Clouds on his tongue
ARTMAGEDDON - Igan D’Bayan (The Philippine Star) - September 9, 2019 - 12:00am

Francis Bacon and I never talked about art, it was always about finding a taxi,” David Medalla told me one particularly cloudy afternoon in November 2011. He was in black long sleeves, wearing a woven hat, sipping Coca-Cola, skimming through Guy Brett’s canonical Exploding Galaxies book. Names such as Bacon, Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Man Ray, among others, hung heavily in the air. Medalla once saw Marcel Duchamp in a garden playing chess. The pioneer of kinetic and participatory art said he even cooked adobo for marathon drinkers Nick Joaquin and Jose Garcia Villa.

Medalla met Bacon in a London pub. “Francis had a boyfriend at that time who committed suicide. His name was George Dyer.” The last time Medalla saw Bacon was with Beat writer William S. Burroughs in Brion Gysin’s show at October Gallery.

“In one of those horrible evenings with Francis Bacon in London, I started reciting T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ Let us go then you and I… When the evening is spread out against they sky… Like a patient etherized upon a table. From then on, he started to respect me. Before, he thought I was just a Chinese dwarf getting cabs for him (laughs).”

The anecdotes from the great man flowed like nepenthe that day. Half of them quickly dissipated, half of them got branded into my brain. How Medalla studied Greek Drama at Columbia University in NYC at age 14. How, when David was still flatmates with Yoko an eternity ago, her boyfriend would ring at ungodly hours; the boyfriend being a Beatle. How Medalla said that by looking at clouds and dewdrops you can experience the ephemeral.

David Medalla nowadays is a much different person, communicating with whispers and gestures, with Adam Nankervis by his side. But seeing the man with his “Cloud Canyons No. 31,” permanently installed at the Banco de Oro Corporate Center in Ortigas, one can help but conclude that the piece is not just an example of kinetic sculpture; the entire history of contemporary art gushes forth from the bubbles.

The white froth also gurgles with the bubble machine’s various origin stories.

“In Singalong, in my grandmother’s house during the war, my father was a guerrilla (who was fighting) in Makiling,” said David. “Every so often, he would come down from the mountains during Christmas or birthdays to see us. One Easter, we heard a shot. My parents said everyone must be quiet, very quiet. A few minutes later, we saw a young man jump over our fence. He was being pursued by the Japanese Kempeitei (the Gestapo of Imperial Japan). They had shot him. The Japanese soldiers left when they couldn’t find him. We found the young man underneath a hibiscus tree. He was dying, but he was able to convey to my father that he must leave because the Japanese were coming.”  

The mouth of the young man was bubbling with blood and foam.

Medalla also remembered riding a propeller plane to America (stopping at Wake Island and Hawaii), going from San Francisco, over the Grand Canyon, and then arriving into Manhattan, the young David catching a view of skyscrapers straddled by clouds.

In France, in search of the French Symbolist poet Jean-Arthur Rimbaud, Medalla saw a cathedral in Marseilles called Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, at the bottom of which was a soap factory. David promptly stared at the resulting bubbles.  

In Edinburgh, David met a writer and jazz musician named Keith. “We went out at night, with the streets full of prostitutes and the pubs filled with left-wing poets. During the day we’d go to breweries near the castle for free beer.”

The brewers showed the pair how beer was made, and there was all this bubble.

“One day, we were semi-drunk and climbed up Arthur’s Seat (an extinct volcano), and I was looking at the clouds. That was when it hit me: I am going to make an artwork.”    

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