In the collage Carte d’Identité (1972) the artist David Medalla (1938–2020) presents us with multiple versions of his identity and identification. The ‘autobiographic’ work combines photographs and found images – swaying palm trees, a prehistoric man, a stamped passport – and typed text fragments that falsely cite the artist’s birthyear as 1942.1 The work also correctly confirms his birthplace as Manila and his civil status as ‘single’ (‘célibataire’). Over the course of his lifetime Medalla issued many different versions of these passports. Oscillating between talismans and simple conversation starters – ‘when you asked what do I expect from people, I expect a simple dialogue’2 – they are evocative of Medalla’s unique itinerant biography, philosophy and artistic practice, which he used to liken to that of a nomadic artist workshop in the Middle Ages.
Born in 1938, Medalla resided in many places, including New York, Marseille, Paris, London, Venice, Berlin and Manila. Despite his constant travels, he never renounced his Filipino nationality, which often restricted him to tourist visas. Medalla’s peripatetic existence is mirrored in his art-making; he responded to the means available to him, using found materials from a particular circumstance or place in which he found himself – a canvas, a handkerchief, a bin bag, an envelope or a notebook, for example. He instigated new forms of dialogue through his work, foregrounding a conceptual and participatory practice, with excursions into collage and drawing, photography, painting, sculpture and installation. The exhibition Parables of Friendship at Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn, which will travel to the Museion, Bolzano, later this year, is the first major survey dedicated to the artist in Europe. Curated by the Kunstverein’s Director, Fatima Hellberg, along with Steven Cairns, Curator of Artists’ Film and Moving Image at the ICA, London, and realised in close collaboration with the David Medalla Archive in Berlin following the artist’s untimely passing in December 2020, the exhibition features more than seventy works from Medalla’s broad practice, which spanned seven decades.
A Stitch in Time FIG.1 is often presented as an introduction to Medalla’s practice – a tradition that is continued in the exhibition under review. Rainbow-coloured spools of thread dangle like a colourful pearl necklace over a large swathe of golden fabric in the museum foyer. A sign on the wall invites visitors to embellish the cloth with their personal impulses: ‘Please stitch anything you like (pictures, poems, names, messages, dreams) on the golden cloth’. As is often the case with Medalla’s works of art, A Stitch in Time was born out of personal circumstance. In 1968, by chance, two of the artist’s former lovers arrived in London at the same time, passing through Heathrow Airport on their respective travels: one on the way from California to India, the other from Africa to New York. Before their departures the artist gave each a handkerchief – one black, one white – along with a needle and thread, suggesting that they ‘stitch things’ if they got bored along the way.3 Despite being ‘very bad at stitching’, he embroidered each handkerchief with his name, the date ‘and love and all that’.4 Years later, Medalla encountered a traveller ‘lugging something which looked like a very crazy sort of totem’ at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.5 It was his original handkerchief, given to the man by a lover in Bali, now heavily embellished with bones and Chinese coins. Medalla did not see the work or the traveller again, but soon after, he began exhibiting a similar undertaking, which he titled A Stitch in Time; it is now considered a primary catalyst for his participatory practice.
Previous displays of the work have coalesced into a multitude of memories, each evocative of the place and time in which they were exhibited. In the 1970s visitors crushed cigarette butts into the delicate fabric, while young visitors in 1990s Paris stitched nude self-portraits onto the cloth, which they had taken on Polaroid cameras in the bathrooms of the museum. In Austin enormous marijuana joints were regularly stitched into the fabric, which were then removed by other visitors and replaced by one hundred dollar bills.
Central to the exhibition under review is Medalla’s participation in the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Artists-in-Berlin Program in 1998 – a funded, year-long artist residency. This formal diplomatic invitation by the Federal Republic of Germany granted the artist and his partner, the Australian artist and curator Adam Nankervis, access to a long-term visa and healthcare, a stipend, a flat and a studio at Künstlerhaus Bethanien. This studio, where Medalla organised his own projects and staged twelve collaborative exhibitions with fellow artists, has also informed the exhibition design in Bonn. The title Parables of Friendship references this intense period of making, collaboration and security, during which Medalla realised many works, including the series of neon light sculptures titled Night Blooming Flower FIG.2. Exhibited as part of the residency in the exhibition Art Lifts Berlin, the sculptures were subsequently put into storage and are being shown for the first time since 1998.
The exhibition architecture was designed by the performance artist and stage designer Michael Kleine. Formerly a flower market, the Kunstverein’s large rectangular white cube has now been fashioned into a labyrinthine arrangement. This includes the ‘stairs to nowhere’, a remnant of Hellberg’s inaugural two-chapter exhibition The Holding Environment in 2021, which allows for a bird’s eye view introduction to the exhibition. From the top, viewers can glimpse the neon lights emanating from Night Blooming Flower to their left or the glistening Cloud Canyon FIG.3 further along the corridor. The latter is a bubbling machine, representative of Medalla’s first foray into biokinetic art in the 1960s – perhaps one of his best-known endeavours. He coined the term ‘auto-creative’ to describe these cylindrical, frothy, soap-emitting sculptures, which were intended to counter the ‘auto-destructive’ art of Gustav Metzger (1926–2017).6 Between 1964 and 1966 the two artists banded together with Marcello Salvadori and Guy Brett to run Signals Gallery, London – a hub for the city’s international avant-garde – and edit its Newsbulletin.
Resembling letterpress trays or pinboards, apertures in constructed plywood and MDF walls feature an eclectic array of collages, drawings, ephemera and invitations to Medalla’s exhibitions FIG.4. They showcase snippets of Medalla’s practice, from his early beginnings studying literature and philosophy at Columbia University, New York, in the 1950s, where he was admitted as a special student at fourteen years old, to his nomadic existence in Europe in the 1960s and, more recently, to founding the London Biennale together with Nankervis in 1998. During his travels in Europe Medalla staged a multitude of impromptu performances. In Paris, he retraced the steps of his idol, Arthur Rimbaud, and in London, from 1967 to 1968, he worked with the experimental dance and drama collective The Exploding Galaxy. Their performances together included The Bird Ballet FIG.5 – thirty performers mimicking real and invented birds – and Porcelain Wedding FIG.6, in which they explored rituals of matrimony and burial. These performances are referenced in the exhibition by many original headpieces, masks and performative scores. Often, Medalla’s performances were not recorded. Rather, their ephemerality, memory and experience were an adequate record of the work for the artist, which he vividly brought to life during talks and conversations.
Arguably a highlight in the exhibition, the four large-scale figurative paintings Luz. Vi. Minda FIG.7 are partially hidden, suspended mid-air to illustrate Medalla’s particular way of inscribing titles on the back of the canvas FIG.8. Begun during an artist residency in Texas, the paintings are romantic portrayals of elegant young men in motions of labour in the Philippines: working on assembly lines, handling car tyres and gathering bananas, catching fish with their bare hands or tending to orchids the Coron island in the Palawan province. Engaging with the country’s colonial legacy, these paintings meditate on nostalgia and the Western gaze. Perhaps, they are also evocative of a certain biographical longing – for a childhood the artist never had, after beginning his university education in his teenage years. Parables of Friendship is a sensitive and careful introduction to the many facets of the late Filipino artist and his expansive body of work. Punctuated by poetic key works – ranging from his biokinetic sculptures and participatory practice to lesser-known strands – this survey resurrects the lively spirit of the artist, gallerist and performer who passed away during the show’s preparation.