Within bigger & smaller worlds


Mercedes Marie Tolentino

Energy begins with the universe; experienced manifestations or phenomena we identify with activity, stillness, and accumulation. It is friction, motion, transformation, or the absence of such; it is the elemental nature of electricity, fire. Energy is also ‘vibrant matter’ and ‘vital energy’ that resides within bodies among bodies, and worlds among worlds. The work of Isola Tong, Vibrant Interior, underscores the nature of energy from organic and inorganic bodies around us. Our shared energy, both human and not, are what we inhabit and co-habit spaces with, at a period where anthropogenic processes cause planetary change, and more imminently, the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still altering, disrupting commonplace social and economic structures.

In Vibrant Interior, Tong conjures images of fey-like organisms, or perhaps, vegetal inkblots in motion, foregrounded by swelling cellular landscapes and biomes. Its jittering, rhythmic activity is imaginary, a mimetic exchange that finds negotiations in the divide between inside and outside, between what is ours and what is the other, between self and the world.[1] This simulation of microscopic life merely resides in the indoor ecology of Tong’s home, revealing the tendencies of organisms labelled in its different dominions: Kingdom Protozoa, Kingdom Plantae, Kingdom Fungi, and Kingdom Chromista (or algae).

Modulations of vital energy, or qi, from the micro-cosmology of organisms that Tong depicts lead back to our pervasive connections with life, the cycles of nature, and the transformative force that animates everything in the universe.[2] The inception of qi was based on the observable phenomenon of energy in the world, and was thus enkindled by mankind as the basic element of the heavens, and the known universe. This is resonant with Tong’s video work that mapped and nurtured the human and nonhuman intrinsic energy and relationship.

Tong’s architectural practice becomes a point of reference in constructing the imagery of ecology between human and nonhuman agents; nonhuman being the animal, the vegetal, and the geotic.[3] Architecture is the most pollutant human habitation, and one of the most universal of public problems. The act of constantly breaking and extracting land and minerals to build lasting foundations is also within human-guided capacity in exploiting nonhuman matter: earth, fossils, minerals.[4] Relating back to Vibrant Interior, Tong’s work seeks to challenge neoliberalist systems of architecture and technology, while resonating with the notion of vibrant matter — the energy and vitality that resides within earthen nonhuman agents.[5]

Isola Tong’s artistic practice examines relationalities between nature and power, to dissolve the illusory boundary between nature and man, and in leveling the relationships between the human and nonhuman as co-participants in world-making. Her moving image piece Vibrant Interior (single channel video, 3’23”, 2020), can be found at her Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/p/CAEs0TTjpW6/. It was conceived as a part of an online exhibition called Viral Portraits with Moderna Galerija at Ljubljana, Slovenia. Tong’s solo (online) exhibition, Forest of Agencies, is currently on view at Vinyl on Vinyl Gallery’s Instagram page, while physically exhibited on-site. The source of vital energy stems from Tong’s intricate mappings of time-space constructs of organic and digital dimensions, and the precarious entanglements of human agency and the colonization of urban forests.

Our collective understanding of time, space, and systems of habitation have forced us to reassess new ways of functioning within a time of global crisis. As the pandemic decisively exacerbated institutional frailties and state violence within social, political and economic configurations, we make sharp pivots to inhabit online spaces as our alternative portals of protest and criticism. As cultural institutions rework collections within digital exhibitions, and public talks and conferences become Zoom webinars, on an individual level, online spaces are reinvigorated as a new post-pandemic medium for performances, information exchange, and cultural production.

“Right now, the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge.”[6]

[1] Anselm Franke, “Like, Like Being Like — On Mimesis, Mimicry, And Mimétisme,” exhibition brochure, Extra City, Antwerp, 25 January-6 April , 2008, 59.

[2] Robin R. Wang & Ding Weixiang, “Zhang Zai’s Theory of Vital Energy,” 2010, 42. 10.1007/978–90–481–2930–0_3.

[3] Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “The Three Figures of Geontology,” Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, 2016, 61. 10.1215/9780822373810–001.

[4] Author’s interview with the artist, May 2020.

[5] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 5.

[6] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 100.

Mercedes Marie Tolentino (b. 1992) is a curator and cultural worker based in Manila. She is currently finishing her MA in Cultural Heritage Studies at the University of Santo Tomas, Manila concentrating in museum studies. She graduated with a degree in History at the De La Salle University, Manila. She is currently with Bellas Artes Projects as programs coordinator for the Eskwela educational programs and art residencies. She has previously worked as a curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, overseeing the development, coordination and research of local and international art exhibitions.