Playing Lost and Found in Es Devlin’s Ecological Labyrinth

The prolific designer creates an immersive installation for Miami Art Basel that promotes a more symbiotic relationship with the natural world. 

The fabric-draped structure laced with curvilinear walkways is best seen at sunset, when it is illuminated by an ethereal interior light. Set upon a bed of musty smelling mulch and surrounded by a multitude of indigenous shrubs and trees that evoke a pre-Anthropocene Florida, the edifice appears as though it was plunked down by extraterrestrials.  Adding to the dreamscape’s surreal effect is a cacophony of bird songs emitting from hidden speakers.

But aliens didn’t have anything to do with this installation, Five Echoes, which opened during Miami Art Basel and has transformed a plaza outside a large Chanel Store in the city’s design district. The entire tableau, consisting of more than 2,000 plants as well as white textile stretched over a wooden armature, is the work of the hot-ticket British artist and stage set designer Es Devlin, who designed it in part to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Chanel’s fragrance No. 5. Ecological concerns are woven throughout the work, which was inspired in part by Echoes, a poem Charles Baudelaire wrote during the Age of Industrialization that explores the changing relations between humankind and nature. 

View of installation lit at night.
At night the fabric installation—wrapped by two curving ramps that lead to an overlook—glows from within.
Aerial view.
Aerial view of the installation reduces the labyrinth to its core elements.
View from inside the installation’s luminous central structure.

Devlin, whose broad oeuvre includes stage sets for theater productions like the Lehman Trilogy, a revolving backdrop for Beyonce’s Formation world tour, and the new British Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020, wants us to dial back our sensibilities to a pre-industrial age when people had a more symbiotic relationship with the natural world. In a video about Five Echoes, she says “the forest is a co-creator of the work,” and encourages visitors “to learn about [the trees], as you would a friend.”

The semi-circular installation—180 feet wide by 205 feet long—is not especially aesthetically striking, but it is relaxing and thought provoking, aside from the loud, somber, and muffled recorded voice  of Devlin herself reciting the names of the plants. More information is available on white plaques that describe the attributes of the various flora and their contributions to the larger ecosystem. One, a jumble of green and brown stems called Fakahatchee Grass, serves as the main food source for the Byssus Skipper Butterfly. Another, the Southern Live Oak, can live for several hundred years and is resistant to Florida’s notorious hurricanes.

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View from within the labyrinth.
View from within the labyrinth. The installation contains more than 2,000 plants, shrubs and trees.

The structure at the center of Five Echoes is designed as a labyrinth, an ancient Greek term which according to Devlin was used to describe a dance before it was used as an architectural structure. Its pathways are meant to reflect the spare, geometric designs of the Abbey of Aubuzine in France, where Coco Chanel spent her early childhood. I wandered along the concentric paths, temporarily disoriented by white billowing fabric and loud pop music blaring amidst an overlay of a fragmented and portentous recitation of Baudelaire’s poetry. However, the experience did serve as a visual cleansing or purification, somewhat akin to white balancing a camera. And when I emerged and looked down over the surrounding trees from the labyrinth’s viewing platform, I had a heightened appreciation of the natural beauty in front of me.

In addition to emphasizing various environmental issues through its design, Five Echoes also adheres to a growing trend towards sustainable exhibitions. (Such as those promoted by the non-profit Art/Switch, or in installations like Danish EFFEKT’s Ego to Eco at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, where 1,200 saplings were transported back to Denmark and replanted after the Biennale closed.) The temporary forest in Five Echoes is slated to be replanted in Miami Dade County parks as part of an initiative to increase tree cover throughout the city, and the building materials from the labyrinth structure will be repurposed.  

In the end, whatever quibbles I had with some of the hokey aspects, such as the sound tracks, I was inspired by the work and its ethos. “If we can start to see plants and animals as equal protagonists as ourselves in life,” Devlin writes, “I believe we have a better chance of making the fundamental behavioral shifts that are necessary not only to avoid climate chaos, but also to live in a more just, equitable, and joyful way.”

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