Approaching from the south, Es Devlin’s new public artwork appears in the Tate Modern Garden as an architectural homage, a monumental model of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, just across the Thames from Christopher Wren’s original. In Devlin’s play – titled Come back home, and commissioned by Cartier, the dome was sliced open to reveal its cross-section, brilliantly lit, and adorned from head to toe with cut-out sketches of moths, birds, beetles, wildflowers, fish, and mushrooms. At its base are steps leading to choir stairways, inviting passersby to immerse themselves in Devlin’s penciled wildlife.
during the day Come back home is a place for reflection and learning. Upon entering the dome, visitors can view the drawings up close – there are 243 in total, depicting the 243 priority species identified by the London Biodiversity Action Plan as being in decline in the capital and therefore in need of protection. Instead of the prayer books one might expect to find in a place of worship, Devlin has placed QR codes that link to a guide for all species. Equally important is the soundscape created by Devlin’s longtime musical partners Jade Pybus and Andy Theakstone and the recordings of various choirs singing the Latin names of the priority species with the actual sounds of the animals. Every few minutes, the glorious cacophony fades and Devlin’s voice emerges to introduce one of the species. Saying its common and Latin names, she brings up a wealth of information to help us remember the animal. We learn, for example, that the swift (apus apus) can fly the equivalent of eight trips to the moon and back in his lifetime.
Devlin at work in her south London studio sketching two of the species featured on and featured in the London Priority Species List Come back home. Courtesy of Es Devlin Studio
“I want to help people learn the names of these animals,” explains Devlin when we chatted at her south London studio two weeks earlier come back home’s revelation. “Once you know their names, you create a place for them in your imagination – it’s like a memory palace. And you will always think differently about her.”
Even for an artist and designer used 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. Tate Modern is one of London’s most visited attractions, and more people pass by its riverside every day – so the museum is very selective about what it places in the garden. The location also has personal significance for Devlin, a native of London: “For me, the Tate Modern is emblematic of a real shift in British culture: its opening coincided with a shift in our character as a country and as a city, with New Labor and the rise of the YBAs. British culture suddenly mattered on the world stage when it hadn’t for many years.’
The view of St Paul’s 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 Ben Evans, director of the London Design Festival, that prompted Devlin to join the dots between the two spaces. “He said, ‘It, 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 a seat of contemporary cultural power. Look at that convergence of energies and think about what you could do,” recalls Devlin as we pored over sketches and renders Come back home.
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Around the same time as her 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 influencing her worldview and practice today: David Abrams become an animal (“He talks a lot about magic and how we can shift our perceptions by just disrupting our habitual ways of looking at things,” she summarizes.) and Joanna Macy’s World as lover, world as self. “Macy invites you to think about where your self ends, invites you to recognize that you’re feeling selfish, you have a sense of self-preservation,” says Devlin. “But what if the place you called yourself home was wider than just your own body and mind?”
Much of Devlin’s recent work reflects Abram and Macy: they exist forest for changewho planted 400 trees in the courtyard of London’s Somerset House to raise awareness of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the like Conference of Treesthat populates New York Times‘ Climate Hub at COP26 in Glasgow with 197 trees and plants. Her mirror maze, much photographed and posted on Instagram, forest from us, also carries an environmental message; in her words, “it draws people’s attention to the connection between themselves and the planet.” Come back home, with its evocation of animal species that Devlin calls “non-human Londoners,” continues on that path. “Humans went through a period of separation from the biosphere in order to learn more about it, to specialize. But now we need to reconnect and get back to our common planet,” says Devlin, adding that the words “dome” and “home” have etymological roots.
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In her quest to better connect to the 243 priority species, Devlin decided to draw each of them in pencil on paper and use photographs as reference material. “This kind of observational drawing hasn’t been a part of my practice since I got my high school arts degree, but I wanted that feeling of surrendering to the observation of a life that isn’t my own,” she says. “I wasn’t trying to be expressive. So my drawing of the bumblebee is not my interpretation of the bumblebee, but an attempt to learn how the bumblebee lives.’ It was a four-month process that included some 18-hour days 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 any species and rattle off facts: She points out, for example, that the stripe bomber beetle was thought to be extinct until 85 of them were counted in the borough of Tower Hamlets, and has been ever since a subject in the artworks of Sonia Boyce, who was awarded the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale.
Inside Come back homeDevlin’s 243 sketches were enlarged, printed on sustainably sourced birch plywood, cut out and spread across the cross-section of the dome, with LED strips glued to the back for lighting (these will be returned to inventory after the exhibition). The structure is made from recycled steel and stretched fabric, and she has opted for an eco-friendly matte finish to minimize the installation’s carbon footprint and thus live up to her message.
As elegant and effective as it is during the day, it is at sunset Come back home really come to life. Every evening until October 1st, a London-based choral group will come to the installation and sing their rendition of the choral evening song, which the public can enjoy free of charge and without prior registration. Devlin got the idea from her visit to St Paul’s, where she observed the daily ritual that marks the moment when day turns into evening: “As I listened to the evening song, I thought, where else would you have this experience be able? You’re going to sing whether you come or not, so it’s not a performance. It is actually a call to prayer, a relic from a time of matins, nones and vespers. You feel like you’re part of an ancient way of telling time. Whoever you are, you can walk in and be surrounded by this extraordinary music.”
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The choral line-up is illustrious and reflects London’s cultural makeup, ranging from the award-winning Tenebrae to the London Bulgarian Choir and the South African Cultural Gospel Choir UK. They will sing in English, Latin, Bulgarian and Xhosa – “I’m interested in the parallel concerns of declining biodiversity and declining linguistic diversity,” says Devlin. “We are homogenizing, and parallel to the biosphere, our ethnosphere has also become impoverished. There is an extraordinary document on endangered languages, and just like reading it is like seeing the last polar bear on the last floating piece of ice. I also wanted to make this 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 urge everyone not to cry tonight. Because we’re talking about homes, and here we have people who don’t have homes singing from the heart. I think it will be incredibly moving.’
Devlin likes to add a clear call to action to every installation. Just as Forest of Us in Miami asked visitors to make a donation to Instituto Terra, a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring the Atlantic Forest, Come back home encourages audiences to contribute and get involved with the London Wildlife Trust which protects, preserves and enhances the capital’s wildlife and wild areas.
It’s a thing that also resonates with Cartier, with whom Devlin has a long-standing relationship (she cites the 2019 “Trees” exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, which brought together artists, botanists and philosophers, as the inspiration for her recent practice). Says Cyrille Vigneron, CEO of Cartier, “with Come back homeEs Devlin has created a unique and thought-provoking work of art, a choral sculpture that represents how inspiring yet fragile the beauty of the world can be and calls for the preservation of the earth’s natural biodiversity.’
Eventually, Come back home offers a message of hope that suggests that if we act quickly and decisively 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 stumble upon our true roots in the intertwined biology of this exquisite planet. […] Now it can dawn on us. We are our world, which knows itself. We can give up our separateness, we can come home again.’ §