VENICE AFTER DARK
Raymond Ang gets lost with artist David Medalla at the Venice Biennale.
For the last five decades, the internationally acclaimed Filipino artist David Medalla has been around the world and back as a legend in his own time, creating a cult-like following in his wake. This true pioneer of Philippine art takes us through the Venice of his youth, telling tales of art, sex, growing up in Ermita, and why he thinks the Cultural Center of the Philippines is a “dumb” mistake.
Not that I knew any of that. On assignment for a local broadsheet to cover the 56th Venice Art Biennale, my version of Venice in August was a beautiful, sweaty dream. The whole world had come there to see the best in the visual arts from 53 countries, and while visitors had generally taken over the city, Venice still had enough room for stumbling onto a hundredyear-old trattoria on a quiet street and enjoying pasta al nero di seppia while watching the sun go down on one of the lagoons. It was my first time at the Venice Biennale and, covering the Philippines’ return to one of the world’s most prestigious platforms for art after 51 years (championed by Senator Loren Legarda), it was a magical experience.
How I gained perspective about Venice in August is about how I found David Medalla, a few hours before his performance at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, at the end of the vaporetto I found myself on. “None of my friends are in Venice during the summer,” David Medalla tells me. “There are no locals. It’s all tourists… You need to experience this in winter when no one’s here.”
I had come to the Venice Biennale to cover “Pangarap sa Panglao (Dream in Panglao),” a performance of the artist David Medalla in collaboration with Adam Nankervis, artist and longtime Medalla collaborator, and a collateral event of the Philippine Pavilion at the 56th Venice Art Biennale. The so-called father of Philippine kinetic art, Medalla is one of the few truly internationally-renowned Filipino artists. His body of work has been noted enough that some of the world’s most formidable art institutions— from the Tate Modern in London to the National Gallery in Singapore—have acquired his work. He has won his share of international distinctions and he commands a cult-like following among the international art scene. It only makes sense that in the country’s historic return to the Biennale, it would tap someone of his stature.
“The Philippine Pavilion, titled Tie A String Around the World, rests on an argument on world-making and the formation of empires,” curator Patrick Flores said in 2015, about the country’s return to Venice. Finding the thread that ties Manuel Conde’s 1950 film Gengis Khan with a new installation by Jose Tence Ruiz and a multi-channel video by Manny Montelibano on the Philippines’ dispute over parts of the West Philippine Sea being claimed by China, Tie A String is about the saga of empires and the resistance against them. Medalla’s own “Panglao”, which touches on Pigafetta’s voyage around the world, “further inflects the argument of the Pavilion,” Flores noted.
But right now, on the vaporetto, a different world is on Medalla’s mind, perhaps the world on the unwieldy bag he’s carrying, a suitcase with a print of an old world map on it, which he bought a few days ago when he lost all his luggage while traveling. When I ask if he needs help carrying the bag, the consummate man of the world says, “Oh, but I carry a bag so people think I’m a tourist.”
It was a few hours before he was due for his performance in the garden. I left my hotel early to explore the city by myself, and to find the garden with time to spare. I was surprised to find the 77-year-old Medalla on the vaporetto by himself, determined to wander around the city that’s been host to so many of his youthful misadventures without his companions.
“Come on, Raymond. I’ll show you Venice.”
SHOWING UP TO THINGS IN SURPRISING
ways is something I should have expected from David Medalla.
Just the day before, an hour and a half before the second leg of his “Pangarap sa Panglao” performance was slated to begin at the Palazzo Mora, the artist was nowhere to be found. Nankervis had called to say he lost Medalla on the walk to the Palazzo and that the 77-year-old artist is in physical pain. “It’s his back,” Nankervis tells me later. “He never lets on but I know him and I know when he’s in pain.”
“Is he going to make it?” I asked no one in particular.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Flores admitted. “I’m not sure what time David will get here.”
But true enough, as the second floor of the Palazzo Mora filled with people—some from the local Philippine groups, including Ambassador Ding Nolasco; others, members of the European art scene who came to Venice just to see David Medalla—the artist was suddenly present. Whatever pain he had seemed to disappear. He gamely walked around the room to meet his adoring public, including a videographer from Rome who showed him a book she made of one of his performances, and an artist from Florence who came to Venice because he “hadn’t seen him in ten years.”
For the Palazzo Moro performance, Medalla wanted some audience participation. The contingent from the Philippines—including myself—wore masks and went in front to help the artist sing the Filipino folk song “Sitsiritsit Alibangbang” for the multi-cultural audience. Later, he asked us to dance. It ended with him asking us to bite each other’s hand, with Nankervis projecting a video, while he and Medalla proceeded to tie different colored strings around a little plastic globe.
Minutes after the performance, Medalla sat down on one of the couches, rounded up several people he knew from different worlds and asked us to talk to each other. “You have a lot to talk about,” he motioned. Pain or no pain, we were in David Medalla’s world and David Medalla, apparently, is nothing if not a gracious host.
That back pain wasn’t the first snag the “Pangarap sa Panglao” had to contend with. On the way to Venice, Medalla’s bag was lost; and
so, for six days, he had to wear the same outfit over and over again. Worse than the loss of his wardrobe were the objects that he was supposed to use for the performance. Suddenly, he had nothing to use for his collateral event.
But in true Medalla fashion, he handled the setback with aplomb. “Everything he was using for the performance was there in the bag but his concepts are so strong that it doesn’t matter,” Riya Lopez, the head of the Philippine Art Venice Biennale’s Coordinating Committee told me. “It works with whatever is available.”
As we got off the water taxi, he motioned to a refreshment stand. “May buko!” he said. “How beautiful.” Two days ago, Medalla and Nankervis were reading dialogue between Antonio Pigafetta of Vicenza and a young boy as part of the performance. “Mr. Pigafetta, where did you get the coconut?” the boy asked. Holding an opened coconut to his face, Medalla says, “Take my picture—it will be very beautiful!”
Venice is a city that holds a lot of memories for David Medalla. And so the performance for the Philippine Pavilion and especially the leg of “Pangarap sa Panglao” was a kind of homecoming for him. “I was friends with Pegeen,” he says, referring to Peggy Guggenheim’s daughter. “I stayed there a long time ago. I slept in that room in the middle of the place.”
“And there,” he says, pointing to a shuttered window on a house at the river bank, “I’ve had sex there,” erupting in a mischievous laugh. Crossing a bridge and going deeper into the city, we go further away from the crowds of the Piazza San Marco and find a place to sit at in a courtyard that would be empty if not for young boys playing football.
“SOMETIMES, WEALTH IS BY CHANCE,”
he says, “Sometimes, you’re born into it. And sometimes, you acquire it.” For his part, David Medalla was born into it.
He was born in a house on the corner of TM Kalaw and Mabini on March 23, 1938. His family lived in Ermita, and, by all accounts, enjoyed a fairly comfortable life.
After his grandfather’s house in Ermita was bombed during the war, only two things survived, he says: the bathtub, which was imported from San Francisco, and the library, which his family had started in the 19th century “so it had all the books.” Medalla, along with his brothers, took to the books. “The interesting thing about it is our parish priest was of Catalan Franciscan order,” he says, as a means of explaining his first brush with art. “And after communion, he’d give us what he’d call stampita
and they were reproductions of the life of St. Francis of Assisi…. At the same time, my sister took me to an exhibit of Chinese art. It was a touring exhibition of UNESCO, reproductions of great masterpieces of Chinese art. I loved both, so I had that balance.”
According to Medalla, his father was a “non-believer” who made them read the writings of Darwin, while his mother was “very passionate” and took them to church on Sundays. “They agreed to disagree—which is a very good marriage.”
Early on, the young David Medalla had distinguished himself as a sort of child genius. At nine years old, he gained some renown for being able to translate Shakespeare into Filipino. “I think I did the entire Romeo & Juliet and most of Hamlet,” he says. And at 12, as the prestigious Columbia University in New York decided to celebrate its 100 years by inviting 100 gifted young people from all over the world, he was picked as the Philippine representative. “The president was General Dwight Eisenhower,” he says. “He was a governor of the Philippines. He decided that there should be more globalization.”
The Ermita that Medalla grew up in was full of art. “There was the so-called Mabini School,” he says. Later, after returning from his studies abroad, a young Medalla would set up a small cafe called Cave d’Angely, which became a hangout for the city’s creative set, hosting poetry readings and becoming a place where beauty queens, newspapermen, and artists all rubbed elbows.
“Ermita was, of course, destroyed during the war—which is a pity. But it was destroyed even more by a family that moved most people from Ermita to Forbes Park,” he says, referring to the Zobel-Ayalas.
At the time of this conversation, Medalla was about to do a show in the 1335 Mabini gallery in Manila, as a tribute to his Ermita youth. “As kids, we would have a barkada and we would get into fights,” he says. “On the street where we were was a very famous [boxing gym] by Flash Elorde. It was on Mabini and he was a friend of my mother’s… So my father talked to Flash and said, ‘Let’s teach the kids how to do boxing.’ So we all had to learn how to box [from Flash Elorde].”
Every year, there was a festival in Ermita, which hosted a balagtasan, a beauty pageant, as well as a boxing match. “The person I was to box was one of the Guerrero boys,” he says. “[I was paired with] Boris, who I thought had a strange name… But he was very handsome and we really liked each other, as friends.” The boxing match was slated for five o’ clock in the afternoon, around sunset.
Earlier in the day of the match, Medalla’s sister was showing him art books.
David, look at this. That’s Apollo, she had told him.
How come he has no arm? the young boy asked.
Because the statue was destroyed—but don’t you think he’s very beautiful? she replied.
“And then she read a poem to me and my two brothers by John Keats, called ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’” Medalla says now; it’s the poem that contains the line, “Beauty is truth, truth, beauty/ That is all/ Ye know on earth/ and all ye need to know.” Medalla continues: “And I asked her, ‘Beauty depends on what you like, right? What about truth?’ She said, ‘Truth is your experience of something. If you do something to someone, that’s truth of the tactile. If you eat something, that’s the truth of taste.’”
That afternoon, as the young David Medalla was about to knock out Boris with a punch, he noticed the sunset of Manila Bay behind him, drenching his face in golden sunlight. “He looked so beautiful,” Medalla says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, I must not punch him.’ So I held my hand about an inch away from his face.” His father, brothers, and cousins all shouted in unison, “Buntalin mo na!” But he refused and was subsequently awarded with a black eye.
A few days later, Boris visited him at his home and asked why he didn’t punch him. “I looked at him and by then, he didn’t look beautiful anymore,” Medalla says. “There was no sunset. I should’ve told him, ‘’Di ka naman maganda, eh!’ But you happened to be that moment in time.”
1335 Mabini’s Birgit Zimmermann had reached out to Medalla about the show and he responded by saying he’d love to, but with theme “Buntalan sa Ermita.”
“When I received the email, I said, I want to do a punch-up with the schools that are fairly well off in Manila—La Salle, Ateneo, those with money… The idea is, during December, we have misa de gallo, simbang gabi,” he says. “My idea is the kids come out and they put on cloaks and it’s got to be very beautiful. And then they punch the darkness, the darkness ‘yung binubuntal nila, not each other.” Jose Tence Ruiz says about Medalla. “He likes them to be part of the community—that’s what I love about him. He’s like a super genius pero feel niya mga tao. Hindi siya parang isolated… He’s like our version of Jose Rizal.”
David Medalla has been a citizen of the world since he was 12 years old but he never forgot where he came from. That’s why even in his late 70s, at a point in his career where he enjoys considerable status all over the world, he still makes it a point to go home to Manila— and he never misses a chance to wax euphoric about the country he came from.
“You can’t ignore what’s happening in your own garden,” he says, talking about a gallery in Ukraine that avoided featuring Ukrainian artists, but also maybe his love for the Philippines. “That’s arrogant and silly.” And when asked by a Filipino journalist if Filipinos have a sense of culture, he retorts: “Yes, I love halo-halo—that’s beautiful. I don’t believe in purism. That’s an illusion.”
He extends the same openness and support to the next generations of Filipino artists. Pio Abad, a young Filipino artist who himself is establishing his name on the international scene and is also based in London, attests to this. “Once, when I was at the Royal Academy, he came for lunch,” Abad says. “He stayed for five hours.”
With almost eight decades of a very well-lived life under his belt, David Medalla is the quintessential raconteur—everybody has a favorite David Medalla story. “There’s this story of when he was running Signals in Soho,” Abad says. “He hosted the first exhibition by this Japanese female artist who at that time was staying with him. And during the opening, he introduced her to a musician from Liverpool… And so he claims that he introduced John to Yoko Ono. And you’re like, wait, hang on, hang on,” Abad says, laughing. “Maganda ‘yung
build-up, walang pangalan.”
Presenting Medalla’s performance at the Palazzo Moro, Dr. Patrick Flores shared a story about the artist rallying against the Marcoses during the Cultural Center of the Philippines opening in 1969. “A blitzkrieg demonstration,” Flores said. During the historic opening of the CCP, Medalla found a way in and unveiled a sign that read, “A bas la mystification.” Down with
“SO MANY PEOPLE ARE GOING HUNGRY! THIS IS HOW THEY MAKE MONEY. THE ART MARKET IS JUST ABOUT SIGNATURES… I’M NOT INTERESTED IN MY NAME. I’M INTERESTED IN MY ART. EVEN WHEN I WAS A BOY, I NEVER STRUGGLED. THE FERNANDO ZOBELS BOUGHT MY ART. I HAVE SO MUCH RESPECT FOR THE STRUGGLING ARTISTS.”
mystification. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were the guests of honor and today, Medalla says, in a way of explaining, “it’s an ugly building.”
“Purita Ledesma and a few people wanted the cultural center between Diliman and Loyola Heights—that would’ve been much better. But what they did—Lindy Locsin, Imelda—they destroyed Manila Bay. They put a big square of concrete,” Medalla says. “Even then, when it was new, you needed a car to get there. How many people have cars? How many people have chauffeurs? It’s completely dumb. I get so annoyed with it because a little bit of thinking would’ve made it so nice. Up in Quezon City? It would be so nice. It would have schools around. It would have been so accessible.
“You have to be objective. Sometimes, I make a work of art and if I didn’t think it’s that good, I’ll redo it. Rethink, rethink. That sort of thing is supposed to stand the test of time, not an hour-long performance.”
IN THE MIDDLE OF OUR CONVERSATION,
the alarm on my phone suddenly rings. If we didn’t leave now, we were going to be late for his performance.
As we made our way to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, brisk-walking as briskly as a 77-year-old with back pain could, David Medalla suddenly stopped, making his way to a wall and looking up, suddenly transfixed with the sky. “Look at that, Raymond, banana leaves! Did Pigafetta bring banana leaves to Venice too?” He starts posing beside the wall, under the banana leaves. “Take my picture. It will be very beautiful.”
We were late for the performance. By the time we arrived, members of Senator Legarda’s office were already very worried. “Where did you guys go?” I didn’t know what to say. How do I explain the banana leaves?
Thankfully, the performance started. “This performance is dedicated to the Filipino people, Peggy, and Pegeen Guggenheim,” Medalla says.
And then they made a “P” out of a butterfly catcher and a string of flowers. Nankervis, in costume, starts flapping his “wings,” wearing a red bag on his head, and a shiny orange jacket. Medalla, meanwhile, was wearing a cloth mask on his face. And before we knew it, we were all under a piece of cloth—the whole crowd had turned into a caterpillar. Riya Lopez began to sing a Filipino folk song and the crowd began to dance and float around like butterflies.
Later, I asked one of the young Venetians who joined the performance if she enjoyed it.
“Yes,” she says, “I became a butterfly.”
I LEFT VENICE AND MY FEW DAYS WITH
David Medalla with a couple of favorite stories of my own.
On our last afternoon together, over hot chocolate at Caffè Florian, the 17th-century cafe said to be a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, one of the members of the Philippine contingent presented Medalla with certificates from the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, hoping to have three paintings authenticated. Without really looking at the photos, he starts signing the certificates and Nankervis starts telling him off, “David, you know that’s not real!” Medalla, for only the second time during the trip, suddenly snaps: “So many people are going hungry, Adam! This is how they make money. The art market is just about signatures… I’m not interested in my name. I’m interested in my art.” Later, after he calms down, he explains to us, “Even when I was a boy, I never struggled. The Fernando Zobels bought my art. I have so much respect for the struggling artists.”
On our stroll through Venice, just the two of us, I ask him about the idea of art as a career, about competition and the ruthless nature of an art world obsessed with prices. “I’ve never been competitive,” he says. “If I see something beautiful, I’m really humbled. You can’t say you’re going to make another. All you can do is be humbled… And if its bad, you just think ‘Well, I’m glad I didn’t waste my time doing that.’”
I look back on that trip to Venice as a sort of dream. How else to describe an experience that seemed to exist in the hereand-there, but also in Ermita in the ’40s, in the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969, in a boxing match against the Manila Bay sunset, in a performance in Peggy Guggenheim’s garden?
A few weeks later, David Medalla and I started an email correspondence. “Please send the photograph you took of the banana tree in Venice to my address below,” he wrote.