As visual storytelling presses toward new technological heights, it is worth recalling that some of the oldest and richest tactics of illusion — from the proscenium arches of the Renaissance to the lintels and lightboxes of Robert Wilson — originated onstage.
Over the past 20 years, many spatially encompassing and conceptually driven sets have come from the British artist Es Devlin, a stage designer for Adele, The Weeknd and for U2, at the maiden show of The Sphere, Las Vegas’s new 160,000-square-foot dome of LED screen.
When no concert screen could impress enough last year, Devlin’s billboard-sized one for Beyoncé delivered like some fulfillment from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Recessed into the screen’s center, an enormous disc housed strategic elements from the singer’s three-hour video — disco balls, a womb of amniotic fluid, a fembot’s birth canal. Before this ever-changing aperture, Beyoncé emerged between her costume changes, like Christ from the tomb.
Beyoncé’s screen and numerous other designs for stadiums, theaters and art institutions are currently documented in “An Atlas of Es Devlin,” a text-heavy exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in Manhattan, incorporating some 300 objects from the designer’s archive and studio.
Curated by the museum’s Andrea Lipps and Julie Pastor in conjunction with Devlin, these archival drawings and studies, displayed alongside models of the final installations fabricated for this show, aim to demystify how her complex, often architectural productions take shape.
Arranged in roughly chronological sections, it is the first roundup of her work in the retrospective mode, and it affords a glimpse, during the height of our craze for augmented reality and immersive rooms, of just how far you can push spectacle while still calling it built.
Humble enough are the origins: Devlin’s set for the band Wire in 2003 — her foray from theater design to concerts — enclosed each member of the quartet in a separate cubicle, covered in a gauze screen and projections with prerecorded video of their mouths and EKG readings.
That set is represented here by color-on-black sketches, transparencies and cue sheets for the projections. Models are the star of this show, and the one for Wire’s stage, illuminated by one of a fleet of projectors in the gallery’s ceiling, looks like a rave-lit office befitting their postpunk disjuncture.
Budgets increased with time and renown. Her stage for the 2022 Super Bowl halftime show in Los Angeles, a revue with Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige and other hip-hop luminaries, replicated a city block of nearby Compton, the birthplace of Dre’s group N.W.A., atop a Google Earth-style map of the neighborhood.
In the current exhibition — which is mounted in a white, windowless sort of laboratory housed, almost ironically, within the brick and wood-paneled Victorian mansion of Andrew Carnegie — the Super Bowl stage is illustrated by a crisp model about the size and shape of the leather ball in question, with its architecture and urban grid lit from within like a jack-’o-lantern.
As scale models, some of these little resin creations, like her bisected architecture for the National Theatre’s “Lehman Trilogy” (2018), scratch an itch between document and surrogate, akin to Narcissa Thorne’s miniature rooms in Chicago.
As art objects, they draw from ’60s minimalism: her monoliths, prisms, cubes, spheres, matrices, labyrinths and French curves are finished in porcelain-white, each a pristine, planar specimen. (See the gently motorized white cone representing Devlin’s enormous, spinning chess rook for the Royal Danish Opera’s production of “Parsifal,” 2012.) Following the artist Richard Hamilton, who housed the Beatles’ longest and most varied LP in a blank white sleeve, the conceptual quality of Devlin’s sets reflects the deference that pop music has evolved to demand.
Yet they are also vessels, many of them designed to accept external projections or built-in video displays, and in this they recall the designs of Apple. Her extremes of integrated screen and seamless housing remind us that Devlin, who was born in 1971, has worked largely in the age of the camera phone. (Her magazine review of Nokia’s first such device, in 2002, attracted her breakout Wire commission.) Like the glassy iPhone, when digitally animated Devlin’s sculptural screens seem designed to accommodate intensifying levels of personal spectatorship.
There is no denying it, though: Beyoncé’s billboard doesn’t translate in miniature, nor Miley Cyrus’s huge tongue-slide from her 2014 tour. (Sketches on paper, displayed here, document how Devlin adapted that infamous mechanical organ after logistical setbacks.)
Re-creation doesn’t seem the point, though. These models aim to illustrate how concepts generate at large scale. Her die-cut paper maps of “Memory Palace” (2019), her room-size topographical installation of historic sites — including the pyramids of Giza and Siddhartha’s fig tree — at the neoclassical Pitzhanger Manor in London also explored intergenerational responsibility. It revealed the artist’s interest in geographical metaphors for the mind — one of her conceptual strengths.
Less ambitious curators might have relied on integrated floor-to-ceiling projections or virtual reality stations in hopes of replicating Devlin’s signature scale — techniques employed elsewhere in the projections of Diego Rivera’s latest mural retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (which succeeded) or the immersive artist rooms sweeping tourist sectors (which divide the art world).
While video and lighting are no strangers at the Cooper Hewitt, and while the show’s foyer boasts an immersion room for our moment (an installation called “Studio,” where very precisely registered projections play upon a scale replica of Devlin’s workshop), you will find that the bulk of “An Atlas of Es Devlin” resembles an old-school display of drawing and sculpture: rows of small objects hinting at real-life ones, with sketches on paper offering comment.
It is deliberately antiquated, existentially awkward — and fascinating. A large wall assembles some 200 of Devlin’s figure drawings and sketchbooks from adolescence and her time at Central Saint Martins, in London. It’s an assemblage you might expect in a retrospective of the artist Tracey Emin, but in the context of such mega futurism it hopes to convey another irony: Devlin’s elaborate concepts, to quote the show’s promotional copy, each “begin with a line on a piece of paper.”
Driving this theme is an extravagant catalog, a doorstop designed by Devlin and Lipps with Thames & Hudson nearing 1,000 pages and containing thousands of words by the artist, herself a clear and generous writer, which provided the show’s extensive wall text. Documenting far more work than the exhibition — including her Damien Hirst-like LED cubes for Jay-Z and Ye (formerly Kanye West, a frequent collaborator missing from this show) — the book serves as both hatchling and egg.
Hundreds of glossy photo spreads correspond to numerous visual and alphabetical indexes. (An installation in the show’s final gallery, “Volume Unbound,” lays these gatherings flat, end-to-end.) Among them facsimiles of relevant ephemera are bound in mismatching formats: foldout drawings, transparencies, die-cuttings and pamphlets whose archival relevance you must flip through to ascertain.
Web designers call this “skeuomorphism”: the use of old technologies to understand new ones. One example is the trash can logo on your computer, which represents the deletion of intangible data. Another is “An Atlas of Es Devlin.” In explaining a whole new vista of spectacle evolving around the demands of personal tech, this exhibition demonstrates the human element by enlisting relics of the past — the humble codex, map and page.
Historians will ask what this moment looked like, when we scrawled shopping lists in cursive then paid with our palms. After the projections have come down and the growing pains subsided at Cooper Hewitt, Es Devlin’s sincerely interesting and aggressively tactile catalog will help them toward an answer.
An Atlas of Es Devlin
Through Aug. 11, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 East 91st St., Manhattan, 212-849-8400; cooperhewitt.com.