With notes from Petty Benitez -Johannot
The first performance protest I witnessed before attending art school was at the spectacle-of-an-inaugural launch of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in 1969. Here was a friend of my older libertarian cousins raging about the political ideologies of the building’s construction and programs, from the main driveway and entrance to the theater. “A bas les Philistine” A bas la mystification “ Down with mystification, Down with Philistines, he shouted repeatedly while holding up a wilted placard.
The moment was lost on me who was quite young and unworldly then. I had no inkling that I was witnessing an important entry in Philippine post- Second World War art history archives: the first, fearless performance work by an artist protesting political oppression and artistic regimentation. The young man was David Cortez Medalla, a Filipino who was then establishing his artistic career in London and internationally.
It has often been said that from a global perspective, Medalla is probably the most well-known and respected artist of multifarious disciplines from the Philippines, if not the region.
Much has been written about the significant impact he has had on the arts internationally by people who knew him, encountered him, were close to him, and those who never even met him; mostly describing his body of work as performance art, kinetic, avant- garde, experimental and participatory.
Getting off to a precocious start, Medalla was making translations of poems by Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman and Blake at the age of nine. This literary bent had not gone unnoticed and in 1955 at the age of 16 , he was recommended to study literature at Columbia University by the American poet, novelist and critic Mark Van Doren who stirred a generation of influential writers and thinkers including the Beat Generation pioneers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
In New York, he also met the young ill-starred James Dean, the idiosyncratic poet and painter E. E. Cummings
While in New York, Medalla also met the young ill-starred James Dean, the idiosyncratic poet and painter E. E. Cummings, and exiled Filipino poet José Garcia Villa. Meeting them stimulated his early interest in painting. By the 1960s (following only a brief return to his homeland) he was in Europe, first in Paris, where he and his work were introduced to the likes of Man Ray, Yves Klein, Marcel Duchamp, Louis Aragon and Gaston Bachelard: leading lights in the realm of conceptual art, poetry and philosophy.
It was ironic that he loved his country very much but spent decades far away from it, making himself known and putting himself in the company of art history giants and luminaries. He looked out on the world with the eye of a restless wunderkind till the very end of his life. As he lived in London, New York, Germany, France, his artwork reflected on a multitude of identities between himself and his true home. And yet all of his work was informed by his personal experiences, childhood memories and deep self- reflections, from growing up to moving away from home, coming back, leaving again, family, lovers, friends, compatriots, and his beloved homeland: the Philippines.
Petty Benitez Johannot tells me
“–There is little doubt that even if David left the Philippines in 1959 to travel by boat to live in London and later roam the Continent, the Philippines never left the man. David was a proud Filipino, kept his Philippine passport, introduced himself as a Filipino artist, and whenever the occasion permitted, wore the barong tagalog (sometimes with his bakya and salakot). Moreover, a number of his paintings were vivid renderings of places he visited and friendships he forged in the Philippines. He carefully kept old photographs of his family and friends and would readily refer back to his days at UP, in newspaper offices and in his succeeding studios (Cave d’Angely then the Blue Bamboo) where he formed lasting friendships during his formative years as a poet, staff writer, and artist.”
She adds, “Music remained an important element in David’s performances because, he told me in an interview, music guided his pieces. He used Filipino folk tunes to get his audiences to perform with him at the Vargas Museum, during his awarding of Tanglaw ng Lahi by the Ateneo, at his show at the Ateneo Art Gallery, and at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum garden and in the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015.”
Joel Cruz remembers:
“David was present in all the Philippine Independence Day celebrations in London. When dad (JV Cruz) was ambassador to the Court of St. James, he would make sure David was invited every year. David would come and do a small electronic song and dance participatory performance each time, at the drop of a hat. It was always a merry gathering with other artists like BenCab who was living in London then, Filipino post graduate students, bankers and other professionals.”
Medalla’s nomadic consciousness knew no boundaries, his was a world of no borders, transcultural, sophisticated and cosmopolitan; a Filipino citizen of the world. But here in the ‘60s, he was known only to a tight cadre of intellectuals and conceptual artists, while in London he imbedded himself in the avant-garde art scene making a name with soap bubble machines which he called “auto- creative” sculptures. With artists Gustav Metzger and Marcello Salvadori, he launched Signals, an experimental gallery that was a meeting place for international artists, a platform for contemporary works and an alternative to the more established galleries. He never stopped looking for international approaches to creativity. Far from home, he was busy. But here, his works remained obscure, known only to artist-friends.
Petty Benitez-Johannot talks about breakthroughs in his artmaking:
“ –Happily in 1995, art critic Guy Brett wrote Exploding Galaxies, a book devoted to Medalla’s art of the 1960s to the1990s. Surprisingly, Brett cited my 1990 thesis as an important resource. Unsurprisingly, Exploding Galaxies marked the beginning of numerous invitations for David and his collaborator and partner Adam Nankervis to perform and create works for biennales and museums around the world, David began to be featured increasingly in mainstream art journals and publications.”
Medalla’s art can be found today in the collections of the Tate Modern and the Hayward Gallery in London, The Singapore National Gallery of Art, in the New Museum, the Guggenheim, the Whitney in New York
Benitez-Johannot further recalls that the year 2010 saw David conceptualize, found and launch the global and all-inclusive London Biennale, a series of art events that continue to happen every two years. Then in 2012, the Vibal Foundation published a book Benitez-Johannot edited and co-authored, The Life and Works of David Medalla, which was launched at the Tate Britain. This became like a compendium to Guy Brett’s earlier book, Exploding Galaxies, as other pieces about David’s work started to appear in major exhibitions and catalogues.
Benitez-Johannot continues, “Thanks to the tireless efforts of Adam Nankervis, David Medalla’s art can be found today in the collections of the Tate Modern and the Hayward Gallery in London, The Singapore National Gallery of Art, and in the New Museum, the Guggenheim, the Whitney in New York and in other art institutions. Adam has also managed to have David’s drawings, photographs (called Impromptus) and writings archived and cataloged in his gallery-cum-living space called Another Vacant Space in Berlin.
“From 2010 onwards, invitations to perform and show in international art fairs and biennales, including in Asia and Australia, allowed David and his collaborator Adam Nankervis to visit the Philippines.”
Benitez-Johannot recalls, “The phenomenon of David’s growing fan base in the recent years can probably be attributed to the internet and David’s increased presence in this country between 2017 and 2020. His Filipino followers on Facebook have amply shared their sightings of David when, for example, he and Adam performed in 2017 at the UP Vargas Museum and the Ateneo Art Gallery and attended the auction of his works at Salcedo Auctions. He stayed on more permanently in 2018 when, on a wheelchair, he traveled around and attended cultural events. In 2019, his participatory piece, A Stitch in Time, was one of the main features in the main hall of Art Fair Philippines.”
I also think a key for his gaining mainstream attention here, were his Cloud Canyons. This body of work underlined his art-historical significance and subsequently his renown. Cloud Canyons and its many variants was his kismet. It was exhibited widely in major galleries and museums around the world, such as Whitechapel, Tate Modern, New Museum; Center Pompidou, Musée d‘art Moderne, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Included in prestigious Biennales, it can now reach even more audiences, thanks to our digitally mediated world. Essentially, these bubbles knew no borders, much like his nomadic consciousness. It marked him as a citizen of the world. They were the first auto-creative sculptures, and have been recognized as iconic art works of the 20th century.
Another major participatory work, A Stitch in Time, which had multiple successful iterations over the years across different venues from 1967 to 2017, invited audiences to sew personal symbols or objects onto a stretch of cloth. It was installed in London, Germany, the Netherlands, New York, Barcelona, Ukraine, Brazil, Bangko, Singapore and Venice. A Stitch in Time was a way of being alone as you immersed yourself in the act of sewing and leaving yourself in part, together with others, in one skein of fabric hanging from a wall.
From then on, he was finally gaining status in his homeland, right around the time smartphones were gaining omnipresence and art as investment started driving market surveys. This and his fearless originality and adventurous spirit together with his storied and audacious personal narrative added to his art market success.
Medalla’s works are being acquired in the Philippines mostly by younger collectors. He has been increasingly recognized on both sides of the Atlantic
Medalla’s works are being acquired in the Philippines mostly by younger collectors. He has been increasingly recognized on both sides of the Atlantic with his inclusion in major exhibitions, catalogues and collections and in reviews of lost chapters in art history.
Back home here in 2019, Medalla frail and wheelchair-bound by then, was able to visit his good friend and compatriot artist BenCab. Because of a stroke, it was difficult for him to speak but he was visibly elated by everything he saw in BenCab’s museum in Baguio.
The National Artist BenCab recalls: “You could see how happy he was to be there, he took a piece of paper and wrote: ‘Bravo Ben !‘. It was heartwarming but heartbreaking at the same time.”
In an obituary, Charles Darwent wrote in The Guardian (Jan. 8, 2021):
“His mythology, personal and artistic had a life of its own, each iteration generating the next: A Stitch in Time “ was installed in galleries around the world and was shown, to critical acclaim, at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The year before he was nominated for the inaugural Hepworth Prize for Sculpture.
“At the heart of all this was a belief that artworks had a duty to evolve slowly, in as many mediums and places as possible. “ After all,” Medalla reasoned, “Mondrian took 25 years to finish a painting.” Aware of his own part in the process, he kept a Filipino passport throughout his six decades in London, reasoning that the visas and red tape necessitated by this, would keep him peripatetic.
“He returned to Manila not long before his death with his long-term partner and co-Mondrian Fan Club creator, the Australian artist Adam Nankervis, who survives him .”
We can never really know if he regretted not coming home more often. But because he always felt his art belonged to the “world at large,” we can be forgiving.
Purissima (Petty) Benitez-Johannot is a faculty member of the Department of Art Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman, and founding archivist/curator in the MiraNila Heritage House and Library. Over the past 40 years, she has worked for major museums in Manila, New York, and Geneva and has edited and authored books and journal articles in contemporary and ethnographic art.