Es Devlin’s work is usually seen in theatres and vast arenas. She has designed stage shows for Adele, Beyonce and Kanye West, created sets for the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre and in 2012, worked with Take That’s creative director Kim Gavin to conceive the closing ceremony for the Olympic Games in London.
Her latest piece of work, however, can be seen not in a stadium or a West End Play but in a large warehouse behind the Bussey Building in Peckham. Commissioned by Chanel and i-D, Mirror Maze is a four-room installation which uses video projections and some visceral sound design to explore how scent can trigger memories.
The installation is one of five projects commissioned by Chanel and i-D as part of a new campaign celebrating women in the creative industries. An accompanying website, The Fifth Sense, will document each project alongside interviews with featured creatives. “The brief was, ‘you can create anything you like as long as it has something to do with scent’,” says Devlin.
It begins with a film showing Devlin’s reflection as she draws out lines and dashes on a mirrored surface and builds a scale model of the space (shown above). A face-shaped hole in the wall leads to the maze – a room filled with mirrored walls, plush grey carpets and staircases that lead to nowhere. As visitors wander the space, reaching corridors and dead ends, their reflection is projected on to the walls around them.
Devlin says the maze was inspired by her experience of being backstage at stadiums. “It’s really an expression of how I feel when I’m wandering around backstage trying to find my way, often on the phone, and realising I’ve gotten entirely disorientated,” she says.
“On rock shows, there’s often dotted lines and arrows which get [repeated] in each venue. So if you’re touring with Adele, in each arena you turn up at, there will be these lines saying ‘here’s the stage, here’s the catering, here’s Adele’s dressing room’ … and you follow and find your way via these arrows.”
Another room features an immersive projection which aims to capture the sense of being plunged into another time and place. A film plays out scenes shot in London, Paris, Rio and Los Angeles – there are shots of busy streets and cityscapes taken on Devlin’s iPhone and footage of her children – which eventually blur into a vivid mass of colour. An accompanying soundtrack combines ambient noise with whispered sentences and some powerful music, creating a beautiful but oddly unsettling experience.
The film was created by video designer Luke Halls – a regular collaborator of Devlin’s – and was inspired by an experience Devlin had while working on Adele’s arena tour in Belfast.
“Where we were working, [the arrows and markings on the floor] were fluorescent orange, and I was staying in a hotel and I opened the cupboard door and smelled mothballs,” she says. “I was so tired and I immediately felt like I was falling and plummeting through space into my five-year-old self smelling mothballs in my grandmother’s house in South Wales. I thought … ‘Could I make people feel that? Could I set up this kind of maze and involve people’s brain wandering around the maze, then suddenly plummet them, or remind them of what that plummeting sensation felt like?'”
The final room of the Mirror Maze is filled with a reddish glow and the scent of a perfume created by Chanel perfumier Olivier Polge. The fragrance is available only at the installation – an idea thought up by Devlin. “I wanted there to be a scent that you would only smell if you came here and it’ll never exist again. It’ll only exist in the memories of anyone who bothered to come to Peckham [to see the installation],” she says.
It’s an intensely personal project, inspired not just by Devlin’s creative process but significant moments in her life.
The scent created by Polge, for example, combines orange and jasmine – a reference to the colours in the installation and a candle bought for her by her husband when they were dating. Video footage is a collection of memories from the past decade – both from work trips and moments spent with her family.
“Hopefully when you walk into that space with the water and the very personal footage, which is all from my own batch of memories … you have that sensation of remembered things,” she adds.
It’s a departure from Devlin’s usual process: she is used to working with existing source material such as plays and song lyrics, or as she puts it – “telling stories that are ostensibly other people’s”, though she says she will always try to find her own narrative or line of enquiry within this.
“I spend a lot of time expressing ideas that are written into plays and operas and lyrics so I spend a lot of time studying, and it’s been really fun to suddenly be forced to kind of open up the car bonnet of my own little engine,” she adds. “It does feel quite different, it’s much more vulnerable.”
The installation was also inspired in part by a visit to Coco Chanel’s house – which has a mirrored staircase – and the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. The museum is home to Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored Infinity Room, Robert Therrien’s Under the Table (a giant table and chairs) and a stunning staircase by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro – artworks that have formed the backdrop to thousands of selfies.
Devlin says she hopes to see people interacting with Mirror Maze and taking pictures of themselves inside it, in much the same way as they have with Kusama and Therrien’s work. “A lot of the work I saw people responding so positively to at the new Broad Museum … [was popular] because people were able to become protagonists of the work, and I think that’s really interesting. It’d thrill me if people went home and Instagram-ed [a picture of themselves in the maze], and felt like they were able to place themselves in it,” she says.
“The word ‘selfie’ is derisible in a way but self portraiture is not uninteresting at all. There’s a wonderful tradition of self portraiture [in art] and finding and studying yourself so I think giving people a conscious frame to take interesting pictures of themselves within, that might make them think in a new way about their place within an artwork [is really interesting],” she continues.
Peckham may seem a surprising choice for a project sponsored by a luxury brand like Chanel but the choice of location was Devlin’s – her studio is in the area and she lives close by.
“Peckham was important because my studio’s here and it’s an area that really does foster young artists,” she adds. “It also came about through pragmatic parameters. I wanted a big space – my ideas have got used to taking up space – and where else in London could I find an 11,000 foot warehouse? …. My budget wasn’t that huge but I’ve managed to stretch it a long way. Once I walked into this space, I worked out how I could use it to tell this story.”
To create the installation, Devlin created detailed sketches before making scale models and CG renders. The physical build took eight weeks with the help of specialist company Diagon Ltd. The installation is accompanied by an online experience which combines a walk through the mirror maze with footage from each film. Viewers can put their own face – or a friend’s – inside the film instead of Devlin’s.
Devlin is now working on two more projects for galleries – she is taking part in the Serpentine’s Miracle Marathon in October, where a number of artists will each create a piece of work or speak about miracles for 15 minutes – and is creating an installation for a Triennale in Genk, which opens at the end of this month. There are no plans to give up working on live experiences, however.
“I really enjoy that input I get from the music and plays and primary sources that I work with and I love collaboration … so I wouldn’t want to change the way my practice is, but I’m enjoying entering into this new gallery space as well,” she says.
See Mirror Maze at Copeland Industrial Park from 21 to 25 September. The installation is open from 12pm to 8pm on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and from 12pm to 10pm on Friday and Saturday.