David Medalla (1938–2020)

December 29, 2020

Filipino artist David Medalla, who fascinated viewers with his soap-bubble-spewing “Cloud Canyon” sculptures of 1963–2011, and who in 1964 cofounded the influential London gallery Signals, has died at the age of eighty-two. His death in Manila was announced by his partner and longtime collaborator curator, Adam Nankervis. A self-described “poet who celebrates physics,” Medalla produced pioneering works of kinetic art, and in the past decade came to be recognized for his exemplary contributions to the fields of installation and participatory art.

Born in Manila in 1938, Medalla made local headlines as a boy when he claimed to have fallen asleep while reading aboard a ship docked at a Manila port, waking up to find that it had departed for Hong Kong. Shortly thereafter, in 1954, at the behest of poet Mark van Doren, he arrived in New York at Columbia University, where he studied philosophy and literature as a special student. While studying in the US, he met Filipino poet and artist José Garcia Villa, who fostered his interest in painting. On his return to Manila, he began creating art in earnest, with the support of Catalan poet Jaime Gil de Biedma and painter Fernando M. Zobel.

Medalla moved to London in 1960 and began creating his “Cloud Canyon” sculptures, organic forms that emitted soapy foam. He showed his earliest bubble machines, which he characterized as “auto-creative art”—the term a reference and a contrast to the auto-destructive art of contemporary Gustav Metzger and others—to Gaston Bachelard, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp in Paris; in 1968, Duchamp created Medallic Sculpture as a response and tribute to Medalla’s bubble machines.

In a 2011 interview with Mousse magazine, Medalla listed several inspirations for these works, among them the death of a Filipino guerrilla, whom he claimed to have seen shot dead during World War II. From the safety of his sister's arms, he watched as the young man ran into the Medalla family’s garden.“The sight of him lying there dying, red blood bubbles foaming from his mouth, made a strong impression on me.”

The 1960s were a productive time for Medalla; during this decade, he began another work which brought him wide acclaim, A Stitch in Time. Begun in 1968, the groundbreaking participatory work initially involved Medalla’s giving two lovers a pair of handkerchiefs and asking them to sew whatever design they liked into them. He expanded the open-ended project over the following years, inviting museum and gallery audiences to stitch pieces of fabric to a larger swath of cloth, creating textured works that challenge the concept of creative hierarchy.

In 1964 Medalla, with artists Metzger and Marcello Salvadori, critic Guy Brett, and curator Paul Keeler, founded the London gallery Signals. Initially established as the Center for Advanced Creative Study inside the apartment Medalla shared with Keeler, Signals would exist for just two years on Wigmore Street in London’s West End and would have a tremendous impact on the avant-garde art world of the day, introducing the work of revolutionary Greek kinetic artist Takis, Venezuelan installation artist Jesús Rafael Soto, and Brazilian artists Lygia Clark, Mira Schendel, and Hélio Oiticica. 

Medalla was included in such landmark exhibitions as 1966’s “Weiss auf Weiss” and 1969’s “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” both curated by Harald Szeemann at Kunsthalle Bern; and Documenta 5, in Kassel. His work is held in the permanent collections of the National Museum of the Philippines and the Ateneo Art Gallery, Manila; Auckland Art Gallery; Museum Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid;  Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; National Gallery Singapore; and Tate Modern, London.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Medalla cofounded a number of collectives, among them Artists for Democracy, Octetto Ironico; the Baroque Buddha Brotherhood; the Synoptic Realists, and Mondrian Fan Club. Beginning in 2000, with Nankervis, he ran the London Biennale, which he conceived of as an event, taking various forms and occupying no fixed location, celebrating “marginal artists.”

Nankervis, speaking to a Quezon City, Philippines, news channel in 2019, described Medalla’s life as similar to his art. “You’ve got something that’s always pulsing with life, that’s always got the potential to change . . . with Dave, you’ve got something atomic which then explodes, and it’s endless in its potential.”