Es Devlin and BMW reveal hydrogen-fuelled collaboration at Art Basel 2024

Es Devlin and BMW celebrate the potential of hydrogen power in installations unveiled at Art Basel 2024, including a take on the BMW iX5 Hydrogen

woman painting toy car
The artist in her studio working on a model for her collaborative Art Basel in Basel 2024 installation, titled BMW iX5 Hydrogen: SURFACING – in conversation with Es Devlin
(Image credit: Photo: Gary Yeh © Es Devlin / BMW AG (06/2024))

‘I'm fascinated by how we are intertwined with our technology,’ says Es Devlin when we meet at her London studio to discuss her partnership with BMW, with whom she is debuting a new series of installations set to debut at Art Basel 2024 (13-16 June).

‘BMW genuinely want to facilitate an actual meeting of minds, and that's what attracted me to this collaboration, which we have been talking about since 2017,’ she adds. ‘We have been waiting to find a genuine overlap of my lines of inquiry with their lines of inquiry. And this is the one.’ For her new works, encompassing sound, music and light, Devlin has been inspired by her time with BMW’s engineers and their work to make hydrogen a prime energy source for their electric vehicles. ‘It started with these conversations with the engineers, and then the work you see at the booth [in Art Basel] is very personal, looking back to my first memory, which was this line of light through water. That's how we begin the work in Basel. So I feel that the collaboration has allowed me to really continue my journey as an artist, as well as overlapping with these engineers.’

person dancing in water

Art Basel in Basel 2024: Es Devlin’s multi-media work Surfacing II (2024), commissioned by BMW

(Image credit: Photo: Lucy Emms © BMW AG)

This intertwining of the artistic with the scientific isn’t new for Devlin, who has embraced a mish-mash of mediums and references throughout her career. Here, she looks to the scientific process itself, translating the potential of the electric BMW iX5 Hydrogen – which uses the energy from hydrogen itself to drive the motor, alongside a specially developed battery – into artworks that explore human and scientific progress. ‘Hydrogen is the most abundant atom in the universe,’ says Devlin, who studied the hydrogen fuel cell technology that enables the car to draw oxygen as it’s driven, and reconnect it with hydrogen to create energy. ‘And at the same time, the other thing you generate is water. It blew my mind that what is coming out of the exhaust pipe is water.’

people dancing in water in red lighting

Seven-minute dance work by renowned Paris-based choreographer Sharon Eyal with music composed by London-based duo Polyphonia, performed in Es Devlin’s multi-media work Surfacing (2024), commissioned by BMW for Art Basel in Basel 2024

(Image credit: Photo: Lucy Emms © BMW AG (06/2024))

Devlin builds on both this technology and the culturally eclectic foundations that underpin all her work for the series of multimedia pieces she has created for BMW. It includes two new works: Surfacing (2024) is a collaboration with choreographer Sharon Eyal that plays on light, music and water. A playful exploration of the fluid boundaries of walls of water, it becomes a magic show, drawing the eye with a trick of the light before surprising and delighting the viewer; in Surfacing II (2024) painted televisions offer a mash-up of the digital and the traditional, a haunting recontextualising of the human figure. ‘With painting TVs, you only get one go at it. I did lots of practice before, with these big brush strokes on Perspex. I had seen Frank Auerbach’s Charcoal Heads and it set me on this path. This meeting between the burnt charcoal, the chalk in our hands, the TV and the technology, the pixels and the flow of it. And the water, because this was filmed through very slow water.’ 

blue and white car

The BMW iX5 Hydrogen: SURFACING – in conversation with Es Devlin

(Image credit: Photo: Enes Kucevic © BMW AG (06/2024))

The car itself has also been subject to paintings, with the exterior decorated with the literature and imagery that inspired Devlin throughout her childhood, including Katsushika Hokusai’s 1831 woodcut The Great Wave off Kanagawa and handwritten extracts from James Joyce’s Ulysses. ‘I was already thinking about painting on the TVs and how I'd create these layers,’ says Devlin. ‘So that's what's painted on the side of the car. They took those paintings and literally translated them into print. In my practice of stage design, we work with models, with miniatures. I thought that [created] quite an interesting relationship between the human and the car. The human is able to hold the [model] car in their hand, able to twist it around and to decide where the paint goes, not being overwhelmed by not being able to see the whole system. That's why I like working with miniatures.’

Inside the car, passengers listen to a conversation between Devlin and the engineers, discussing hydrogen’s awesome potential. ‘It’s the theatre in the back of the car, this conflation between technology and humans, trying to make life for humans actually work. These engineers are the future – they are the ones sitting there coming up with the innovations.’

SURFACING: Visitors can sign up to book their seat at the hourly rituals here. Thursday 13 June - Sunday 16 June 2024, Art Basel in Basel, Hall 1.1, Messeplatz 10, 4005 Basel, Switzerland

hand painting model car

Artist Es Devlin signing the BMW iX5 Hydrogen: SURFACING – in conversation with Es Devlin

(Image credit: Photo: Lucy Emms © BMW AG (06/2024))

people dancing in water

Seven-minute dance work by renowned Paris-based choreographer Sharon Eyal with music composed by London-based duo Polyphonia, performed in Es Devlin’s multi-media work Surfacing (2024), commissioned by BMW for Art Basel in Basel 2024

(Image credit: Photo: Lucy Emms © BMW AG (06/2024))

Hannah Silver is the Art, Culture, Watches & Jewellery Editor of Wallpaper*. Since joining in 2019, she has overseen offbeat design trends and in-depth profiles, and written extensively across the worlds of culture and luxury. She enjoys meeting artists and designers, viewing exhibitions and conducting interviews on her frequent travels.