One day in the 60s, David Medalla slapped some street dirt on his feet and wrapped them in newspaper during an anti-American demonstration in Manila. He scrunched his way to the American Embassy where he was denied entry. “You can’t stand on American soil,” he was curtly told, to which he replied: “No, I’m standing on Philippine soil.” Decades after, this is still a recurring motif. Wherever the itinerant artist goes, he carries the Philippines with him, as though he’s smuggled a bit of native dirt under his feet.
Even the most ethereal and iconic of his creations are rooted in Philippine reality. Take Cloud Canyons, a kinetic sculpture composed of bubble machines. You’d think they spewed dreams made of little else than lather and air, but they’re the sublimation of a harrowing childhood experience. “My father was in the guerilla movement up in Mt. Makiling—one of my most horrible experiences was when one of the men who was sent to warn him was shot by the Kempetai. He ran into our camp and I saw him—I was a little boy then—and the poor guerilla, his mouth was blowing out blood and bubbles, and that was one of my experiences of bubbles. And it remained in my head—the bubble machine.”
Another iconic creation, Sand Machine, a stark operation of metal and sand, was inspired by a trip to the Mountain Province. “When I was a boy, I went up to the Mountain Province and I saw how the rice terraces go up, and I tried to do it in my work, and then it became the Sand Machine,” David says in a slow, boyish whisper.
Both pieces have been exhibited in the Tate Gallery, with the sand machine etching whorls in the gallery’s permanent collection. The Cloud Canyons have been called the second most important sculpture of the twentieth century. There have been 32 iterations in all. More than anything in his oeuvre, they are known as David’s signature work—a trademark he’s resisted most of his life, according to Adam Nankervis, David’s partner, collaborator, and documentarist. “David always resisted that,” Adam says, “because he’s always creating, re-creating, and advancing. But it’s [all] now become synonymous with Cloud Canyon.” A signature is always required of an artist, Adam continues with trepidation, perhaps because this trademark work has overshadowed other equally important pieces in a sweeping corpus. It’s a fragment in a collective vision that should be taken as a whole. “All of that work comes from the Philippines,” Adam says, “and his experience of the Philippines. I mean, he’s one of your most visible invisible ambassadors,” Adam laughs.
As far as ambassadors go, few high-flying diplomats have had such an illustrious career. At eight, David had already translated Shakespeare into Tagalog. At twelve, he earned a scholarship to Columbia University--poet Mark van Doren was an early champion, Lionel Trilling a modern literature professor, and Jose Garcia Villa a comma in the young sentence that was New York. “Jose actually supported David and assisted David during his time in Columbia because it was fairly intimidating to be a twelve-year-old prodigy,” Adam says. Early adventures in the East Village introduced him to a string of actors. Anthony Perkins. James Dean. Wild times David’s traditional Filipino parents cut short by sending him off to England to live with an established English family. For a spell, he returned to Manila in the late fifties where he met Fernando Zobel, his earliest patron—perhaps the one who first saw David’s global potential in such works as My Sister at the Sewing Machine, a conflation of layers and scratched patinas. Where Zobel was introducing abstract expressionism to Filipino artists, he busied himself with figurative work.
David began creating his biokinetic sculptures in the early sixties after moving to the UK and founding the Signals Gallery. “There’s been some very important Philippine artists that have entered David’s life both in the Philippines and abroad,” Adam says. Nina Saguil. Arturo Luz. Bencab. “A lot of people wandering or searching. Different artists coming to London in the 60s and 70s from Manila, in search of a more liberated freedom than what was [available during those times in the Philippines].” David also famously introduced John Lennon to Yoko Ono, altering the course of rock and roll forever. In between, there were short trips to Manila, disrupting diplomatic affairs at the American Embassy, or unfurling anti-Marcos banners from balconies overlooking the CCP during its inauguration. In 1990 he met Adam Nankervis at the Chelsea Hotel—the notorious New York landmark where masterpieces have been written and punks and poets have gone to die.
Adam, an artist and curator known for his conceptual and experimental work, especially as they relate to social, sculptural forms, is David’s partner, collaborator, and memory. Adam is the voice that finishes the anecdote when David’s voice trails off, the one who flattens tufts of David’s hair for the interview so that David is camera-ready, the one who turns the pages of the book to show the picture of one Cloud Canyon, and then another, and another. When they met, they were “essentially kindred spirits,” Adam says. Nomads who recognized each other for what they were. He’s also David’s partner in crime, the co-founder of the Mondrian fan club and the London Biennale, sharing all the homages and high jinks that have taken them around the world. He’s the one who’s irate after a sculpture has been inadvertently destroyed during an exhibit. And he’s the one who tells us that David has never forgotten his roots, or given up his Filipino passport. “He never gave it up,” Adam says. “He never took any other passport although the British Government offered him a passport and residency.” So it was three months here and three months there for David—whether it was the United States, France, or England. But travel only accentuated David’s cultural roots and heritage—identity being what informs your reading of the world, Adam says.
To hear Adam tell it, David’s life might just be his greatest biokinetic work—a kind of loose cartography etched in sand, a machine advancing into the future, but whose movements still belong to a particular tick in time. He’s a cloud canyon, “forming, deforming, and reforming,” in Adam’s words. “You’ve got something that’s always pulsing with life, that’s always got the potential to change—see, with Dave, you’ve got something atomic which then explodes, and it’s endless in its potential, and I think just by dint of the nature of his art, that’s how things go.”
This February sees another iconic work, A Stitch in Time, making its way to the Philippines. It’s an interactive, textile work adorned with messages from various collaborators and museum-goers. It’s country-specific—from embroidered messages in Lisbon to joints in Texas; from naked Polaroids in Paris to scraps of piña here in Manila. “It will be very international, there’s a stitch in time everywhere,” David says, perhaps harking back to his sister’s sewing machine. The piece launches us headfirst into a world we both know and don’t know, one that’s both interactive and personal (the distinctions between both growing increasingly blurry in this day and age). It’s a piece that fixes us in time, not as art or history, but as performance. David believes in us. Let’s see how we do.
David Medalla portraits by Jack Alindahao
Other photographs from anothervacantspace.com
David Medalla will have a featured exhibit at Art Fair Philippines, which opens to the public on Feb. 22-24 at The Link, Ayala Center, Makati. Mr. Adam Nankervis, David Medalla’s long-time collaborator, Ms. Purissima Benitez-Johannot, Co-Author and Editor of The Art and Life of David Medalla, and Mr. Daniel Kupferberg, Archivist of The Archive Project in Berlin (of David Medalla’s works) will talk about his extensive body of work—ranging from painting to performance to kinetic art to any of its exquisite combinations—for more than half a century. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/pg/artfairph/.
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