A reflection on Microcosmic Orbit – Temporalities

Bagri Foundation’s Project manager Alessandra Cianetti reflects on Noel Ed De Leon’s ‘Microcosmic Orbit’ series of performative collaborations.  

During these past months, we have been experiencing time in a new, disorientating way. It contracts and expands at the same exact point; layers of past and present overlap; the future is enveloped in a thick fog. After having searched for shelter, wrapped and unwrapped memories, in this third and final iteration of ‘Microcosmic Orbit,’ Noel Ed De Leon and Erika Tan explore what ‘temporalities’ mean in times of pandemic and loss.

For this final encounter, Erika Tan was invited to do a virtual tour of De Leon’s attic. This loft space hosts his collection of historical artefacts which he has been collecting in both Britain and the Philippines since the 1990s. The attic is an exhibition space but, as Tan says during her performative response to the visit, ‘attics are slippery places,’ where objects are stored and where they are lost. Sites of impermanent remembering, hiding, and forgetting.

The performance starts from a black screen, from where Tan’s voice walks us through her reflection on arbitrary formalised time zones, beginnings and ends, life and death, the time of the clock, and the times of our body. A dog barks, as to create a sense of imminence, of something to come, as Tan will tell us later, it could be an alien race making contact, a family member resurfacing, ‘or a virus, that we cannot see.’ De Leon appears, in the vulnerability and strength of his nakedness, with his presence replicated on both screens of this Zoom-hosted performance. As per an asynchronous mirror, we see him doubled and performing ceremonial gestures within his dimly lit attic where bells are rung, fire is started, and a sarong is wrapped around the artist’s body.

In ‘Microcosmic Orbit – Temporalities’ the two performances cross the borders of the Zoom screens’ division to blend one into another. This is a game of mirroring and layering of moving images and actions that replicate the backdrop while simultaneously hosting the objects Tan has selected as a response to De Leon’s collection: a terrarium, a basket, a horn, a mask. They all reflect his collection but are deeply linked to Tan’s life and memories, and at times, she surfaces as well. For brief moments parts of her body appear as ephemeral pixelated entities that intervene in the multi-strata video and its temporal dimensions.

Objects are translated with geographies and age, so are names. Tan notices that ‘Leon’ as a word, is a palindrome that speaks of the Filipino artist’s name, Noel. For Tan, it is also the memory of her father, Leong, whose name means ‘dragon’. But the name lost its elegant tail, the ‘g’, when in England,  so her father became ‘Leon’ too. Mirroring of static and spinning objects, personal stories, and reflections on the role of the attic in their lives, are the poetic and visual links between the two artists.

Attics are archives, and what the artists ask of us, is to consider how histories are recorded through the objects we store and what it is erased in the process. A fire starts in Tan’s screen, cardboard boxes are incinerated. De Leon starts a fire as well and offers it to the camera. He tears apart newspapers from both the UK and the Philippines, erasing the current painful history of his two countries. ‘The history of archives, collections, hordes, is equally, the history, of that which got away – was lost, destroyed, discarded, erased, forgotten’ says Erika Tan. A colorful cardboard house appears in front of the fire that has been devouring the boxes, and in the end, the house succumbs to the flames as well.

“We are, no longer in time, we are now out of time”, Tan tells us and she asks us all if an end, a full stop, is possible or everything is transformation, interpretation, metaphor. ‘Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it is always converted from one form to another’, states the First Law of Thermodynamics. In the Daoist interpretation of the Micro-Cosmic Orbit that Tan researches, this is the gathering and circulation of energies within the body and in connections to spirituality. We are Tan’s spinning objects, we are moulded by this circulation that started from the womb, from the very beginning of our lives. This continuous transformation of energy conflates into the religious chanting coming from the screen. De Leon presents an intimate altar in memory of a loved one, and we spin on both sides of the screen, as we are reminded of our own constant circulation and its end.

Throughout De Leon’s trilogy, he has brought us into his search for a home with Pepe Dayaw, we delved into intergenerational stories with cultural activist and anthropologist Tran Thu Trang, and we are now here, left with our own bodies as archives of memories, that with their continuous surfacing and being erased, are part of our cycle of life and death. While the spinning of Tan’s objects reminds us of our living existence, De Leon’s camera moves away from the altar, grounding our eyes, minds, and hopes in the spotted darkness of the attic’s ceiling that, in its slow rotation, resembles the universe and welcomes us to a new collective home.


To read the reflections on ‘Microcosmic Orbit – Sheltering’ and to watch the video click here  

To read the reflections on ‘Microcosmic Orbit – Wrapping’ and to watch the video click here 

To read more about Noel Ed De Leon’s practice read this interview with Eva Bentcheva

‘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‘. 

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