David Medalla: Propelled by the cosmos

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David Medalla after a performance at the 2017 Venice Art Biennale, where his work "A Stitch in Time" was also part of the main exhibition. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — David Cortez Medalla (23 March 1938 – 28 December 2020) was a pioneer. For art historian and curator Patrick D. Flores, he was an “indispensable figure in the prehistory of the contemporary, one who, with a ludic sensibility and broad sympathies, mediated the local and the modern in all their complications.” Medalla was an activist, a poet, and a prominent figure in modern and contemporary art in the Philippines and beyond who worked on kinetic, land, and participatory art.

His imagination brought to life machines, auto-kinetic sculptures that created careful columns of clouds made of soap bubbles, calligraphy out of sand, and ink landscapes out of mud. For the artist, “[e]verything must move, for movement is the only proof of life. It is the artist’s duty to bring life to inanimate objects.” For me, more than his works, Medalla was a pioneer of a sensibility about art that is keen on provocation and discerns the vulnerabilities of making to process and participation, to context and even climate. Because Medalla’s works allowed themselves to be affected by all these things, they are rendered sensitive, alive.

He was an activist. During the opening of the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969, he led a blitzkrieg demonstration that protested against what he saw as the Center’s philistinism. Caught by a cop securing the grand opening, Medalla was escorted outside and when asked if he had the necessary permit to protest, he showed his invitation, from the First Lady Imelda Marcos no less, and invoked his right to show his artwork — a cartolina on which was handpainted: “A BAS LA MYSTIFICATION! DOWN WITH THE PHILISTINES!”

Medalla with his partner Adam Nankervis at his workspace in an apartment in Quezon City, photographed in 2019. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA

His works commit themselves to a time of hope, an auspiciousness that welcomed dreaming, chance. In an early interview with critic Cid Reyes in 1975, Medalla describes his works as engaged in “propulsions,” or what he describes as “certain ideas that contain seeds or the nuclei of new creative actions.” This idea becomes central in his artistic process as he prospects it: “Participation - Production - Propulsion.” In Medalla’s imagination, the artwork resists completion and provokes further creativity. In all these Medalla has emphasized a momentum towards futurity, the way, as his life partner Adam Nankervis describes his works, Medalla’s “ideas are liberated from the essence of now-ness.” Medalla’s “cosmic propulsions” respond to the changing phenomena surrounding them and look out for possibilities in the past or the future. This is true for “A Stitch in Time” (1967- ), a participatory work in which people are invited to sew objects onto a drape of fabric using sewing materials that hang above it. The work is produced by participation and its materiality shaped by the labor of multiple people and their prolific motivations. Whatever other people would have sewn onto the cloth will affect how the others will participate. This sensitivity to the vitality of participatory projects have informed the artist’s other projects: “Exploding Galaxy,” a “confluence of transmedia explorers,” in 1967; the People’s Participation Pavilion for Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972; the organization Artists for Democracy founded in 1972; and the London Biennale, “a biennial open to all artists everywhere, regardless of age, sex, race or artistic language” in 2000.

The work of Medalla asks us to imagine a world premised on faith and hospitality: faith in the cosmos, in art, in the poetic and interventive agency of the artist, the artwork and its publics. In his imagination: “I foresee a time when people spontaneously — in streets, buildings, lifts, buses, trains, ships, airports, shops, supermarkets, thrift stores, squares and parks — will hum singly and together, and weave beautiful tapestries of sound.” In Medalla’s configuration of the world, we are generous hosts as we are obliging guests: willing to create situations that invite spectators to become participants and co-creators at the same time cultivating contexts wherein works of art are motivated by cosmic propulsions, responsive to the climate, critical of the times.