David Medalla (1938-2020)

David Medalla with a Cloud Canyons work at Cornwall Gardens, London, 1964. Image copyright Clay Parry, England & Co, London.

Peripatetic Filipino artist David Medalla, a pioneer of kinetic sculpture and participatory art performance, died in Manila on Monday, December 28. He was 82. He developed an early reputation as a poet and wünderkind during the immediate post-war period, and was recommended by American poet Mark van Doren to study Literature at Columbia University in 1955 when he was 16 years old. While in New York City, David Medalla met the American actor James Dean and exiled Filipino Poet José Garcia Villa who both inspired his early interest in painting. In 1957, he returned to Manila and established “La Cave d’Angely,” a cafe in a bombed-out building, which became a popular haunt for art exhibitions and poetry readings.

His happenings in the 1960s earned praises from personalities in the Parisian art scene such as surrealist poet Louis Aragon and Marcel Duchamp who created a medal-like art object in his honor. His 1960 performance “Brother of Isadora” at the Academy of Raymond Duncan in Paris was introduced by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard.

He moved to London and co-founded the radical Signals Gallery in 1964, which exhibited kinetic art from Southeast Asia and Latin America. The artist-run space also published Signals News Bulletin from 1964 to 1966. In 1967, he initiated Exploding Galaxy, an international association of multimedia artists. His work was included by Harald Szeemann at the exhibition “White on White” (1966) and “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” (1969) in Bern, Switzerland. In 1972 he participated at the Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany showing in the section called “Individual Mythologies”. From 1974 to 1977 he was chairman of the Artists for Democracy, an organization committed to liberation movements around the world. In 1994 he founded the “Mondrian Fan Club” in New York with his partner, artist-curator Adam Nankervis as Vice President. 

For two months in 1995, David Medalla rented a space at 55 Gee Street, London, where he lived and exhibited seven versions of his biokinetic sculptures from the 1960s. He is mostly known today for these works he called “Cloud Canyons,” regenerative organic works from the 1960s made of tall cylinders of bubble machines. The work has been exhibited widely in major galleries and museums around the world such as Whitechapel, TATE Modern, New Museum; Center Pompidou, Musée d‘art Moderne, and LACMA. Okwui Enwezor included Medalla’s work in the 1997 edition of the Johannesburg Biennale. In 2000, he launched the London Biennale, a global exhibition headquartered in the British capital that was open to whomever wished to participate. Guy Brett wrote in Art Forum the year it was founded that “Medalla himself sees the biennale as an extension of the participatory ideas he has been pursuing for more than forty years.”

Medalla’s art was also included in “Postwar,” a landmark survey of art after World War II, which was organized by Enwezor, Katy Siegel, and Ulrich Wilmes for the Haus der Kunst in Munich in 2016.

The following year, his Mondrian Fans Club performed as part of the events of Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. After being based in London and Berlin for decades, he decided to repatriate to Manila in 2011. He has been the subject of a two-part exhibition launched jointly by Thomas Dane Gallery and Kurimanzutto in London, which positioned Signals as a major force within postwar Europe’s art world. Adam Nankervis had taken the project of building Medalla’s archive, towards a retrospective of his works. The task proved complicated given the artist’s general refusal to take stock of his artistic history. Up until his moment of death, Medalla has been planning projects, artistic engagements and performative proposals. 

Medalla was born shortly after World War II erupted in the Pacific theater. In several lectures, he said that the inspiration for his Cloud Canyons came from the memory of seeing bubbles that frothed out of the mouth of a dying Japanese soldier. Adam Nankervis describes his work in a 2019 CNN interview as “atomic”; “It starts off with a kernel of an idea, and then it explodes.”

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