Forest of Us takes as its starting point the striking visual symmetries between the structures within us that allow us to breathe and the structures around us that make breathing possible: the bronchial trees that exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide within our lungs and the trees which exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen within our environment.
The work begins as a film. The screen surface is periodically perforated, allowing viewers to walk through the film into a mirror maze. Devlin’s use of the mirror maze draws on her reading of contemporary ecophilosophers who use the “hall of mirrors” as a metaphor for the glimmering feedback loops of human design that enchant our gaze so seductively we lose awareness of our symbiotic connection to rest of the biosphere.
The Creative Process
In the midst of the global pandemic, many artists have been forced to pivot and reexamine not only how their works are presented, but how they’re created and thus experienced. For an artist like Es Devlin, who designs large-scale performative sculptures that encourage audience engagement, the creative process has become even more important as she continues to develop works in these times.
Devlin is an artist who combines sound, light, and technology to design sculptures; however, she emphasizes the importance of sculpting an experience for the audience. The regulations in place in this new socially distanced world create a new set of challenges for artists. Although the way audiences experience Devlin’s work is different in this new world, her process is still the same. Devlin describes the beginning of her creative process as involving three key components: paper, pencil, and research. As she develops the concept for what will become the artist’s multifaceted immersive artwork Forest of Us.
Forest of Us follows Devlin’s previous installation Mirror Maze, designed in 2016. Presented at Copeland Park in London, Devlin’s initial approach began with a single image that she found to be inescapable: tree branches. For many years, she picked up her trusted pen and paper and repeatedly sketched hundreds of tree branches until she realized just how closely they resemble the bronchial tubes in human lungs.
These sketches that were once clearly trees morphed into many different forms, and Devlin sought out James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science to provide a clearer understanding. She immersed herself in Gleick’s book on chaos theory as she tried to figure out the links between the lungs and trees and many other processes that occur within the human body. Moving back and forth between research and tracing over many copies of X-rays of the bronchial system, Devlin allowed her intuition to lead her on this creative journey.
Devlin never completely disregards any previous idea and clearly notes how each idea might lead her to the next. By fully allowing herself to commit to this process, she discovers the underlying patterns. Devlin describes the process like a map, with its layered meanings, intricacies, and potential to suddenly diverge, taking a sharp left, and end up somewhere completely different. A concept that began as sheer interest in the organic shape of trees transformed into an immersive experience that takes visitors on a journey rooted in the human respiratory process. While Devlin had to rethink how audiences will experience Forest of Us logistically, she welcomed the change. For Devlin, the lasting impacts of her artworks reside in the memories of the audience.
Conceived during a time when many were forced to adjust their daily lives, resulting in seemingly endless bouts of isolation and increased reliance on technology for connection, Devlin has created an expansive mirrored maze to explore the contrast between the individual and collective. She frequently engages with the theme of the collective, which can be seen in how the artist built from Mirror Maze and developed Forest of Us. She illustrates the similarities of the networks and the connection not only between nature and the human body, but between every person who enters her work.
Through large-scale performative sculptures that fuse music, language, and light, Es Devlin pushes our perceptions of what art can be. Her work draws on a deep understanding of audience engagement, acquired through her experience creating world-renowned stage sculptures in collaboration with the likes of Beyoncé, Billie Eilish, The Weeknd, and Kanye West. Today, she continues to develop her practice as an artist, engaging with experimental work that relates to AI, poetry, and memory. Sensory and kinetic, her craft elicits lasting emotional responses.