In David Medalla’s works, an impetus thrusts mind and imagination to a place that causes them to make connections between the mundane and the cosmic.
Text by Elvira Araneta Avila
Damien Hirst has pointed to him as one of the three international artists working out of Britain who have been an inspiration to him. Quite an accolade coming from YBA’s most prominent member and Britain’s richest living artist—to which Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, and the rest of the YBA (Young British Artists) brood have concurred. But it’s no surprise to those familiar with David Medalla’s oeuvre. Although the quirky antics of this child prodigy, this enfant terrible, made good fodder for Manila’s society columns in the 1950s, and the whimsical adventures and fortuitous encounters with the celebrities that peppered his life until then were more than enough to fill up tomes, Medalla had really only just begun when he landed in Europe in 1960 as an 18-year-old. From then on, his creative fecundity has led him to become a pioneer in kinetic art, earth art, performance art, participation art, and conceptual art.
In 1963, Medalla showed his first “Bubble Machine” to French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and American artist Man Ray in Paris. This was followed by the first public presentation of his sculpture in the Structures Vivantes: Mobiles/Images exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in London, the first investigation of kinetic and optical art to be held in Britain. Medalla’s plain white boxes gave homage to the axiom of Minimalism, but the foam that issued out of them was an intriguing counterpoint. Here were order and turmoil coexisting. Calm and churn. Permanency and ephemeralness. Stability and flux. Bubbles, one of the strongest forms in physics, were being created before one’s eyes and almost immediately imploding, all this movement producing random shapes undergoing continuous change. The power of the dialectic was all the more astounding because of the transparently simple form of Medalla’s “Bubble Machine.” Medalla was given immediate recognition by his peers for this marvelous work. They lauded the interplay between man-made technology and natural phenomena, delighted in the audaciousness and wit of the simple structure. Gustav Metzger, who developed the concept of auto-destructive art, hailed Medalla as “the first master of auto-creative art.” After viewing photographs of the “Bubble Machine,” Marcel Duchamp, with his love for wordplay and in homage to Medalla, constructed “Medallic Object,” a silver medal erupting with bubble forms.
Starting out in the 60s as a single box small enough to be held up with two fingers, the bubble machine has been iterated several times over, continuing to develop and expand in form and concept. In accord with Medalla’s interest at the time, it has reincarnated as complex Plexiglas compositions, a stupa-like structure, and a multi-columnar granite monument. The bubbles developed along with the framework, starting out minuscule and becoming enormous in some versions. Similarly, his participatory works such as “A Stitch in Time” and “Eskimo Carver” started out as a concept in Medalla’s mind that, in application, ended up stretching through continents. “All my works are atomic in the beginning. They’re always small and then they expand. It comes to the point that I can’t even stop them,” Medalla says.
Internal impressions are the atomic substance that gives rise to Medalla’s creations. For the bubble machines, it was the frothy sputum of a dying soldier, clouds that floated overhead in the tropical sunset of Manila Bay, the bubbling gata in the guinataan cooked by his mother, and the suds he saw during visits to a soap factory and a brewery. Medalla calls attention to the fact that all of his art is subjective. Ask him about any work of his and Medalla can tell you its inspiration. “A Stitch in Time,” which also has had various incarnations, beginning with a handkerchief and stretching out to cover several city streets, developed atomically out of his penurious circumstance and abundant creativity. The idea for the torn paper masks he’s incorporated in some of the performance art he labels ‘impromptus’ comes from his experience as a young boy when his father, whom he remembered as sophisticated and suave, came down from the mountains looking like a peasant—as was understandable since, at the time, his father was a guerrilla at war. Twice it happened that the young David failed to recognize his father in spite of the entreaties of his mother and others around him. From this childhood experience, he developed the idea of masks and masquerade, and of the layering and shifting of identity. “None of my art comes from outside of me; it must first be subjective before it becomes objective,” Medalla states. “Your art must come from your real-life experience, and then you transform it.”
Medalla transforms the atomic seeds that are his concepts into a transcendent dialogue. “Without transformation, it’s not art,” he says. In his bio-kinetic works like “Cloud Canyons,” “Sand Machine,” and “Mud Machine,” he seeks to harness invisible forces and give material form to them. In his participation project, “Down with the Slave Trade!” the artist employed the age-old symbol of enslavement – the chain – cast away its traditional connotation of hierarchy and bondage, and transformed it into a new structure which, when wielded thoughtfully and cooperatively, could link people together in a liberating manner. But it’s not just the structures that undergo transformation. Medalla’s aim is to simultaneously break down barriers between the work and the viewer/participant, and between fellow participants as well. The result is the formation of a bond between all the elements. Therein lays the dialogue, with form becoming content and vice versa. In Medalla’s worldview, there are multiple levels of reality. He seeks to give expression to these different levels and to run a thread through them. By embodying a bigger, intangible reality in his bio-kinetic works, for example, he aspires to heighten the viewer’s cognitive and perceptual faculties. In an interview with Hermine Demoriane, Medalla says: “The most important thing, I think, is to give life to materials, so that instead of finding ourselves separate from them, we find a complete dialogue with the material.” Medalla’s ideas give birth to form, which give birth to sensuous experiences. “Cosmic Propulsion” is Medalla’s term for his works. By this, he means an impetus that thrusts mind and imagination to a place that causes them to make connections between the mundane and the cosmic.
Whether through painting, sculpture, mass participatory propulsions, performance art, or artistic organization, Medalla is all about dialogue. His land art projects, such as the mud and sand machines, attempt to connect people to the dynamics of nature. His participatory works, such as “A Stitch in Time” and “Eskimo Carver,” invite people to take part in a communal creative endeavor, the act of which simultaneously causes the participant to explore his latent creative capabilities and generates a personal connection between the participants. In the process, two other connections develop. One is that between inner space and physical space as the creative concentration required of the participant opens up to him a private space in spite of being present in a public, physical space. The other dialogue that opens up is between the participant and the material he is working on or with. Because of the creative energy he puts forth, the participant develops an appreciation for his own contribution and an engagement with the artwork as a whole. Medalla’s impromptus and ephemerals are often vehicles for provoking a thoughtful exchange between those with whom there is a common artistic language. For example, in the performance “Cosmic Wrestling Match,” David Medalla represented “The Spirit of Marcel Duchamp aka Rrose Selavy” while Australian artist Adam Nankervis represented “The Ghost of Joseph Beuys.” is metaphorical wrestling match was refereed by art critic Guy Brett. Other artists played roles such as seconds, gong master, bets vetter or bookie, and viola player. A dialogic motive has also been behind many of the various avant-garde organizations Medalla has founded throughout the years. The Centre for Advanced Creative Study and its news bulletin, Signals, sought to establish a discussion between art, nature, and science. The Exploding Galaxy was Medalla’s grand attempt to initiate an inclusive conversation of creativity and cooperation between international practitioners of different art forms – painting, sculpture, poetry, singing, dance, and drama – and to inspire a convergence of life and art. The Artists Liberation Front sought to bring an interrelationship between the First and the Third Worlds and, in the midst of that relationship, to demonstrate a convergence between culture and politics. All of Medalla’s artistic projects have in them an element of reciprocity. Artist, participants, and materials interact, people make suggestions, and the artwork becomes a living process that develops in oftentimes unpredictable and amazing ways.
Unpredictability is a quality that doesn’t faze Medalla. He is not one of those artists who are loathe to relinquish control; instead, he allows himself and other participants the freedom to follow the muse of inspiration and to pursue different lines of inquiry. He fosters experimentation and change. Undoubtedly, that is the reason that his works and projects utilize such a multiplicity of media—from paintings, collage, sculpture, kinetic forms, ephemeral art works, participation and performance art, to organizations. And in spite of the playfulness and free- owing quality of his works, Medalla insists on structural clarity. “A successful work of art has a very rhythmic structure. Without structure, it doesn’t work,” he says. In his kinetic works, structure was partially determined by the goal to visibly manifest the transformation of matter into energy and the interaction between machine and nature in a poetically metaphoric way. “I have my own rules for myself. It’s a very conscious thing when I’m doing a painting or any work. Structure might just be a concept, but it must be there. It doesn’t have to be easily visible, but you have to have it.” Of his often spontaneous and even whimsical performance art, he says, “My impromptus, even if they are of the moment, are carefully constructed and very subtly done. They all have an actual structure. Sometimes it’s a very subtle structure, but it’s there.” A structuring device often used by Medalla in his performance art is that of the ‘meeting.’ is device works for Medalla because it carries possibilities for two elements he appreciates—randomness and incongruity. This fondness for incongruity is what a affords balance to Medalla’s works. Perhaps there is no better illustration of this than the “Bubble Machine.” Here you see active and passive, stillness and motion, materiality and immateriality. Here, as in all his works, structure does not get in the way of his imaginative liberty; instead, it forms a framework from which to take off.
Thus, in spite of the almost disorderly diversity to the styles and forms of Medalla’s works, making it difficult to pin him down to any particular school or movement, there is a coherence that runs through them. This conceptual logic is the result of Medalla’s view of a world that has multi-dimensional states of reality. He presents what he likes to call “a synoptic realism,” which he has de ned as “the depiction, in all sorts of media (painting, sculpture, video, performance, etc.) of the multiple interpenetrating levels of reality (perceptual/optical, sensory/mental, mythical/historical), dream-reality as well as the reality of everyday existence.” In examining these different levels of reality, Medalla weaves a thread through them, initiating interaction among the various levels. In the metaphors he creates, he connects viewer/participant to a reality he may not be aware of, setting in motion experiences that make the viewer/participant more fully human and cognizant of himself as part of a cosmic system. Alienation is overcome and total humanity, recovered— or so, Medalla aims to achieve.
Ever absorbing, constantly producing, Medalla has produced hundreds of documented performances and impromptus, paintings, collages, sculpture, writings, and projects of other categories. Undoubtedly, there are a number of works that have fallen through the cracks of documentation. Others have been allowed to remain in a rudimentary phase of execution, never seeing final execution. And many, many more exist wholly in the inexhaustible mind of the artist. For, being the truly conceptual artist that he is, Medalla maintains that the vitality of a work lies in its process, not necessarily in the final product. For Medalla, it is often enough to conceive of a project and to describe the performance of it in written or oral word. It is a stance worthy of a conceptual artist, but one not much appreciated by the institutions of the art world, which prefer marketable products that are easily classified, labelled, and packaged. Ever the recusant, Medalla has purposefully rejected these conventions, preferring to work outside of the system and refusing to be bound to any specific art movement. So he has largely been ignored by mainstream art institutions. Keen observers, however, have begun to recognize Medalla’s significant role in modern art. Upon procuring Medalla’s “Bubble Machine,” Massimiliano Gioni, exhibitions director of New York’s New Museum, declared the work, “an iconic modern work of art.” Even the conservative British art establishment has noted Medalla’s knack of appearing smack dab in the vanguard of pivotal points in 20th century art. At last, Medalla’s contribution as an internationalist catalyst is being formally recognized. In 2012, the Tate Britain is presenting a landmark exhibition entitled Migrations, a survey of 500 years of British art history with an emphasis on the migrants who have shaped the country’s art. Here, Medalla will finally hold his own alongside masters such as Holbein and Van Dyck and pioneering modernists like Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian. Once deemed a “marginal artist,” Medalla is finally getting his due as conceptual artist par excellence.
This story appeared on Art+ Magazine Issue 20 in 2012.