Come Home Again: Es Devlin’s witty ode to biodiversity at Tate Modern

Approached from the south, Es Devlin’s new public artwork in the Tate Modern Garden appears as an architectural homage, a monumental mock-up of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, directly opposite Christopher Wren’s original. In Devlin’s play – titled Come back home, and commissioned by Cartier, the dome was sliced ​​to reveal its cross-section, brilliantly illuminated and adorned from head to toe with cut-out sketches of moths, birds, beetles, wildflowers, fish and of mushrooms. At its base are steps that lead to choral risers, inviting passers-by to immerse themselves in Devlin’s pencil-drawn fauna.

By day, Come back home is a place of contemplation and learning. Entering the dome allows the visitor to examine the drawings up close – there are 243 in total, representing the 243 priority species identified by the London Biodiversity Action Plan as being in decline in the capital and therefore in need of conservation action. Instead of the prayer books you might expect in a place of worship, Devlin has placed QR codes that link to an all species guide. Equally important is the soundscape, created by Devlin’s regular musical collaborators Jade Pybus and Andy Theakstone, and intercutting recordings of various choirs singing the Latin names of priority species with the actual sounds of animals. Every few minutes, the glorious cacophony fades and Devlin’s voice emerges to introduce one of the species. She says its common and Latin names, and brings a nugget of information that helps us remember the animal. We learn, for example, that the swift (apus apus) can make the equivalent of eight round trips to the Moon in its lifetime.

Devlin at work in his south London studio, sketching two of the animal species on London’s priority species list and featured in Come back home. Courtesy of Es Devlin Studio

“I want to help people learn the names of these animals,” Devlin says as we talk in his south London studio two weeks before. Come back home’s unveiling. “Once you know their names, you make room for them in your imagination – it’s like the memory palace. And you will always think of them differently.

Even for an artist and designer accustomed to being in the spotlight (Devlin’s portfolio includes sets for Beyoncé, The Weeknd, Kanye West and U2, as well as Olympic ceremonies in London and Rio), Come back home is a project of great importance. The Tate Modern is one of London’s most visited attractions, and more and more people pass by its banks every day. The museum is therefore very selective as to what it allows to be placed in the garden. The site also has personal meaning for Devlin, a Londoner: “For me, the Tate Modern is emblematic of a real change in British culture: its opening coincided with a change in our character as a country and city, with New Labor and the rise of the YBA Suddenly, British culture was prominent on the world stage, having not been for many years.

The view of St Paul from the Tate Modern Garden makes the cathedral a natural starting point for a site-specific commission, but it was a conversation a few years ago with London Design Festival director Ben Evans that prompted Devlin to join the points between the two spaces. “He said, ‘Es, you should think about the connection between St Paul’s as the seat of ancient ecclesiastical power and the Tate as the seat of historic industrial power. [the museum building was once the Bankside Power Station], and now the seat of contemporary cultural power. Consider this convergence of energies and think about what you might do,” Devlin recalls, as we look at sketches and renderings of Come back home.

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Around the same time as his conversation with Evans, Devlin was discovering books on eco-philosophy – encouraged by the likes of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Alice Rawsthorn, and facilitated by the Amazon algorithm. The latter led her to the two most important volumes that influence her worldview and her practice today: David Abram’s become animal (“He talks a lot about magic, and how we can change our perceptions if we just interrupt our usual ways of seeing things,” she recaps.), and Joanna Macy’s World as lover, world as self. “Macy’s invites you to consider where your self ends, invites you to acknowledge that you feel selfish, you feel a sense of self-preservation,” Devlin says. “But what if where you consider yourself to reside was larger than just your own body and your own mind?”

Much of Devlin’s recent work mirrors Abram and Macy: there are forest for changewho planted 400 trees in the courtyard of London’s Somerset House to raise awareness of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and similarly Tree Conferencewho populated the New York Times‘ Climate Hub at COP26 in Glasgow with 197 trees and plants. Its widely photographed and Instagrammed labyrinth of mirrors, forest of us, also carries an environmental message; in his words, “it draws people’s attention to the connection between them and the planet”. Come back home, with its evocation of animal species that Devlin calls “non-human Londoners”, continues in this vein. “Man has gone through a period of separation from the biosphere to get to know it better, to specialize. But now we need to reconnect and come home to our shared planet,” Devlin says, adding that the words “dome” and “home” share etymological roots.

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In his attempt to better connect with the 243 priority species, Devlin decided to draw each of them in pencil on paper, using photographs as reference material. “This kind of observational drawing hadn’t been part of my practice since I was doing my artistic baccalaureate, but I wanted this feeling of submitting myself to the observation of a life that is not mine”, says- she. “I wasn’t trying to be expressive. So my drawing of the bumblebee is not my interpretation of the bumblebee, but an effort to learn the ways of the bumblebee. It was a four month process that involved some 18 days hours and gave Devlin ample opportunity to listen to podcasts about London wildlife and wildlife in general. The fruits of her labor are evident in the ease with which she can now identify each species and churn out facts: she points out, for example, that the striated bombardier beetle was thought to be extinct until 85 of them were counted in the borough of Tower Hamlets, and has since become a subject in the work of Sonia Boyce, who has won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale.

In Come back home, Devlin’s 243 sketches have been enlarged, printed on a sustainably sourced birch ply, cut and displayed on the cross section of the dome, with LED strips glued to the back for illumination (these will return to the inventory after the exhibition). The structure is made of recycled steel and stretched fabric, and it has opted for an eco-friendly matte paint finish, all to minimize the carbon footprint of the installation and thus align with its message.

Elegant and striking as it is during the day, it is at sunset that Come back home really come to life. Every evening until October 1, a London-based choir will come to the facility and sing their rendition of the Choral Evening Song, which the public can enjoy free of charge and without prior reservation. Devlin came up with the idea during her visit to St Paul’s, where she observed the daily ritual that marks the moment when day turns to evening: “Listening to the evening song, I thought, where else could you live this experience? They’re going to sing whether you show up or not, so it’s not a performance. It is in fact a call to prayer, a relic of a time of matins, nuns and vespers. You feel like you’re part of an old way of telling time. Whoever you are, you can enter and be surrounded by this extraordinary musical ensemble.

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The choir line-up is illustrious and reflects the cultural makeup of London, ranging from the award-winning Tenebrae to the London Bulgarian Choir and the South African Cultural Gospel Choir UK. They’ll sing in English, Latin, Bulgarian and Xhosa – “I’m interested in the parallel concerns of diminishing biodiversity and diminishing linguistic diversity,” says Devlin. “We are homogenizing, and our ethnosphere has also been impoverished along with the biosphere. There is an extraordinary document on endangered languages, and what you feel when you read it is also what you feel when you see the last polar bear on the last floating piece of ice. I also wanted to make that connection.

She is particularly looking forward to the performance of The Choir with No Name, a choir for the homeless and marginalized to experience the joy of singing together. “I challenge anyone not to cry that night. Because we’re talking about homes, and here we have people who don’t have homes, singing with all their hearts. I think it’s going to be incredibly moving.

Devlin likes to include a clear call to action with every install. So, just as Forest of Us in Miami encouraged visitors to donate to Instituto Terra, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reclaiming the Atlantic Forest, Come back home encourages the public to contribute and engage with the London Wildlife Trust, which protects, conserves and enhances the capital’s wildlife and wild spaces.

It’s a cause that also resonates with Cartier, with whom Devlin has a long-standing relationship (she cites the 2019 “Trees” exhibition at the Cartier Foundation, which brought together artists, botanists and philosophers, as a source of inspiration). inspiration for his recent practice). According to Cyrille Vigneron, CEO of Cartier, “with Come back homeEs Devlin has created a unique and thought provoking work of art, a choral sculpture representing how inspiring, yet fragile, the beauty of the world can be, calling for the preservation of the earth’s natural biodiversity.

At the end of the day, Come back home offers a message of hope, suggesting that if we take quick and decisive action to right past wrongs, we can return to a happier state of balance with the planet. As Devlin says in the installation’s soundscape, quoting Joanna Macy: “May we turn inward and fall upon our true roots in the interwoven biology of this exquisite planet. […] Now, it may appear to us. We are our world knowing each other. We can renounce our separation, we can come back home. §

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