Raymond Ang gets lost with artist David Medalla at the Venice Bi­en­nale.

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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.”


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.


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


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.”


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.”


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.


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