are visible throughout Devlin’s projects: Massive sets are also ephemeral, designed to be built and dismantled in a matter of days. Work she designed for other artists incorporates themes that are recognizably her own—circles, cubes, mirrors, lines of light. Epic-scale images of Beyoncé or Adele render the stars as superhuman, while also dwarfing the real-life performers in a way that accentuates their vulnerability.
From her earliest days designing sets for tiny theaters, Devlin was drawn to the idea of the audience, what she calls “a temporary society”: a “little group of people” who during two or so hours of watching a play or a concert “are united by having experienced what you’re gathered together to experience,” she says.
“Particularly in this moment,” says Lipps, given “how fractured we all are, to be able to gather us all and to get people to experience something together—there’s an importance in that ritual.”
In the Cooper Hewitt exhibition, Devlin aims to mold museumgoers into a temporary society of their own. When visitors arrive at the show’s entrance, a group is ushered into a small room together. The doors shut behind them, and the visitors are enclosed, looking around a bit awkwardly, with no visible exit.
The room recreates Devlin’s studio, its walls lined with taped-up drawings, its shelves cluttered with file boxes, binders and cardboard models. A table in the center holds stacks of blank paper and mugs of pencils and brushes. Within moments, projected animations begin to glow on the white pages, creating illusions of musical scores and scripts, with increasingly dense annotations, while a video narrated by Devlin plays on one wall.
The illusions multiply, and by the time visitors continue into the rest of the show, Devlin says, “rather than individual visitors to an exhibition, I hope you will have been congealed somewhat by the first room into a miniature audience.”
Devlin also makes a point in the exhibition of exposing ideas that didn’t work, like the time her set design trapped a punk band inside oversize boxes at the end of their concert, with no way to exit the stage. At one moment in the Renaissance movie, Beyoncé flips through what look like dozens of abandoned sketches and drafts of her show’s stage. Devlin’s exhibition acknowledges that mistakes and adaptations are part of the process.
In her own artwork, as distinct from stage designs for other artists, Devlin often creates temporary sculptures that invite audience participation. Her Poem Portraits, an artificial-intelligence-generated poem using words suggested by the public, was first installed at the Serpentine in London in 2016 and continues online today. Your Voices at Lincoln Center in New York City in 2022 explored the world’s endangered languages by tracing the hundreds of different languages currently spoken in New York. She brought endangered animal species to the fore in Come Home Again at the Tate Modern and again in her supersized work for U2’s current residency at the Sphere in Las Vegas.
And yet, as Lipps notes, the process starts out the same way, no matter how big or small the work. “All of these large-scale pieces,” she says, “whether it’s something we see on television, whether it’s a massive gathering where you’re in an audience of 100,000 people—these massive projects also begin on a sheet of paper.”
“They begin very humbly.”
“An Atlas of Es Devlin” is on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, located at 2 East 91st Street in New York City through August 11, 2024.
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