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exploding galaxies

the art of david medalla
by Eduardo Costa

Cover of Exploding Galaxies, with
Kinetic Mudras for Piet Mondrian,

David Medalla with
Cloud Canyons No. 2,
bubble machine, London, 1964.

Cloud Fruits,
bubble machine hung from
the facade of the
Goethe Institute,
London, 1972.

Launching the Great Wall
of China into Orbit
as a Satellite around the Moon
photo collage, 1969.

A Stitch in Time,
a "participation- production-propulsion"
at Art Meeting Place,
London, 1974.

Eskimo Carver,
London, 1977.

Psychic Self-Defence,
impromptu mask- performance,
London, 1983.

Young Man Gathering an Orchid
on Kalis Island,
Coron, Palawan

Mondrian in Excelsis,
impromptu performance with
Adam Nankervis,
New York, 1993.
   Exploding Galaxies: The Art of David Medalla, a new book by British art critic Guy Brett, analyzes the work and incredible adventures of the Philippine-born artist who lives and works in London and the world. Known for his monumental bubble- machine kinetic art as well as his extensive performances, lectures, participation art works, paintings and political activities, Medalla is currently exhibiting work in l'Informe at Centre Pompidou; a solo is scheduled for this fall at the Musee de la Ville de Paris. Brett's book comprehensively discusses Medalla's work, integrating social insight with art historical analysis while also outlining the glories and hazards of the new global integration, particularly that between Europe and Asia. Born in 1942, Medalla was a child prodigy who lectured at the University of the Philippines at the age of 12, studied philosophy and Greek drama at Columbia University in New York at 14 and founded the Poetry Club of Manila at 15. Eventually Medalla went to Europe, retracing the footsteps of Rimbaud and coming into contact with many artists and writers, from Man Ray to Ad Reinhardt. In London, he met Guy Brett; their relationship is witness to the beneficial possibilities of the East- West collaboration. Their meeting is symbolic of everything friendly that can develop between remote cultures. In their first encounter, Brett tells us, he was astonished by the knowledge Medalla had of his favorite English poets. Through the fiber optics of poetry, a dialogue of more than 30 years developed, with Medalla apparently serving as Brett's resource for Asian literature and art, a fabulous bounty that includes the writings of the great mystics as well as a fascinating folklore. Brett soon joined with Medalla and a group of others to found the Centre for Advanced Creative Study in London (later renamed Signals London), dedicated to experiments in art and science. In the mid-'60s Signals was the site for a series of large-scale shows of experimental and kinetic art, and published 10 issues of the periodical, Signals Newsbulletin, edited by Medalla, which has become a major document on avant- garde activity (and which was recently reprinted by the British Art Council). Signals featured work by an international roster of artists, including Takis (Greece), Lygia Clark, Helio Oiticica (Brazil), Jesus Rafael Soto and Alejandro Otero (Venezuela) and Pablo Neruda (Chile)--just to name a few. At the same time he edited Signals in London at age 22, Medalla was developing his own work. His Bubble Machines (1963) use soap, water, air, electricity, a small engine and chance to produce volatile and hypnotic visual compositions. More experiments followed, particularly in the fields of conceptual art, performance and various curatorial and organizational efforts, such as his participation in the founding of Artists for Democracy in 1974. However, the British art establishment was reluctant to recognize Medalla's contribution, even though he did most of his work in England for some 35 years. In the words of Brett, "By the cruel logic of chauvinism, official aspirations to make London an international art center resulted in obliterating London's cosmopolitan reality and the actual ferment of its cultural life." Although Brett is elegant enough to limit his observation to London, which is his birthplace, this is not the only city where chauvinism has become a suicidal force. Most modern art centers share in the malady, with Paris remaining the least infected. Over the years, Medalla found himself at the center of several artistic undertakings. After the demise of Signals London, he went on to consolidate the Exploding Galaxy, a live-and-work commune that operated in and around London in the late `60s. In addition to Artists for Democracy, Medalla was the founder in the `80s and `90s of Octetto Ironico, the Baroque Buddha Brotherhood, the Synoptic Realists and the Mondrian Fan Club. Each one of these groups had somehow different philosophies and members, with Medalla as their connecting thread. Their existence in no way discouraged Medalla's need for constant international traveling. Medalla's life continues to be that of a self-realized master navigator. Although he surfs the world by the traditional means of airplanes, ships and cars, he uses these "heavy" means of transportation with such frequency and casualness that they become "liquid," propelling him swiftly from one nation, one language, one culture to the next and back again. Medalla views life as a full kinetic experience, not only as a flux in time but also a fluid displacement in space. His global surfing is punctuated by chance encounters with thousands of people, many anonymous but some who are well-known. With all of them Medalla has a way of communicating that amounts almost to a technique, a sort of poetics of the chance encounter that can lead to a lifetime friendship. Some celebrities with whom he has had accidental meetings are Walt Disney, Edith Piaf, Pablo Neruda, Salvador Dali, James Baldwin, Jean Genet, Marlon Brando, Louis Aragon, Gloria Swanson, Jorge Luis Borges, William Burroughs and James Dean. With all he strikes a conversation, and many times this brief but interesting exchanges have been recorded in various interviews with the artist. Brett's careful scrutiny of Medalla's output has divided the work into four main stages. First, the kinetic period, including The Bubble Machines, 1963; Sand Machine, 1964; Mud Machine, 1964-67. Second, the period of participation art, characterized by "the relationship with other people and the interaction of nature and culture, art and society": A Stitch in Time, 1968; Down with the Slave Trade!, 1971; Eskimo Carver, 1977, etc. Third, the period of performance, from the mid-'70s to today, where we see "the staging of himself in an ever-changing masquerade touching history, culture, identity and sexuality," as Brett puts it. And fourth, his painting, a genre that Medalla never abandoned. These paintings feature great images bathed in the light of a certain innocence which seems to be at the core of all interesting art. In them we see various images: a young man collects an orchid in dangerous terrain; a man holds an eel near his face as if having with it a thoughtful exchange; several men play music; another reaches for "the heart of the banana" in a universe of birds and leaves. As to the diverse nature of Medalla's production, Brett draws the conclusion that each phase of Medalla's work can be seen as a different way of approaching "the multiple levels of reality," which no particular phase in itself can do. Because of the seriousness and persistence of Medalla's mobile practice, Brett sees in him the incarnation of basic concepts that are as Western as they are Eastern. "There are considerable affinities," he writes, "between the Heraclitian and the Buddhist- Taoist notions of the universal flux." A chauvinistic tradition of superficial occidental scholarship, at the service of a short-term and erroneous idea of the national interest, has construed this tradition to be irreconcilable, assuming also that "ours" is better than "theirs." The acceptance of the art and philosophy of Asia as well as of other foreign cultures may after all import the wisdom and new insight that we need in order to deal with our "goods," which we really don't know well enough, and with which we are flooding these cultures. Exploding Galaxies: The Art of David Medalla, by Guy Brett, London, Kala Press, 1995. Available from Art Books International, 1, Stewarts Court, 220 Stewart Road, London SW8 4UD England.

Eduardo Costa is a writer who lives and works in the Internet.