Arts & Culture
Meet the Filipino Artist Whose Works Are Permanently Exhibited Alongside Picasso's, Mondrian's
In his six-decade career, David Medalla has dazzled his peers on the international art stage and influenced countless young bright stars.
IMAGE COCOY SARMENTA
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Over the past 60 years, David Medalla—widely recognized as the most important living Filipino visual artist on the international stage—has blazed a path that few have dared to follow, creating work of such diversity, depth, and range that makes it difficult to pin down his creative practice, much less categorize his art according to a particular school or style.

Born in Manila in 1942, Medalla has been based in London since the early 1960s, his nomadic life taking him to places as far afield as Johannesburg, New York, and Sao Paulo. This refusal to be defined by space and time, this disavowal of commercialism so as not to compromise his artistic integrity has resulted in a richly storied and paradoxical career that have made him the stuff of legend.


The legendary artist David Medalla's exhibit at the Ateneo Art Gallery.

Who else but Medalla can regale star-struck audiences with stories about the time he looked after his flatmate Yoko Ono’s daughter from her first husband, Kyoko, whom he claims she had abandoned when Ono took up with John Lennon? Who else among our local artists can speak about being friends with Francis Bacon or Sir Nicholas Serota, or be recognized as a “father figure” to the YBA (the young British artists who embodied “Cool Britannia,” the likes of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Sarah Lucas) in an exhibition at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1996 titled “Life/Live?” Adored by his artistic confreres yet known only to the most serious of curators, art aficionados, and collectors, Medalla is a marginalized myth who to this day, even in his 70s, continues to innovate and inspire, producing works that resonate contemporaneity.

Much has been written about the early life of Medalla, who as a 12-year-old prodigy translated Blake, Shakespeare, and Whitman to Filipino, lectured at the University of the Philippines, and later attended Columbia University on a scholarship to study Philosophy and Greek Drama. Returning to the Philippines in 1955, he founded the Poetry Club of Manila and attended the art appreciation classes of Fernando Zóbel at the Ateneo de Manila in Padre Faura, whereupon he began creating semi-figurative mixed media works, some of which Zóbel would acquire as one of his first patrons. These would eventually form part of the original collection of the Ateneo Art Gallery; among these The Joyous Kingdom and My Sister at the Sewing Machine (both 1956).

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Medalla held his first one-man show of paintings, drawings, and sculptures at a hole-in-the-wall space on Mabini Street in Malate that he called “La Cave d’Angely,” attracting the attention of the literati and the social set with his poetry readings and performances. The impact that he created was such that he was the youngest artist selected in a survey of Philippine art organized by the UNESCO in the social hall of the Department of Foreign Affairs.


In 1959, retracing the journey of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, Medalla left Manila and traveled by ship to Europe passing through Singapore, Indochina, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, East Africa, and Egypt before landing in Marseilles. He made his way to Paris in 1960, where, introduced by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, he performed at the Akademia, the school founded by the poet, artist, and dancer Raymond Duncan, the brother of the legendary Isadora Duncan.

Years later, the French poet Louis Aragon, co-founder of the Surrealist movement with André Breton, introduced another performance by the artist. His work was so well-received that in 1968 the great conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp created a work titled Medallic Sculpture in his honor. Eventually settling in London, together with a few other artist-collaborators, he established the Centre for Advanced Creative study (which was later renamed Signals London), a space dedicated to experiments in art and science. Signals grew to become the center of avant-garde art in the city, hosting exhibitions of experimental and kinetic art, and serving as a venue for artist-writers such as the future Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda. The center also published Signals Newsbulletin. Edited by Medalla, it is today recognized by the Arts Council of England as an important record of the avant-garde art movement of that time.

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Medalla being arrested in London; protesting at the CCP in 1969.

It was during this period that David Medalla developed arguably his most iconic body of work—the kinetic sculptures, best exemplified by his Bubble Machines of 1963 which through the use of simple materials—soap and water mixed with air funneled through an engine he especially designed, produced columns of froth that for the first time in the history of art, subverted the solid nature of sculpture, showing how it could be both static and dynamic, in the words of Richard Dyer in a 1995 issue of Frieze magazine, “disput[ing] the parameters of what constitutes sculpture. In choosing a medium which self-destructs as it is created, the stability of the work is undermined and the validity of the concepts of solidity and permanence in sculpture are brought into question.” Other kinetic sculptures included the Sand Machine (1964) and the Mud Machine (1964 to 67).

This period proved to be a very fecund one, as Medalla moved into what the critic Guy Brett describes as his participatory art stage, characterized by “the relationship with other people and the interaction of nature and culture, art and society.” Works of this genre included A Stitch in Time (1967/68) where the audience was invited to be involved in the process of creation by sewing messages onto a sheet of cloth—its open-endedness reflecting the artist’s preoccupation with the notion of auto-creativity.

As an artist of many disciplines, the passage of time has seen Medalla constantly invigorating his practice—renewing it such that it stays in flux.

Medalla would continue to branch out his art practice, much like his fluid bubble structures, bursting into the realm of performance art either as actor/progenitor or as instigator of multifarious, seemingly unrelated causes, inserting himself into cultural, social, and gender issues when he founded the Exploding Galaxies, an organization of multimedia artists working around these themes, and political protest such as when he co-established Artists for Democracy or when, together with the artists Marciano Galang and the poet Jun Lansang, he unfurled a banner that read ‘A bas la mystification [down with pretense], down with Philistines!’ from a balcony overlooking the lobby of the Cultural Center of the Philippines during its inauguration in 1969 attended by then President Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda Marcos accompanied by then Governor and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Perhaps the most significant episode in his artistic career during the 1970s was his inclusion by Harold Szeemann in the fifth staging of Documenta, arguably the world’s most prestigious exhibition of international contemporary art.

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Homage to Darwin (2011)

As an artist of many disciplines, the passage of time has seen Medalla constantly invigorating his practice—renewing it such that it stays in flux. In 1991, while in New York to deliver a series of lectures on global culture at the Museum of Modern Art, he met the artist Adam Nankervis, who has remained his staunchest collaborator. Together, they founded the Mondrian Fan Club, which they dedicated to celebrating the legacy of the late Dutch geometric abstract artist through exhibitions and performances, and an on-going series of ephemeral artworks in different parts of the globe titled “Cosmic Graffiti.” While participating in the 1997 Johannesburg Biennial, the two took a boat trip to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela had been held in captivity. This opened up the idea for the artist to establish the first London Biennial in 2000, a loose aggrupation of exhibitions and performances unfettered by institutional parameters and united only by its founder’s inclusive spirit. Staged every two years, the biennial has become an important locus, a platform for artists working on the periphery of the art establishment.

Through the years, Medalla’s paintings, graphic and animated neon works have remained constant fixtures of his artistic practice. Marked by a certain naïve quality interspersed with symbolism and text, these works archive important junctures in his life, such as Parables of Friendship: Myself and Lovato Guerrino at Castello in Venice (1983), depicting a personal relationship through a collection of objects; the Luz.Vi.Minda. series (1986) produced after the artist’s last visit to the Philippines; Kinetic Mudras for Piet Mondrian (1994) which foregrounds the essence of art as one mitigated by the historical force of an ambitious yet innocently unrealized idea; and Homage to Darwin (2011), a work that gained much attention in the inaugural Art Fair Philippines, showcasing the artist’s great erudition. His recent exhibit at the Ateneo Art Gallery, titled “Tuloy Po Kayo,” featured portraits of individuals from overseas whose paths crossed with his and who influenced the artistic and cultural life of the Philippines, among them the American anthropologist H. Otley Bayer, Grace Luna de San Pedro, a noted American dancer and wife of Juan Luna’s only son Andres, and the Portuguese impresario Don Jose Zara of the Clover Theater. He also debuted a startling collection of sand paintings, among these The Singer and the Poet and Los Marineros Son Las Alas del Amor (Sailors are the Wings of Love)—Luis Cernuda, which hearkens to the materials and processes that he introduced to the avant-garde art scene in Britain in the early 1960s. These new works were created using PVC pipes with strategically placed holes filled with sand, which were then rolled onto a surface by the artist at regular intervals to produce their distinctive, poetic images.

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The joyous academic convocation ceremony; Medalla flanked by William Burroughs and Francis Bacon.

The Ateneo exhibition was occasioned by the bestowal of the Gawad Tanglaw ng Lahi, the highest cultural award of the Ateneo de Manila University upon Medalla (previous awardees include Victorio Edades, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, and Federico Aguilar Alcuaz) in recognition of his achievements at the highest echelons of the international art world. In its citation, Medalla was recognized for being “an important figure in the history of art as a pioneer of kinetic, earth, performance, participation and conceptual art, his mettle [being] proven by his inclusion in the permanent collection of one of the world’s greatest museums, the Tate, the only Filipino to be so honored, exhibiting alongside the likes of Hans Holbein, Anthony van Dyck, Piet Mondrian, and Pablo Picasso.” In 2011, Cloud Canyons No. 14, an iteration of the artist’s Bubble Machines was unveiled at the New Museum in New York as “an iconic work of 20th Century art.” yet in spite of his achievements and offers of foreign citizenship, it is a source of great inspiration that Medalla remains a Filipino to the core, traveling with a Philippine passport, and continuously referring to his roots and formative years in Manila.

In an interview, David Medalla described his life’s work in a word: “atomic.” Indeed, there can be no more perfect analogy for a man who has become the very embodiment of his art. Starting with the most basic of elements, his ideas constantly expanded through the years, unfettered by convention. Building linkages between individuals and communities, stitching together multi-disciplinary practices into a seamless whole, visualizing symbolist poetry and surrealist prose, what remains is a palpable restlessness: an auto-creative project that, as sure as art manifests our shared humanity, will never come to an end.

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This story was originally published in the July 2013 issue of Town&Country Philippines.

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Ramon E.S. Lerma
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