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David Medalla takes Venice

David Medalla on the train to Vicenza Photos from PAVB

It’s an hour and a half before the event and David Medalla, the internationally-acclaimed Filipino artist slated to grace the Palazzo Mora for a performance titled “Pangarap sa Panglao,” is nowhere to be found. Adam Nankervis, artist and longtime Medalla collaborator, has 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? What’s going to happen?

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Dr. Patrick Flores, Philippine Pavilion curator, admits after lunch. “I’m not sure what time David will get here.”

Flores and a Philippine contingent comprising members of the local press, Senator Loren Legarda’s office, National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) chairman Felipe M. De Leon Jr. are in Venice for a series of performances by Medalla conceptualized as a collateral event of the Philippine Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition — la Biennale di Venezia.

The Philippine Pavilion titled “Tie A String Around the World” is the country’s return to the prestigious biennale after 51 years. Made possible by the “almost flawless” convergence of the NCCA, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and Senator Legarda’s office, a department long established as a staunch champion of local arts and culture.

True enough, as the second floor of the Palazzo Mora fills 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 is suddenly present. Whatever pain he had seems to have disappeared. He gamely walks around the room to meet his adoring public, including a videographer from Rome who shows him a book she made of one of his performances and an artist from Florence who came to Venice because “I hadn’t seen him in 10 years.”

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The event began in dialogue with Nankervis, Flores and Medalla, talking about the state of Philippine art right before Medalla left and the state of Philippine art now, the geopolitical issues the country is currently embroiled in, and an interesting anecdote about Medalla rallying against Imelda Marcos during the Cultural Center of the Philippines opening in 1969.

“A blitzkrieg demonstration,” Flores says. During the historic opening of the CCP, Medalla found a way in and unveiled a sign that said “A bas la mystification.” Down with mystification. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were the guests of honor. Today, he says, in a way of explaining, “it’s an ugly building.”

David Medalla’s work, Flores told me the night before, has always been like this: provocative, a little difficult, sometimes confrontational. For today’s performance though, Medalla wants some audience participation. The contingent from the Philippines — including myself — wear masks and go in front to help the artist sing the Filipino folk song Sitsiritsit Alibangbang for the multi-cultural audience. Later, he asks us to dance. It ends with him asking us to bite each other’s hand, as part of the choreography. After the performance, Nankervis projected a video installation and he and Medalla proceeded to tie different colored strings around a little plastic globe.

Minutes after the performance, David Medalla sat down on one of the couches, rounded up several people he knows 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 Medalla, apparently, is nothing if not a gracious host.

* * *

The back pain wasn’t the first snag the “Pangarap sa Panglao” had to contend with. On the trip to Venice, Medalla’s bag was lost and so for six days, he wore the same outfit again and again, with no choice but to make do with what he had on his back. Worse than clothes, the objects he was supposed to use for the performance were in the bag. Suddenly, he had nothing to use for his collateral event.

In true Medalla fashion though, he handled the setback with aplomb.

“He lost his luggage but it didn’t matter,” Riya Lopez, the head of the Philippine Art Venice Biennale’s Coordinating Committee told me, on the trip back from the Vicenza performance. “Everything he was using for the performance was there in the bag but his concepts are so strong that it doesn’t matter. It works with whatever is available.”

Karen Capino of Senator Legarda’s office told me about the time she talked to him about sourcing some of the materials for the performance, with the lost bag in mind. “Do you need me to buy clothes, too?” she asked him. “I can also buy clothes.”

“No, no, just buy what I need,” he told her. “I could show up naked there. I’ll be okay.”

At 77 years old, Medalla is an unending well of stories, information, history, gossip. He’s lived many different lives and has known many different worlds. And by knowing how things work, he knows how things are connected. It’s in knowing the invisible strings that tie things together that his work find its power.

* * *

Medalla’s “Pangarap sa Panglao” was inspired by a trip he and Nankervis made in 2013, when they visited the island of Panglao in Bohol, where he says he fell into a daydream. The performance references the pirate Li Ma Hong, who fled China after the Ming Dynasty and went to the Philippines, the T’ang Dynasty artist Wu Tao-tzu, the 20th-century writer Lu Hsun, and the explorer-scholar Antonio Pigafetta of Vicenza, who by chronicling his voyage and literally putting us on the map, was the first to give the Philippines its place in the world. He chose places that are memorable to him — whether of personal or national significance.

The first performance was set at the Microclima in Giardini last Aug. 18, a space he chose after meeting Paolo Roso, the artist and curator who runs the place and has managed to turn it into “a rich source of exchange and hybridisation of culture, art, music and people.” The Biennale has always brought different nations together in Venice but Roso’s Microclima takes it a step further, providing a space where discourse and interaction can happen.

On Aug. 19, he had his second performance in Vicenza, a city an hour-long train ride away from Venice. On the train to Vicenza, Medalla and Nankervis read dialogue between Pigafetta and a young boy. “Mr. Pigafetta, where did you get the coconut?” Medalla conceptualized the performance as a thank you to Pigafetta (“also the first to annotate Cebuano”), culminating in the group tying colored strings — with mementoes from the Philippine contingent, everything from a 1x1 ID picture to a friendship bracelet — around the famous Pigafetta monument in Vicenza and singing the Filipino folk song Sitsiritsit Alibangbang. Pigafetta’s voyage was the first circumnavigation of the world, he further explained. Talk about tying a string around the world.

On the ride back to Venice, Medalla gave the contingent masks made out of magazine cut-outs to wear. “Venetians wore masks to ward off diseases,” he said matter-of-factly.

Yesterday, Aug. 22, he had another performance at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a place he claims to have stayed in as a young boy. “I was friends with Pegeen,” Peggy’s artist daughter. “I slept in that room in the middle of the place.”

* * *

“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 explains. “From the vantage of Genghis Khan, the first film ever made on the conqueror directed by Manuel Conde and co-written and designed by Carlos Francisco, the Pavilion lays out its premise while placing it within an exceptional lineage. The film is key to the proposition of the Pavilion, affording it a long arc from early modernity to a contemporary global time in which the Philippines is in the midst of a dispute over parts of the West Philippine Sea, which is being claimed by China. Around the film, the installation of Jose Tence Ruiz and the multi-channel video of Manny Montelibano generate discourses on this current predicament. Medalla’s performance further inflects the argument of the Pavilion on the saga of empires and the resistance against them.”

Medalla’s body of work has crossed geopolitical boundaries, survived the ravages of time, and has come out on the other side with a wide smile, a youthful glow, and guns blazing, ready to accost anyone around him with an anecdote about his childhood growing up in front of Manila Bay (“absolutely beautiful”) or a tribute to the small piece of rock NCCA’s De Leon tied onto the string used for the Pigafetta performance (again: “absolutely beautiful”).

“Our return to the Venice Biennale after a 51-year hiatus is already spectacular and memorable in itself, then here comes David Medalla and his remarkable performance. Today is another milestone for Philippine contemporary art, for history and for our country,” Senator Legarda says in a statement.

As he said at the end of that performance in Vicenza, “Mabuhay!” And then, a mischievous grin, “Mabuhay kayo ah, wag mamatay.”

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