Pioneering Filipino artist David Medalla dies at 82

Living in London, New York and Paris, he showcased works in renowned international exhibitions during his time

Filipino artist David Medalla, recognised as a pioneer in kinetic art, has died in Manila at the age of 82.

His death was announced by his longtime collaborator Adam Nankervis on Facebook on Monday.

Medalla's work extended to performance and participatory art, though he is perhaps most known for his Cloud Canyon sculptures, which he created from 1963 to 2011.

He lived and worked in various cities around the world, such as London, New York and Paris, where he also lectured in several institutions. His works have been exhibited widely, and he participated in various international exhibitions, including Documenta 5 in 1972 and the Venice Biennale, where he performed at the Philippine Pavilion in 2017, the same year that the country returned to the biannual show after a 51-year absence.

Born in Manila in 1938, he attended Columbia University in New York at a young age upon the recommendation of American poet Mark van Doren, studying ancient Greek drama.

In the 1960s, he moved to the UK, where he co-founded the Signals Gallery in London, which was known for showing kinetic art and the avant-garde. During this time, he created his Cloud Canyons, sculptures bearing sinuous forms that spewed soapy bubbles.

One of these early sculptures was shown in the group show Migrations at Tate Britain in 2012. Speaking in a Tate video about the work, he traced the beginnings of his bubble machines – from witnessing the death of man as a child in the Second World War to seeing cloud formations from a plane flying over the United States.

“The inspiration was very much on my own experiences. During the war, as a toddler, I saw a young man shot and he was dying and I saw bubbles coming out of his mouth …” he recalled.

“The migration is because these experiences came from different moments in my life, from being in the Philippines, New York, Scotland, England and France, all the while thinking about clouds and their formations, which are never the same. They’re unpredictable,” he continued.

In 2016, he was shortlisted for the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture, a biennial prize that recognises contemporary sculptural practices in the UK. He created two kinetic sculptures for the corresponding exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield, which presents the award, including a new version of his Cloud Canyons, and a second work titled Sand Machines, which comprised sand, shell, necklace and bamboo.

It was also in the 1960s that Medalla began his participatory project A Stitch in Time, where he gave two lovers handkerchiefs and asked them sew designs on them. He continued the project, moving on to larger fabric pieces on which participants would stitch their designs. Iterations of A Stitch in Time have been held in Kassel, London, Berlin and Singapore.

Medalla co-founded a number of collectives in the 1970s to 1990s, including Artists for Democracy, which claimed to support “liberation movements worldwide” and the Mondrian Fan Club, where Nankervis served as vice president.

In 1998, he conceived of the London Biennale, an arts festival that seeks to welcome diverse artistic movements and that is held at different locations. The first London Biennale was led by Medalla in 2000. The event continues to this day, with the next one to be held in June 2021.