es devlin and a ‘box of rain’ - inside her light and water installation for BMW at art basel 2024

es devlin and a ‘box of rain’ - inside her light and water installation for BMW at art basel 2024

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BMW commissions Es Devlin for ‘Surfacing’ at Art Basel 2024

 

designboom meets Es Devlin at Art Basel 2024 for the opening of her BMW-commission light, water, and dance installation, Surfacing (2024). In our interview, she says that wherever she can, she floods her stages and set designs. It’s not apparent right away, but water, in its form and essence, is central to the English artist’s BMW commission at the Swiss art fair, which runs between June 13th and 16th. She wraps the BMW iX5 Hydrogen car in a splash of blue and white collage, referencing Katsushika Hokusai’s 1831 woodcut The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

 

Under these overlapping shades, some hand-written extracts about water from James Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’ and collage excerpts from BMW Group publications on hydrogen fuel cell technology meet and mingle, subtly emerging only when the viewers pay attention to the pool of texts and colors. This is only the first part of her commission with BMW for Art Basel 2024. When visitors walk up on the first floor of the art fair, Es Devlin greets them at Hall 1.1 in the form of Surfacing (2024), a box of rain illuminated by a single line of rhythmically changing light, so luminous it can force the eyes to squint, a moment of adjustment, of adapting.

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all images courtesy of BMW AG | photos by Lucy Emms, unless stated otherwise

 

 

Es Devlin brings back Mask and Mask in Motion

 

Es Devlin’s Surfacing II (2024) for BMW (see more here) is accompanied by three of the English artist’s other artworks upon entering the room: Surfacing II (2024), a pair of painted televisions in which a dancing figure appears to displace pixels and pigment; Mask (2018), a projection-mapped model city fusing hands and river; and Mask in Motion (2018), a revolving illuminated translucent printed city which meshes viewers within its kinetic shadow. The viewers may be watching the accompanying artworks, but time ticks at Art Basel 2024, and soon, they are ushered inside the room, the home to the English artist’s light, voice, and water installation for the art fair.

 

This cube is forged as a platform where water continues to pour from above. It streams like a waterfall of glitter or silver party streamers, constantly warping and playing with the viewers’ vision. The edges around this box of rain light up, sharing the same color of the single light anchored at the center of the wall behind the cube. The sound of rain croons, and the light installations entrance, yet the show hasn’t begun, not until the dancers appear on stage for a seven-minute choreography that completes the performative ensemble.

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view of Surfacing (2024) by Es Devlin, a BMW-commission light and water installation at Art Basel 2024

 

 

Sharon Eyal’s choreography for the light and water installation

 

Es Devlin taps Sharon Eyal and her troupe to add another layer to her BMW commission at Art Basel 2024. Almost every hour, a dance performance by the Paris-based choreographer takes place on stage, accompanied by the music composed by London-based duo Polyphonia. It’s a ritual, a habit of dance, rain, sound, light, and voice that the English artist invokes after reading Byung-Chul Han’s The Disappearance of Rituals. 

 

When the lights go off, Es Devlin’s narration basks the silent and dark room with fragments of her memories growing up and water as her well of influence throughout her 30 years of art practice. Her voice dies down, and the melodic, often-haunting music by Polyphonia plays. The single strip of light glows, and Sharon Eyal’s troupe appears on stage, posing and frozen in a tableau, as if they were ancient petroglyphs coming to life.

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Es Devlin and Sharon Eyal inside Surfacing (2024) at Art Basel 2024

 

 

The choreography begins, and the dancers’ bodies glisten under the light. The soundtrack progresses, and the rain of water never ceases. All of these are interconnected. No one and nothing misses a beat. As soon as the dancers’ pace picks up, the mood swings, and the lights emit a glow resembling sunset. They become more saturated as the music loses its poignant tone, as it is taken over by the beat of strings that is almost joyous and celebratory, an awakening from the terrors of darkness and melancholy.

 

The choreography shifts its steps with a hint of festivity and triumph before the dancers revert their tableau, the strip of light turns white and intensifies, and the entire room blacks out, followed by silence. Dissecting the thorough layering of her mixed-media works for BMW, Es Devlin sits down with designboom during the opening of Surfacing (2024) and Surfacing II (2024) at Art Basel 2024. Our conversation leads the English artist to speak about the origin of the titles for her BMW artworks and the literature references she made for the exterior of BMW iX5 Hydrogen car, as well as the last time she was ‘enamored’ by water.

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7-minute dance work by Sharon Eyal, performed in Es Devlin’s light and water installation Surfacing (2024) for BMW

 

 

Interview with Es Devlin

 

designboom (DB): Es, can you tell us how you came up with the title ‘Surfacing’ for your BMW commission at Art Basel 2024? 

 

Es Devlin (ED): Titles always come to me really late. I have to allow the work to arrive before I know what it’s called. There are often a lot of working titles, and one of the working titles was 15,000 fathoms, the deepest part of the ocean at the Mariana Trench. It’s a complicated commission because it’s by BMW, so it’s an invitation to talk about something they’re doing as well. As an artist, how do you meet them with sincerity, dignity, and honesty? I’ve had a few collaborations over 30 years, and I don’t differentiate between collaborating with a musician or a company. In each case, one has to scrutinize what they’re doing. I really liked Hedwig Solis Weinstein, the Head of BMW Arts & Thought Leadership Collaborations, and I knew she had a good spirit.

 

So I thought I could work with this; I just needed to find the right way in. I suggested doing two projects: one all about their car, specifically a car of the future. Over the last seven years, we went through many of their cars, but none were quite right for me. When she started talking about a hydrogen car, I said I was interested. We’re going to recombine it with water and regenerate the energy that went into splitting hydrogen from water, similar to the technology of the BMW iX5 Hydrogen. That seems to me a beautiful symmetry. I don’t want to make a piece of art about it. I don’t want to make a piece of art about that because it’s not my 30-year batch of work, but I do want to make a demonstration of my curiosity. Hopefully, my curiosity will resonate with everyone.

es devlin BMW art basel 2024
the lights change throughout the performance, projecting onto the rain installation

 

 

ED (continued): The first piece is a car I’ve decorated. It’s decoration on the outside, not art, drawing attention to the car. It’s fun and playful. When you get inside the vehicle, you hear me asking the hydrogen engineers how it works in a conversation. They are the poets of that piece. The second piece is different. It’s not a response to the BMW hydrogen car. This is about my 30-year evolving practice. There’s alignment because, over my 30-year practice, I’ve been working with different technologies and investigating the entanglement of humans and the things we make in design, for better and for worse. It’s not a celebration, it’s an observation and investigation.

 

The works you see here (Surfacing II), which I made especially for this commission, are painted TV screens that were born of a comment that Walker Mimms, the art critic in the New York Times, made. He came to see my book and the work I made at the Cooper Hewitt Museum at the Smithsonian. He said, people looking back at this moment in history where we pay for things with a chip in our wrist, while we still write our shopping list in cursive on paper, will ask, what did this time feel like? He called it existentially awkward, the entanglement of the digital and the virtual with the visceral and the physical. That’s everything I care about. That’s why my book, An Atlas of Es Devlin, is this awkward clash of charcoal and pixels. That’s why I wanted to paint on the TV screen, to juxtapose paint and pixels, making it look like the dancer is displacing pixels and painting with his skin.

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a single strip of light illuminates the box of rain

 

 

ED (continued): The invitation to Sharon Eyal was because I had known her work for some time and had always wanted to collaborate with her. I thought this was the time to invite her to destabilize the terms of engagement over the art booth. I haven’t been to many art fairs. The first time I came to Art Basel was last year, and it blew my mind. The abundance of encounters is like excessive stimulation.

 

I thought, what if we made an art booth that behaves like an art booth but then destabilizes that term of engagement by saying, actually, now I’m going to perform, and now you’re going to be invited to submit to eight minutes of your life where you will be still and experience a ritual. Last year, Hans Ulrich Obrist gave me Byung-Chul Han’s Psychopolitics. I then read everything Byung-Chul Han had written, including The Disappearance of Rituals, where he says ritual is what makes time habitable for us. That’s why I wanted to make a ritual.

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dancers performing in Es Devlin’s light and water installation Surfacing (2024) for BMW at Art Basel 2024

 

 

DB: When was the last time you were enamored by water?

 

ED: I think enamored is an interesting choice of words. I love to work on water, and we had it in many of my works. We did it in the Yves Saint Laurent show, we did this for Carmen on Lake Constance, we sometimes do these artworks off the gulf seacoast. Whenever I can, I will flood the stage. In the Sphere, Las Vegas, my first instinct was to flood it. Instead, we had the illusion of flooding. I’ll tell you why: when you’re watching a performance, we’re often controlling everything, the light, the sound, the cues, the actors coming on and off. It’s the things you can’t control, where the algorithms of nature take part, that the real access to emotion happens. If you allow it to be reflected in water and you allow the water to move, there is more extraordinary access to your emotions.

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Es Devlin’s light and water installations Surfacing (2024) and Surfacing II (2024) for BMW at Art Basel 2024

DB: Touching on the exterior painting you did for BMW iX5 Hydrogen at Art Basel 2024, one of your references was James Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’. Were there any phrases or ideas from the book that stuck with or resonate with you?

 

ED: There are a couple of pieces of literature I wanted to invoke. I often draw on a bank of reading I’ve done over my lifetime. One of the pieces I got most obsessed with when I was an undergraduate studying English literature is a poem called ‘Diving into the Wreck’ by Adrienne Rich. Written around 1971, the year I was born. There’s a phrase you hear me saying in the dance performance during Surfacing (2024): ‘First the air is dark, then darker, then blue, then black. I’m blacking out, but my mask is powerful.’ 

 

That’s from Adrienne Rich. In the second part of the dance work and written on the outside of the car is one of the longest phrases in British literature (from Ulysses). It’s a sentence that goes on for a very long time, describing water in every possible way: pedantic, prosaic, poetic. It describes the proportion of the human body that’s water, the proportion of the human brain that’s water, the deepest Mariana Trench, the 15,000 fathoms. It describes every aspect of water you can imagine. It’s quite a long sentence, and quite beautiful.

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Es Devlin’s works Mask in Motion (2018) and Surfacing II (2024) within the Surfacing installation

 

 

DB: Perhaps it’s Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’ poem that made you choose Mask (2018) and Mask in Motion (2018) as the complementary artworks for your BMW commission, Surfacing (2024) and Surfacing II (2024) here at Art Basel 2024.

 

ED: I made those masks seven years ago, which was when I first met Hedwig to discuss this work. I wanted to invoke that origin. At the time, I was interested in the overlay of the human brain and the systems we work with. When I look at that mask, it reminds me of a kind of Kenji, one of those Japanese fencing masks, which I always found appealing. It seems to me that it’s the interface between us and the world. We look through this overlay of the systems to which we subscribe. The built environment, the architecture, the map, the layout, and the system, are decent analogies for the overlay through which we view everything, culminating in those oval mask-shaped cities.

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Es Devlin’s works Surfacing II (2024) and Mask in Motion (2018) within the Surfacing installation

 

 

DB: Was it a big change for you working on this BMW commission, after having designed and created set and stage designs for celebrated figures, singers, and fashion brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Adele, Beyoncé, and U2 (to name a few)?

 

ED: I learned to respect the engineers of the future. Having had a close encounter with Michael and Jurgen from the hydrogen engineering team, I think it’s a pity our education system is so siloed from such an early age. We should be learning physics with philosophy, maths with music, and art with architecture. These things should never have been separated. The separation of science and art is a problem; they should be connected.

 

Working closely with scientists and engineers is a real gift and privilege, and I learn a lot from how they think. I knew I wanted to meet BMW differently. I didn’t want to do something ‘inspired by’ because I don’t know what that means. I can’t offer anything there, but I know what it means to continue my own practice with a clear trajectory and find areas of common ground. That’s what I do.

es devlin BMW art basel 2024
Es Devlin | image © designboom

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Es Devlin’s exterior artwork for BMW iX5 Hydrogen at Art Basel 2024 | car photos by Enes Kucevic

 

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Mask in Motion (2018)
Mask in Motion (2018)
Mask (2018)
Mask (2018)
BMW iX5 Hydrogen by Es Devlin at Art Basel 2024
BMW iX5 Hydrogen by Es Devlin at Art Basel 2024
BMW iX5 Hydrogen by Es Devlin at Art Basel 2024
BMW iX5 Hydrogen by Es Devlin at Art Basel 2024
BMW iX5 Hydrogen by Es Devlin at Art Basel 2024
BMW iX5 Hydrogen by Es Devlin at Art Basel 2024
Es Devlin painting the BMW iX5 Hydrogen at Art Basel 2024
Es Devlin painting the BMW iX5 Hydrogen at Art Basel 2024
Surfacing II (2024)
Surfacing II (2024)

project info:

 

name: Surfacing (2024), Surfacing II (2024), Mask (2018), Mask in Motion (2018)

artist: Es Devlin | @esdevlin

commission: BMW | BMW, BMWgroupculture

choreography: Sharon Eyal | @sharoneyaldance

event: Art Basel 2024 | @artbasel

location: Art Basel in Basel, Hall 1.1, Messeplatz 10, 4005 Basel, Switzerland

dates: June 13th to 16th, 2024

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