Es Devlin maps history with a perspective-bending installation at Pitzhanger Manor
The artist’s Memory Palace is a ‘personal’ atlas of pivotal shifts in human thinking
‘It’s a meditative space, to me it feels something like a chapel,’ explains artist and designer Es Devlin of her newly unveiled commission at Pitzhanger Manor & Gallery in London’s Ealing. ‘It’s conceived to console the viewer in a way: to remind us that humans have managed to shift our perspectives over the millennia and to encourage us that we can do so again.’ Memory Palace is the second exhibition at the Sir Joane Soane-designed country home, which reopened in spring following a major £12m restoration project.
The immersive, 18m-wide installation is a ‘subjective and personal’ mapping of 73 pivotal moments in mankind’s history, from the first known human drawing in South Africa’s Blombos Cave (73,000 BCE) through to the low-lying deltas of Bangladesh’s Bay of Bengal, where rising seas are being felt in 2019. Fragments of cities and building punctuate the stark space, Soane’s prolific passion for collecting and creating architectural models echoed in Devlin’s topographical modelling. (She has similarly transformed Soane’s library space at Pitzhanger into a reading room filled with books that informed her work.)
‘It started with a sketch: I had a sense of the broad sweep I wanted to cover, starting with the first intentional marks left by humans in caves, and ending with current ongoing shifts in our attitudes to the interlinking fields of ecology and economics,’ says Devlin. Conscious of the diverse and international make-up of her studio, Devlin and her team put their heads together to identify decisive historical events, also canvasing family and friends ‘to include a variety of generations’. We’re invited to remember the segregated bus in Alabama where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat (1955), or the languages that were outlawed in Machu Picchu during Spanish colonial rule (1781).
Eager to experiment with more sustainable materials, the artist worked with Diagon – the fabricator who also built her Mirror Maze – to research and source cross-laminated bamboo ply sheets. Some 650 individual 500mm square tiles of bamboo were CNC milled to form the main body of the work. This resulted in visible grain in the less contoured areas, with the detailing rendered in a lower resolution than that of the 3D-printed ‘special’ buildings. Fittingly, ‘like an image reproduced in memory, some areas are higher definition than others’, she says. The work is coated in a breathable, non-toxic Earthborn paint (the first UK interior paint to receive an EU Ecolabel).
In spite of the serene setting, there’s a certain anxiety embedded in the fringes of her atlas, where ‘the most profound and urgent shift in thinking is located’, she notes, referring to the present climate crisis. But Devlin doesn’t necessarily require us to subscribe to her narrative: she’s provided a blank version of the map, which visitors are invited to take from the exhibition ‘to create their own cartography’. Still, Memory Palace is a sanctum for reflection, quite literally, as the work is multiplied by mirrored planes. ‘Chapels don’t normally have mirrors though,’ says Devlin. ‘The viewer finds themselves within the work – for better and for worse.’ §