by STIRworldSep 29, 2022
A certain masterminded artistry and elegant drama forever unfolds within the works of contemporary British artist Es Devlin, who has a remarkably stunning (read: envy-inducing) oeuvre of large-scale sculptures that bring together light, music, theatrics, and language. Even when you do not know of her or her works, you do. You might have caught her in Netflix’s documentary series, Abstract: The Art of Design (easily one of my favourite episodes, besides Neri Oxman’s) or seen glimpses of her stunning stage sculptures bringing alive arenas and concerts for Beyonce, Kanye West, The Weeknd, Adele, Dua Lipa, and U2, as well as bringing alive The Royal Opera House, National Theatre, La Scala, and The Met Opera, the 2012 London Olympic Closing ceremony, and the more recent 2022 Super Bowl featuring Dr Dre, Kendrick Lamar, and Eminem.
Your Voices, her latest kinetic sculpture broke ground at the Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza in New York City in the United States (from December 6-18, 2022), celebrating the city as one of the most linguistically diverse ones on the planet, where over 700 languages are currently spoken. This was represented within the irradiated installation created out of 700 glowing cords of webbing straps tensioned between a series of structural steel arcs, enveloping onlookers within a revolving illuminated network as it rotated north, south, east, and west through a multilingual soundscape which interweaves languages drawn from all over the city, from Algerian, Arabic, Alsation, Azeri, and Ashanti to Zapotec, Zarma, and Zulu.
Speaking to STIR, Devlin elaborated on her latest endeavour commissioned by Moet & Chandon, a French fine winery and co-owner of the luxury goods company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, one of the world's largest champagne producers and a prominent champagne house: "The work responds to anthropologist Wade Davis’s observation: 'Every language is an old growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an entire ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.' As the sculpture revolves, it acts as a lens between the viewer and their surroundings. The viewer’s perspective is spliced and framed by the shifting strands of the sculpture as it turns, evoking the way our perspectives are enriched and shaped by experiencing the linguistic structures and identities of others.”
Every language is a vast library of cultural, historical, and biological knowledge gathered over centuries, and New York City is a living linguistic library. The luminous harmonics of this work aim to draw our attention to the complex beauty of New York’s linguistic diversity and celebrate its vital role in the resilience and civic sustainability of the city and its future. – Lincoln Center
"In the spirit of the holiday season, Moët & Chandon is hosting a series of global celebrations in more than 20 cities around the world, bringing people together in celebration of connection and diversity. Of all cities, New York City, in particular, has a long-standing relationship with the Maison,” shares the Lincoln Center. Your Voices became the hallmark of the occasion.
Like an illumined Titan’s eye, the interactive installation was created in association with the Endangered Language Alliance, a non-profit organisation, with an intention of encouraging visitors to learn more about their work geared towards protecting and cultivating linguistic diversity. The work 12 m in diameter x 9 m high sits majestically within the paved central Josie Robertson Plaza at the Lincoln Center, adjacent to the illuminated fountain which provides animated reflections of the work in its black granite surface and pool in the public space.
Winner of multiple Olivier, Tony and Emmy awards, as well as an Ivor Novello award and a CBE, Devlin also shares that Brian Eno introduced her to The Endangered Language Alliance—who produced an interactive map detailing every language and the location of its speakers within the city, which became a sort of foundation for Your Voices.
I was interested in drawing New Yorkers' attention to the cultural wealth of the living linguistic library they inhabit, introducing them to the full breadth and beauty of their voices, their collective musical and linguistic instrument. – Es Devlin
During select evenings over the weekend, Lincoln Center also curated a series of New York-based multilingual choirs to perform live and free for the public within the large-scale sculpture. “The groups have been chosen to represent the vast range of rare and unique voices of the city,” shares the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
A celebration of diversity in language through sculpture and sound
The British contemporary artist, whose awe-inducing works have been displayed at the Tate Modern, Serpentine, V&A, Barbican, Imperial War Museum, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, shares that we are losing languages as fast as we are losing species. “Our linguistic and cultural diversity is under threat in parallel to our biological diversity. There are currently around 7,000 languages spoken in the world of which around 2,900 are currently endangered. Losing a language is like losing a library of scientific, cultural, and spiritual wisdom; we are currently losing one every 40 days, and at current rates, about 90 per cent of all languages currently spoken will become extinct in the next 100 years,” she says.
Devlin continues, “When you read towards the end of the full list of endangered languages, you reach (those) that are spoken by just a few hundred people, and then you reach languages that are spoken by under a hundred people and finally you reach languages that are spoken by just one person. The emotional response to reading this list is like the visceral response we have, to images of the remaining polar bears isolated on fragments of remaining ice slabs. This sculpture draws attention to the work of the Endangered Language Alliance in conserving linguistic diversity and hands a central cultural stage in Lincoln Center Plaza over to voices who speak in unique and rare voices.”
According to the British designer, the material palette bringing alive Your Voices comprises everyday found objects, the kind of webbing straps and fastening hardware that you might use to secure your belongings on a long journey. The cluster of found fastenings is located within a series of illuminated arcs and lines scored into the floor of the public art, akin to a compass, with each line pointing to the continents in which the languages originate in New York—a true melting pot of cultures and people.
Visitors are invited to walk within the radiant public sculpture where they get further enveloped by a magical soundscape composed by the British contemporary composer duo, Polyphonia, in which the powerful text from EM Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End has been translated into multiple overlaid languages —"Only connect, and live in fragments no longer.”
“Drawing on the resources provided by The Endangered Language Alliance, Polyphonia gathered poems spoken in as many languages of New York as they could find, and underscored them with strings. The experience of listening to a series of poems in a variety of languages while the familiar Lincoln Center Plaza environment is sliced and reframed by the slowly rotating network of ligaments is expressive of how inhabiting a language other than one's own encourages us to inhabit a cultural perspective other than our own, perhaps one of the most vital practices we need to cultivate at a time of increasingly polarised viewpoints,” shares Devlin, who has previously explored the theme of linguistic diversity in her choral installation for the Tate Modern Garden in London called Come Home Again.
The acclaimed set designer also tells us that the sculptural installation was actually prepared during the lockdown period, when she attended many of the test build meetings over Zoom calls. “It was created during a very challenging period for those of us who work with mass gatherings, during a time when such gatherings became temporarily extinct themselves. It has been remarkably moving to be able to bring the work finally to the public. I see many of the works I make as kinds of musical instruments, and this one was created to be played by the public—it is really rewarding to witness it being finally out of its case,” concludes Devlin.
Your Voices carries a significant, knowledgeable, and generous intention of celebrating human connections, surpassing the limitations of our diverse cultures, geographies, and most of all, our stories and histories recorded abundantly in varying languages. As Christmas approaches, its timeless message remains perpetual, resonating with the intention of Devlin’s installation as well—a time for giving in the spirit of togetherness, of being there for each other sans judgement and hate, of creating spaces of harmony that enable us all to understand one another other and to go forth and find our voices.