The artist behind Adele’s ‘baggy old pond’: why Es Devlin is the Willy Wonka of design

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Es Devlin in her 2016 installation, Mirror Maze - John Nguyen/JNVisuals
Es Devlin in her 2016 installation, Mirror Maze - John Nguyen/JNVisuals

Was it all a squabble over a pond? If anonymous sources in the tabloids are to be believed - and that’s a big “if” - the reason why the plug was pulled on Adele’s Las Vegas shows, just one day before her first performance, was a disagreement over the staging by British designer Es Devlin. Apparently, the singer was meant to be lifted, as if walking on water, above a slowly filling pool. She reportedly called it a “baggy old pond”.

Devlin had created the sets for Adele’s 2016 tour, to widespread acclaim. Though there’s not much point speculating over gossip, or indulging in armchair psychology, claims that Adele would reject outright her old collaborator’s plans do seem rather surprising. When I met Devlin last year, at her studio in a leafy corner of Dulwich, she struck me as the kind of person who could convince anyone to do anything. (She did, after all, once talk Miley Cyrus into sliding down a giant replica of her own tongue.)

Charismatic, outspoken, energetic and - like many artists - perhaps very slightly mad, throughout her career the 50-year-old has managed a delicate balancing act. She takes on the kind of large-scale commissions that should involve a great deal of compromise - two Olympics ceremonies, stadium shows, art in Trafalgar Square, a collaboration with Chanel - but then seemingly finds a way to stuff compromise and do exactly what she wants. As she put it in a 2019 Telegraph interview, “It’s very unusual for me to look at a piece of work and say, ‘Well, I didn’t want that bit’.”

For the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, her brief was to incorporate the Union flag. “I thought it was a terrible idea,” she told me. So she immediately set about looking for a way to subvert it. "That flag is an act of violence itself, so how can you find a postive way into it?” She ransacked history for ideas. “OK, let’s look up all the Union Jacks that have ever been. Let’s look at the graphic designers who James I was working with when he plonked the George Cross over the Scottish flag…” The end result was a wild, messy swirl of red, white and blue, based on a spin painting by Damien Hirst.

Devlin has a playful, Willy Wonka-ish streak: at one point, she led me into an airy side-room of her studio, with a pair of giant hands against one wall (a model of her set for Carmen), where half a dozen assistants were earnestly tapping away on computers at their desks. “Do the thing!” she cried, as if keen to show off a new toy. A little bemused, they did “the thing”: buttons were pressed, and with a faint buzzing sound each desk lifted a few inches higher up.

A lifelong Londoner, she lives in South London with her husband and two children. There’s a philosophical bent to her work that sometimes goes overlooked. Before studying art at Central St Martin’s Devlin read literature at Bristol University, writing a dissertation on the poet Adrienne Rich. "I became completely obsessed with her work,” she said. “I think because I was always interested in the meeting of the abstract and the concrete... it made it possible to hold language as a sculpture, which is what I've tried to do."

Her latest major piece, built to represent the UK at the world fair Expo 2020, made that “language as a sculpture” idea literally true. A £26 million “Poem Pavilion” built on the edge of the desert outside Dubai, it used words like building-blocks, projecting an constantly changing series of AI-generated poems onto a bank of LEDs 65 feet high.

It was a theatre set for the National’s 1998 revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal that launched her career. Though she’s returned to theatre since (most memorably for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican), these days Devlin is perhaps best known for mainstream pop concerts. She’s worked with everyone from The Rolling Stones and U2 to Kanye West and Beyoncé. At the Brit Awards, she put the storm in Stormzy, capturing the rapper in a spine-tingling shower of onstage rain.

U2 performing at the O2 on October 23 - Redferns
U2 performing at the O2 on October 23 - Redferns

Her own music tastes, though, are more eclectic. At one point, she broke off our conversation to play me a piece of Bulgarian choral music. When we spoke, she admitted that watching big stadium pop shows can leave her with a “weird” feeling. She often turns away from the stage to look at the crowd, only to see none of them are actually watching the grand spectacle in front of them. They’re all staring at the tiny pixellated versions of it that they’re recording on their phone screens instead. Naturally, this gets her thinking about the end of humanity.

"I really respect audiences, I don’t think they act in an arbitrary way. This is a collective animal of 90,000 people," she said. “Why are you all instinctively donig this? I can’t imagine you’ve all got time to sit and watch the whole thing [again] on your screen, and you don’t even know what you’re filming. What’s the compulsion to record everything? This is a terrible thing to say - but is it somehow deep in our species’ bones, ancestral…”

Dua Lipa performing in Seville, on a stage designed by Es Devlin - Getty
Dua Lipa performing in Seville, on a stage designed by Es Devlin - Getty

Perhaps, Devlin told me, eagerly, the videos those fans record are not actually made to be watched by human beings. “Have you read [Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel] Oryx and Crake? That sense of the postcorporal - like in Minority Report, where it goes one road towards the intelligent, one road towards the pure animal. In Oryx and Crake it’s either the balloons with the blue bottoms, or it’s the pure postcorporal mind. Is there a sense of our species at some level knowing it’s some kind of husk for something in the future that might require all this information?”

Most of Devlin’s work is ephemeral; temporary art installations, concert sets that are dismantled as soon as the tour is over. But in the long-run, she reminded me, nothing lasts forever. "We’re doing our best to forestall extinction, but even if we correct all the misfirings on climate change, the sun will still burn out in 13 billion years, won’t it?" she asked, with a raucous laugh. It certainly puts any supposed row over a pond in perspective.

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