Remembering the life and works of David Medalla

Published January 19, 2021, 6:17 PM

by John Legaspi

The artist passed away last Dec. 28

David Medalla (Photo from Adam Nankervis Facebook)

Celebrated multidisciplinary Filipino artist David Medalla passed away last Dec. 28 at age 82. News of his demise was shared by his partner and collaborator Adam Nankervis through a Facebook post saying, “Dave passed away gently in his sleep.”

Born in 1938 (his birth year according to his passport, and not in 1942, as many sources claim) in Ermita, Manila, Medalla lived the life of a true artist, full of inspiration and no short in passion. He met Mark van Doren when he participated on a summer camp in the US in 1954. The famous poet soon recommended Medalla to attend as a special student at Columbia University in New York. From there, he studied literature and philosophy and met significant cultural personalities such as National Artist for literature José Garcia Villa. After years of staying in Manhattan, Medalla went back home and produced art works favored by the likes of Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Biedma and painter Fernando Zóbel de Ayala y Montojo.

It was in the ‘60s when Medalla made an international name for himself when he arrived to Britain and pursued a track on London’s avant-garde scene. Medalla is best known for his experimental take on kinetic and participatory art projects. Among his legendary works was the Cloud Canyon sculptures (1963 to 2011), depicting clear tubes overflowed with amorphous soapy forms. According to an aricle by the Guardian, the “auto-creative sculptures” were inspired by “visits to a soap factory in Marseille, and a brewery in Edinburgh; watching his mother cook ginataang, a Filipino dessert; seeing, as a babe in arms, bubbles of blood issuing from the mouth of a dying guerrilla comrade of his father’s, shot by the Japanese, in the family’s front garden.”

Another was the Sand Machine Bahag-hari Trance, a sculpture of a rotating birchtree, decorated with beads that form a pattern of a bed of sand. Medalla tells Mousse Magazine that the artwork was inspired by “memories of the rice terraces of the mountain provinces of the Philippines, where I spent one year of my boyhood as a student at St. Mary’s School in Sagada.”

In 1964, Medalla co-founded Signals Gallery together with artists Gustav Metzger and Marcello Salvadori, and critic Guy Brett and curator Paul Keeler. He also served as the editor of the gallery’s magazine, Signal Newsbulletin, which published critical essays, poems, artworks, political discourses.

His works has been presented by major art galleries in the world including London’s Redfern Gallery, Kunsthalle Bern, Lisson Gallery, and at the Art Museum of the University of California Berkley.

He continued his life in the arts in the ‘70s and ‘80s playing key roles in many artist groups and movements such as Artists for Democracy, Octetto Ironico, the Baroque Buddha Brotherhood, and the Synoptic Realists. 

In the 1990s, Medalla and Nankervis created the Mondrian Fan Club in New York, where they hand out chrysanthemum flowers at Cypress Hills cemetery in Brooklyn as part of a perfomance. He also founded and directed the London Biannale in 1998. Described as a “do-it-yourself” free arts festival, the London Bianalle centered its spotlight on “marginal artists” of that time such as Mai Ghoussoub, Mark McGowan, Deej Fabyc, Marko Stepanov, James Moores, Dimitri Launder, Fritz Stolberg, Salih Kayra, Marisol Cavia, and many others.

Medalla’s works are held in the permanent collections of the National Museum of the Philippines and the Ateneo Art Gallery, Manila. His other masterpieces can also be seen in New Zealand’s Auckland Art Gallery, the Museum Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia of Madrid in Spain, the Queensland Art Gallery of Brisbane in Australia, the National Gallery in Singapore, and Tate Modern in London.

“His spirit has transcended and moved so many artists, friends, strangers and the art loving public over time and space, inspired by his genius as an artist, poet, activist, wit, philosopher and raconteur,” Nankervis wrote on Facebook. “His curiosity, joy, his immense curiosity, his alchemical spirit knew no bounds.”