in conversation: es devlin and hannah barry

Set designer Es Devlin and fellow Peckham stalwart, curator Hannah Barry, meet writer Eva Wiseman. 

Es Devlin cuts through space with light and mirrors, the result being, whether watching a Beyoncé concert, the Olympics opening ceremony or a tiny play at the Royal Court, that instead of simply sitting in a theatre, her audience finds themselves within an idea. She joins Hannah Barry, founder of car park turned sculpture park Bold Tendencies, and the beating heart of South London's arts scene in the shadow of Peckham's Bussey Building. One warehouse houses a groaning gym, another a coffee shop, and a third, Devlin's 11000 square foot installation, a mind-bending hall of mirrors. Along with Renaissance artists and contemporary philosophers, she drops names like Kanye West into conversation – Devlin's current intern is radio host Nick Grimshaw. The effect is not unlike being on one of her sets – inspiring and exciting. It leaves you slightly wobbly.

HANNAH BARRY: Es was the first set designer I've met. As a visual person, just being in proximity to that is inspiring and exciting. Without sounding cheesy, it actually broadens what you think about in your work.

ES DEVLIN: I’m a real latecomer to Instagram but it’s a little gateway. I follow the ceramicists, the woodworkers as well as NASA and robot technologies. I think all of that is rattling around my head when I work.

HB: You have so many projects on at once...

ES: I'm busy, but I put my kids to bed every night, take them to school every morning. I don’t sleep that much sometimes... What I found actually was if I was doing just one thing, I would put all my energy into it which was too much for any single project to bear. And actually, it’s kinder to my collaborators that they get a dose of me and then I fuck off. Directors do turn to me and say, ‘Will you shut the fuck up!’

Eva Wiseman: How did you first meet?

HB: We met through somebody called Phil Faversham who said to me, “I think you’re really going to love Es Devlin.” And I said, “That’s really weird because I’ve just read this article about her,” which was recommended to me by another friend because I’d always spoken about set design. I’m obsessed with Tadeusz Kantor and so I wanted to meet people in that world. I always dream about having a set for an orchestra rather than a play. So when we finally met in Peckham it was an amazing moment because Es had become one of my icons.

ES: Then Hannah helped me find my huge warehouse. The fortune I have of travelling a lot is going to a lot of galleries. It struck me that the work everyone was really responding to was the work where you become the protagonist yourself, like Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room. In LA, architects designed a beautiful staircase which is an escalator that goes through a grey clay coal, or there's Robert Thierren’s large scale table and chairs that you get dwarfed by. You become the protagonist of the work, where you can take a photograph of yourself within it. I think self-portraiture in the sort of Albrecht Dürer school is so exciting. I’m hoping people, as they go through this, are on a little mission of self discovery even if it’s no more profound than simply taking a photo of themselves in that environment. I love the idea that someone will place themselves in my work and hold that as one of those fragments of self that add up to them. I think that’s joyful.

It struck me that the work everyone was really responding to was the work where you become the protagonist yourself – ES DEVLIN

HB: We live in the 21st century which is an age of shared experience. The greatest works of art are those that stay in your memory through any means. It’s not about wanting something to be popular on Instagram, it’s about quality.

ES: But think about the march of ideas, each idea standing on the shoulder of an idea that went before it, think how rapidly that’s been sped up now. Think how long it took some of those images to cross the world back in the 14th century when you died crossing an ocean with a drawing of something. Now, think how quickly these images are feeding into people making work and how we are properly behaving as a collective of artists. I feel a part of a community on Instagram.

EVA: Could you have pictured five years ago a Chanel perfume inspired by Peckham?

ES: Not even five weeks ago frankly!

HB: There’s an air of possibility here. I think down here, around Peckham, people really celebrate making things.

ES: London is a great city of confluences which I find continuously surprising and amazing about a place that is also incredibly tough and filled with obstacles of one sort or another. But Peckham for me is still a no-mans land, and in a way you need no-man lands in order to make things happen.

EVA: Do you feel that ending? Are you worried about London?

HB: It’s our responsibility to come up with creative solutions to the problems that exist now which are different to the ones that existed 10 years ago. Bold Tendencies' role is to face with a certain level of courage toward the issues that exist.

ES: Getting Chanel down here – them creating a perfume responding to the event, I’m excited about the difference that might make.

HB: It goes both ways. I think it’s very exciting that Chanel must feel welcomed by Es into this location. It’s not about one or the other, it’s about the two meeting. It’s the same feeling we had when the BBC approached us to say they liked the orchestra we’d set up and that they’d like us to perform it live on Radio 3 outside the Albert Hall. That’s about the beginning of a different collaboration where two sets of people can help each other. It’s a mark of the 21st Century; both people show courage and trust in each other, that’s what collaborations are about.

ES: Likewise, people who wouldn’t stop in the Chanel section at duty free in an airport will hopefully feel welcome in this space and find an exploration of discovery and will think differently next time they see the Chanel logo.

HB: Nothing should be dismissed. We dismiss things because we think we know already. In fact, Hans Ulrich Obrist is someone who taught me a lot about not doing that, and instead exploring it. Out of that can come very surprising and progressive results, which we need.

HB: Do you ever think about the Old Testament? The Book of Revelations? People like Abbot Suger and Bernard of Clairvaux – people that grappled with the purity of light, honouring God in that way versus studying a crucifix with rubies.

ES: Yeah. Light coming through a surface rather than being reflected by a surface is interesting.

HB: What is that quote about seeing the light through glass darkly? it’s an amazing image isn’t it? I guess you get that kind of feeling at concerts sometimes?

"There’s an air of possibility here. I think down here, around Peckham, people really celebrate making things." – HANNAH BARRY

ES: I went back recently to a church in Tudeley near where I grew up, that I used to go to when I was a teenage goth. The windows are by Mark Chagall. What happened was, Sarah a 21-year-old girl, died at sea and her father wanted to commemorate her. Her persuaded her hero, Mark Chagall, to make his first stained glass window and then over the next 20 years he made the rest. From the outside the windows look black but from the inside when the sun comes through them, these stories are told by the bits you blocked out.

HB: That Abbot Suger stuff is really interesting – there was a war between two monks on the best way to honour God. One of them said it was through the purity of light, white architecture and big spaces, and the other one thought it was through crazy decorations and the adoration of God through rubies and sapphires, gold and stained glass windows.

ES: I’m 44 years old, in the middle of my life and the middle of my practice, and realising that all my work is about the same thing. That fundamental ritual of human beings gathering around a campfire, telling stories. When I stand in that stadium of 18,000 people and there’s a glowing cube with Beyoncé on it, imagery we have made to tell her story, I feel the same thing. So I want to keep scratching away at that idea.

HB: I like the idea of this fire as an icon for gathering. When you were just talking I was think about an emoji of a campfire.

EVA: And the idea that stories require light.

ES: I sit with Kanye or Beyoncé, and we think, what do we actually need? Well, you need a light. And then Kanye might go, “Do we? Shall we do the whole show with no lights?”

EVA: Is it really as abstract as that?

ES: With some people, yes, because they have nothing to lose – they’re at a point where the only thing left is to seek truth. They've done everything else. That motor of hunger in your belly for recognition and ambition has propelled them up to their mid-thirties, then the question is, where do they go next?

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