Bagri Foundation’s Project manager Alessandra Cianetti reflects on Noel Ed de Leon’s ‘Microcosmic Orbit’ series of performative collaborations.
‘Wrapping can be an act or a representation of protest, rebellion or tortured physical condition, it suggests a nature of tragic trauma or a historical triumph of victory, signalling for defeat or heroic death.’ Noel Ed de Leon
For our second encounter with ‘Microcosmic Orbit’, a series of artists exchanges, Noel Ed de Leon invites Berlin-based cultural activist and anthropologist, Tran Thu Trang to respond to the theme of ‘wrapping’ (watch the performance here). When Tran virtually tours De Leon’s attic with his collection of original equipment from the First and Second World Wars, a curious parallel emerges: Tran’s father too shares a passion for accumulating antique objects, which he purchases in Berlin and arranges, films, and then ships to Vietnam – where he considers his true collection to be.
The live-streamed performative conversation starts at Tran’s parents’ home. Her upper body is framed within her father’s objects: clocks, bells, oil lamps and sculpted artefacts. They sit silent and motionless, witnessing her performative lecture from the wall, with the exception of a small, colourful, rebellious pendulum clock that oscillates tirelessly. Tran sits close to the screen and to us. The room is filled suddenly with a Vietnamese recorded voice. It is Tran’s father talking about his collection that spans geographies and centuries of Western memorabilia and everyday objects. When the recorded voice fades out, Tran introduces us to her own voice, and her reflections. She starts:
‘100 nghe không bằng 1 thấy, 100 thấy không bằng sờ 1 phát.’
‘A picture is worth a thousand words. One touch is worth a thousand pictures.’
De Leon is there as well, unseen but present in the soundscape of Tran’s reading. At times his video interjects Tran’s and occupies the screen. We can briefly see his hands unwrapping a typewriter, which sits at the centre of a group of carefully gathered wrapped objects; busts, heads, human figures, various undefinable items. We see a 2020 newspaper wrapped around a rectangular shape and titling Duerte’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) on the death penalty -, a page that will later uncover a framed poster of a beautiful woman; – the ‘1st Princess of Chona’. Philippines contemporary history is here with De Leon and the viewers in this second ‘Microcosmic Orbit’ too. After a few seconds in De Leon’s attic, we are back to Tran’s immersive reflection on migration, generational languages, and the white gaze. Shortly after, both the cultural activist and the artist are screened side by side in their act of wrapping and unwrapping thoughts, actions, and objects.
Surrounded by her father’s collected objects in a room full of – as per her words – “centuries of memories”, Tran walks us through her thinking around the meaning and lived experience of being a second generation migrant. Her parents would never associate themselves with the word ‘migrant’. Whereas, Tran herself, would reclaim that word alongside ‘person of colour’ and ‘postmigrant’, as a series of labels that help to understand the level of estrangement and ‘otherness’ which accompanies second generation migrants since they were ‘thrown into the world,’ as she puts it.
While Tran shares the trajectories of migration with its intergenerational unwrapping of layers of memories and anecdotes to reach ‘unknown truths’, De Leon on the other side of the desktop, is intent on the action of unwrapping objects and body parts. We can only see his hands, taking out the clear plastic around the items and wrapping it around first his right hand and then his left. De Leon’s action of unveiling and presenting objects to the camera, Tran, and us, is countered by the act of bandaging his own hands. These remain protected by the overlapping layers of cling film and therefore unable to type. De Leon presents to us a typewriter, then the poster of Princess Chona, followed by a stopwatch (which he runs for exactly one minute). A phrenology skull follows, as do objects from his collection that resonate with Tran’s words and her father’s own assemblage. While Tran reads her text, Noel attempts to use the typewriter to express his own thoughts, however, the literal layers of memories he has wrapped around his hands makes the action difficult and increasingly frustrating.
In following this performative dialogue, we are transported by Tran’s voice as she delves into her lived experience of translating worlds, decades, and personal relations with people and places. She digs into the meaning of her father’s desire to create a cabinet of curiosities filled with Western objects dedicated to his family, relatives and neighbours. They are sent to his home in the formerly colonised Vietnam for this specific public to see, touch, and smell what they might have only seen on TV. As Tran puts it, this idea is soothing for her. In her father’s act she sees a shift in the position of the gaze that creates a parallel dimension where the power of world-making is sited in the minds of the people in Vietnam ‘unobstructed by any white gaze’. Where the collection – described by her father as ‘the whole’ - is a whole that Tran sees as spanning ‘over two continents, multiple days of movement, decades of memories and even centuries of imagination’ as a ‘decolonial time machine’, in which ‘the gaze turns from formerly colonized to colonizers, quotidian objects become peculiarities of the White Man’.
Tran’s father and De Leon are collectors, their meticulously curated selections are lifelong research, enquiries, and acts of care. Tran highlights the irony of this care and devotion to the coloniser’s belongings which becomes ‘an act of defiance to be governed’.
She stops and takes an antique clock, moves its minute hand forward while De Leon unwraps what seems to be an antique fire bell. He rings it and we are immediately transported into a recorded video of Tran’s father’s house in Vietnam. We are now touring an incredibly object-rich room, where the collection occupies tables, walls, and all available surfaces. A Vietnamese singer’s voice and her accompanying saxophone set the mood of the visit, at least for me, into a nostalgic yet joyful and celebratory one.
After not even two minutes into the tour, the film stops abruptly leaving us lingering in the in-between space of wrapping and unwrapping layers of family relationships, colonial histories, and archives of memories.
Final encounter with ‘Microcosmic Orbit’: 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‘.