Bagri Foundation’s Project manager Alessandra Cianetti reflects on Noel Ed de Leon’s ‘Microcosmic Orbit’ series of performative collaborations.
The very first time I came across artist Noel Ed De Leon, he was building a den with a pile of 20th century hand saws. Over a series of hours, he built for himself a dangerous yet, at first-sight, unexpectedly cosy shelter as part of ‘Does It Matter?’ performed at LADA in London in 2017. Now, three years later and in the midst of a global pandemic, De Leon reimagines the meaning of ‘sheltering’ in collaboration with Berlin-based artist Pepe Dayaw in the first iteration of the project ‘Microcosmic Orbit’ – a new commission which the Bagri Foundation supported as part of our open call “At Home in the World”.
In July of this year, De Leon invited Dayaw to do a virtual tour of his collection of historical artefacts and First and Second World War equipment that De Leon has been collecting in both Britain and the Philippines since the1990s. From this collection, housed in the artist’s attic which is used as an exhibition space, De Leon presents Dayaw with a series of objects that he felt linked Germany, Britain, and the Philippines – from which both artists hail. This initial sharing was an invitation to undertake an artistic conversation about home, survival and movements across borders in the form of two live art actions performed and live-streamed simultaneously from London and Berlin.
In this first encounter with the “Microcosmic Orbit’, the artists parallel performances occupy each a side of the desktop and as soon as they begin, I am struck by the dissimilarity of the settings they chose. On the left, De Leon starts from a dark space populated by blurred projected images that slowly introduce the artist’s dimly lit attic and himself on a military mattress. De Leon’s naked torso is imprinted by the projector’s light with vintage family photographs (are they Noel’s relatives or collected photographs of strangers?) interspersed by images of people wearing the medical masks we’ve all become accustomed to in the past few months. On the other side of the screen, Dayaw’s face is covered but we can see him sitting on a desk in a bright room where the objects he has on the table shine. Sheets of papers, drawings, a notebook, analogue photographs, a glass of water, a xylophone, all sit in front of the artist who is writing, taking notes and presenting cards to De Leon and us – the first image depicts a drawing of the Earth.
A few minutes into the work, we are abruptly called to the left side of our screen. De Leon demands our attention by loudly blowing a whistle, a sign to stop, concentrate and reflect on the installation of military utensils he is creating as a mobile suspended above the mattress upon which he stands. De Leon asks us to focus on the action of building this war-reminiscent installation while his body and the attic’s wall are filled with images where history overlaps with personal stories. When the installation is complete, De Leon goes back to the camera and instead of sharing with Dayaw, and us, an object, he offers an action: the shaving of his head, an act of cleansing and at the same time a call to war.
On the other side of the screen, Dayaw is writing and offering to the camera, papers that have different values in relation to ‘Earth’ (his first card), and how we navigate it. We see only his hands telling us the story of his travels through his German and Filipino passports, drawings, and analogue photos (is that his childhood house? Are those people his family?). At times he plays the sweet music of a xylophone. He starts reading a free flow of words and associations while offering more images to the camera. We are left, at the end of the reading, with a card depicting a love potion. There is love, nostalgia and hope in this process.
We are called back into De Leon’s side of the screen. He blows his whistle again. Having ended the act of shaving, he starts a process of opening up the mattress. He does this slowly, calmly, however, the process of taking apart what should be a place of rest reminds us of the opposing connection between struggle and rest, especially during a pandemic-induced lockdown. However, De Leon’s painful, methodical act of destruction, of emptying the mattress’ internal contents, opens up the possibility of using it to shelter his body. He slowly sews around himself the open wound inflicted on the mattress, and enters the cocoon. This womb-like cover protects the artist from the suspended objects, projected images, and our gaze. There is still movement happening within the cocoon, – a struggle and a dance – it takes time to reach a state of stillness and peace.
A soothing song calls us back on the other side of the desktop, we can now see Dayaw wearing an animal mask and showing the bright, white room he inhabits. He takes his jacket off to reveal a military mimetic one. Conflicts and migration are always connected to personal lives and they affect the intimacy of our bodies, minds, relationships, and actions. This is what this conversation between the artists keeps reminding us.
While singing, Dayaw rearranges the objects and takes off his animal mask revealing another layer covering his nose and mouth. He starts reading, in English this time, the chapter entitled ‘State of Emergency’ he wrote for a coming publication. It is a story of loss, of borders, of a Visa not renewed that brings the artist back to Madrid from Berlin with the fear of not being able to return. The fear that what he had built could suddenly vanish, pushing him into a state of emergency where he finds ‘uncooked fears’ he thought where already overcome. ‘A process occurs…system failure…A process occurs…system failure…A process occurs…system failure…’ is what Dayaw repeats with the help of his xylophone at the end of the reading, having now shed his mask and jacket. The process that occurs is one of both worry, and liberation, understanding, and choice. It is a failure, but one that makes him more determined to find shelter, to find home. He starts singing, a soothing melody again, interspersed by the ritualistic sound of bells. He moves slowly, rising from the table and collecting a traditional coat hung on the wall behind him. He positions it in the chair he once occupied. Now Dayaw, doppelganger in place, exits the room playing his bells, with the sound fading in the distance.
The conversation ends. Back in our rooms, we are left wondering and interpreting the intertwined lives of these two artists, and the journeys that brought them respectively to London and Berlin to create a new home. These are new spaces where past and present coexist in the making of shelters that, although temporary and ever-shifting, can be full of possibilities.
To read more about Noel Ed De Leon and Pepe Dayaw click here
Coming appointments with ‘Microcosmic Orbit’:
14 August 2020: Microcosmic Orbit by Noel Ed De Leon with Tran Thu Trang
18 September 2020: Noel Ed De Leon with Erika Tan
‘Microcosmic Orbit’ is curated by art historian and curator Eva Bentcheva as part of the Bagri Foundation 2020 online commissioning series ‘At Home in the World‘.