The magnificence of David Medalla

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David Medalla frontlines the artists doing special projects for this year’s Art Fair Philippines, doing an installation that’s been done all over the world, but is being done in the country for the first time. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — David Medalla is finally home after years as a flaneur, doing art all over the world, carrying with him the burdens of being Filipino, as he did the freedoms that his genius allowed him.

He is home: talking on Duterte, laughing at Maharlika, kabaklaan, history, enjoying time spent watching “Showtime” live in the studio, and having dinner with old friends. He frontlines the artists doing special projects for this year’s Art Fair Philippines, doing a site-specific participative project that’s been done all over the world, but is being done in the country for the first time.

He is home. And with partner and collaborator Adam Nankervis, the projects continue to germinate in the mind of this 80-year-old artist, in whose hands art is being made every day — as exercise, as practice, as nothing more but a continuation of his creative spirit. One that is also about his personal history, his rootedness in nation, his ideological anchor.

And as it is with our greater artists, it is also all still about us.

David Medalla - CNN Philippines David Medalla. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA

In Manila

For Medalla, art is always about a story. “A Stitch In Time” is no exception. “It’s a project that’s fixed to time and place,” Nankervis explains. “In 1968, during the backpacking hippie culture movement, David gave two of his ex-lovers a handkerchief each. He had stitched his name on each, packed a needle and thread with it. And he gave it to these two people going in different directions of the world.” The setting was the Heathrow Airport in London, and Medalla would soon forget about the handkerchiefs.

Until a while after, at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, when he would run into a man who had, attached to his backpack, an interesting trinket of assorted pieces of cloth and small objects. “David asked the man about it, and he realized that buried in the layers of trinkets was one of the original handkerchiefs he had given one of his lovers,” Nankervis narrates. “It had transferred from one person to another, and found its way back to him. So can you imagine that piece of serendipity?”

But of course the romance of serendipity wouldn’t be enough to fuel an artistic project of Medalla’s, with a depth of cultural knowledge and critical perspective intrinsic to his works. Nankervis continues: “At the same time, the textile industry was slowly going out of business, so David found these pieces of bobbins and started using that for the work. It’s not just a homage to love, but a homage to an industry that’s dying.”

David Medalla - CNN Philippines Medalla with his partner Adam Nankervis at his workspace in an apartment in Quezon City, where they are currently staying. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA

But also it is a work that depends on a public’s participation. Providing a swath of cloth, Medalla invites the spectator to mark the material in some way — by sewing small objects onto it, marking it, leaving a piece of themselves on there — in the process becoming part of the artwork itself. “David being very much a socialist, ‘A Stitch in Time’ allows the spectator to come in and find a very private intimate meditative space in a public arena, and leaves you to contemplate and work, or just to leave a mark the way a graffiti artist would mark his wall,” Nankervis explains.

The final piece as such, is an amalgamation of various people’s stories as told through the pieces they attach to the cloth — some very personal and intimate, others random, all grounded in the spaces in which these are installed. Having traveled the world, from Portugal to Singapore, and even the Venice Biennale in 2017, Manila marks the 25th time this project is being activated.

“We’re using Philippine materials — jusi, piña, Philippine cotton,” Nankervis says. “So with this piece, it’s very much David’s coming home.”

a stitch in time.jpg The installation "A Stitch in Time" at the 2017 Venice Biennale. A version of this will be staged at Art Fair Philippines 2019. It will be the first time that the work will be shown in the Philippines. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

In Place

But did he even leave. Was he ever not home?

In 2012, in an interview with Medalla about his artmaking, the conversation inevitably shifted to his childhood and growing up years in Manila, but also, and more surprisingly, to current events. Even then, the realization about Medalla was how much of what he does, of who he is, of how he tells stories, is so rooted in being Filipino.

Talking about the “Sand Machine,” which is going to be exhibited for the Art Fair Philippines this year as well, Nankervis says: “What this work does is that it’s on a rotunda, and it’s always rewriting its own cartography in sand. On every rotation, it’s rewriting it. And this comes from David’s experience as a boy in the Philippines, drawing in the sand, using your body as the center circumference.”

And yet it isn’t just memory and reminiscence that inform Medalla’s rootedness in country. It is a sense of our history, a constant interest in our people, our travails as nation. In 2012, walking me through his exhibit of portraits of people who had influenced his life, Filipinos and foreigners he grew up knowing, the narrative shifted seamlessly between the personal and the national. Talking about life in Manila during the American colonial era, he maps out Dewey Boulevard and the streets of Ermita according to social divisions.

David Medalla - CNN Philippines Medalla, despite the after effects of a stroke one year ago, still works on several art projects and is dedicated in continuing his practice. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA

“All of David’s work can be traced back to the Philippines in so many ways — biokinetic sculpture, performance, collective performance, participation art — it’s all very deeply rooted in the Philippines, though a lot of critics have overlooked that and have sort of seen it through a very European perspective,” Nankervis surmises.

Medalla, in 2012, said: “Ugat ko talaga Pilipino eh. A lot of my works, I really base on the Philippines. But it’s not literal-minded, unlike the Mabini school. I refuse to be anything else but Filipino. I’m so deeply Filipino that it’s always been part of my consciousness. But at the same time a Filipino with a very critical eye. Just because I’m Filipino doesn’t mean I need to like everything Filipino. I am even critical of my own art.”

In Stitches

If there is anything that is Filipino, too, about Medalla, it is his sense of humor. And it is exactly as I remember it, despite current limitations. In 2012, we were talking about current events, as we were about what he said was a “conceptual strip tease” he had witnessed during “nocturnal activities.” In 2019, he is talking Duterte wanting to change the country’s name to Maharlika, about which Medalla said: “Maharlika means ‘noble.’ We should change our name to Mahar-pobre!” At some point he started suggesting “Republic of Bakla,” owing to what he knows to be a large population of LGBT in the country (“Some of them are millionaires!”). Later, he says: “We might as well name the country Marilyn Monroe!”

David Medalla - CNN Philippines “Ugat ko talaga Pilipino eh,” says Medalla. “A lot of my works, I really base on the Philippines. But it’s not literal-minded, unlike the Mabini school. I refuse to be anything else but Filipino. I’m so deeply Filipino that it’s always been part of my consciousness. But at the same time a Filipino with a very critical eye.” Photo by JAKE VERZOSA

David Medalla - CNN Philippines Nankervis holds out a self-portrait made by Medalla with a description at the back. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA

He talked Jose Rizal and King Philippe, which is to say he talked history, still, proof that nothing has changed. This is also ironic considering that he himself has generally evaded plotting his own artistic history — or at least has refused to keep track of it. “David doesn’t like to live in his history. He’s never been a material person. So he’s lived very, very humbly. He was never interested in money. He’s always been interested in going out as a flaneur, going out into the world, but not being burdened by money,” Nankervis explains. “He’s certainly given many galleries the pleasure of not paying him. So if it’s the spirit that’s rich enough, he didn’t need a bank account with a lot of money. We’re trying to remedy that.”

As with all things, this could be traced back to Medalla’s childhood. From our 2012 conversation: “The other structure [in Manila] was religious. At the Ermita Catholic Church, the priest was a Franciscan, Fr. Blas. The first artworks that I saw were there: stampitas of Giotto’s paintings of St. Francis. There, we were told to be always poor, we were encouraged to donate our shoes to the Sto Niño in Tondo, and our toys. And it’s still in my head. I don’t want to be rich. It’s in my DNA.”

Nankervis has taken on the project of building Medalla’s archive, towards doing a retrospective of his works as well — a difficult task given the artist’s general refusal to fall back on his artistic history. That can also only be a tall order, given all the projects that continue to excite Medalla, the artistic engagements that he continues to propose. “He’s all here, unfortunately his body is not responding to his mind right now. Every day though, he’s drawing and creating his masks, and he’s got different ideas for biokinetic sculptures that are still being sketched out, as there are different performative proposals that will live on well past all of us here. David’s work is atomic. It starts off with a kernel of an idea, and then it explodes.”

David Medalla - CNN Philippines “All of David’s work can be traced back to the Philippines in so many ways — biokinetic sculpture, performance, collective performance, participation art — it’s all very deeply rooted in the Philippines, though a lot of critics have overlooked that and have sort of seen it through a very European perspective,” says Nankervis. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA

“Neuroscience says our bodies have to do with the mind,” Medalla said in 2012. “I think that how you feel actually creates something in your brain.” If this equation is true, then Medalla’s magnificence is not only home. It can also only resonate and echo into more works, hopefully more conversations, about life and living, home and history, art and creativity. We hopefully now know how lucky we are to have him.

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Art Fair Philippines runs from Feb. 22-24 at The Link Carpark, Ayala Center Makati. Visit the official website for tickets.