Gavin Jantjes in conversation with David Medalla
London, May 29, 1997.
In: A Fruitful Incoherence: Dialogues with Artists on Internationalism. London: Institute of international Visual Arts, 1998, 94-109.
GJ How do you say your name?
DM In the Philippines, they say it in more of a Spanish way. My full name is David Cortez de Medalla, but it’s a little bit too much of a mouthful for the anglophones. I have in me a little bit of Spanish, Malaysian, Indian, Chinese and a bit of English blood. So I’m a mongrel.
GJ Your life and your work centres around the word ‘mobility’, the peripatetic nature of you being here, there and everywhere as an artist. Fixity is the last word one would associate with the art of David Medalla, as you’re constantly in a cultural, geographic and art historical ‘in-between’. Would that be a good description of what you are?
DM Yes, I think that’s fairly accurate, it’s very Heraclitian. Heraclitus believed, in contrast to the Athenian establishment philosophers Plato and Aristotle, that everything is in a state of flux. That’s also close to certain concepts in Indian philosophy and Chinese Daoist thinking. So yes, that’s quite true. My mobility is partly out of choice because I like travelling, meeting different people, knowing different cultures. It’s also out of necessity, I still carry a Philippines passport and that means, being a so-called Third World citizen, you’re not given very long periods of stay in most countries. I was lucky I suppose because through relations in England, I was able to get a permanent residency here and because I also lived and studied in The United States of America when I was a young boy, I can go back and forth for unlimited periods of time. In other countries they will give you a three month visa and then they say move on, and that’s why I moved from Spain to Italy, France, Germany, Holland, all over Africa and Asia.
GJ You have described yourself, or have been described as a hylozoist, which is about the material nature of life, a Buddhist, a Marxist, a Synoptic Realist, and a Transcendental Hedonist. Why have you never accepted or used the definition of Surrealist?
DM Well, because that is very specific to a period of time. Although I knew a few surrealists. In fact one of the co-founders of Surrealism, Louis Aragon, and I did some performances together and he loved my work. Surrealism was really a phenomenon in Paris mainly and I don’t think that’s the only level I operate on. I like some of the concepts of Surrealism, specifically the concepts that they took from Lautréamont. The idea where in the Song of Maldoror he speaks about the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table, that is a precept that the surrealists took from him to locate different metaphors. The other thing I like is something they took from Rimbaud, his concept of the artist as a seer and also the valuing of syncretic ways of looking at reality. I do follow that, because a lot of my work is metaphoric. I think artists are really constructors of images and metaphors, and rarely could one be so arrogant as to say “Look I’m going to change the world and discover DNA.” Nevertheless, I think that artists contribute to new perceptions of reality and to go back to some of those descriptions you mentioned, they were descriptions I coined for myself, except for Buddhist and Marxist obviously. Hylozoist was a word that the ancient Greeks used, especially the Greeks before Socrates, like Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, and Democritus who looked at matter and saw that it was made out of atomic constructs or the elements of fire and water etc. It was a period in my life when I was experimenting with machines. I was born in Manila which was completely bombed during the war you know, so I grew up thinking that new technology was there to destroy. But new technology also came to rebuild. Then very early on I went to the United States, and became aware of two types of cultures – one highly technological and developed, the other where nature was in its raw state. I was really interested in nature and man, and between them there was the machine. In the sixties when people were very optimistic about new technology, and were anticipating landing on the moon, new forms of transport, and communication etc. – this was just before becoming conscious of the Vietnam war – artists tended to be very optimistic about the machine, and I tried to emphasise that there was both the machine and nature. That’s being a hylozoist. Synoptic realism is perhaps closer to surrealism. I think all art should be realistic but realism exists on many levels. There’s the realism when you look at an object through a telescope or through a microscope, and then there’s the realism of dreams, of fantasy, of waking hours, so I said well just call it synoptic. This was more descriptive of my performances because I used a lot of music, sound, film, video, and anything that came to hand really. Recently I’m more a transcendental hedonist because I just want to enjoy my life!
GJ This life that you’ve shared between the Philippines, Europe and America seems to have a central thread running through it. The references you take are often European and they spring from literature. You could start with Proust, Mallarmé, Daphne Du Maurier, Rimbaud or even go back further to Thomas Aquinas. You said once that you came to Europe to retrace the footsteps of Rimbaud. What is this fascination with Europe, and with literature?
DM Well maybe it’s because I have just a tiny bit of European in me. The fact that I have Spanish and a bit of English blood, that’s the exotic in me. Now if I were English and had a little bit of Indian blood, I would be very interested in Jaipur and places like that, right. So maybe my interest comes from that. But I did come across Rimbaud very early on in New York. I saw his photograph and read his poetry and I just loved it. He and Walt Whitman were my two aesthetic influences.
GJ America and Europe again!
DM Well the Philippines is European, you see. It was the first and last colony of Spain. Although it is in the Pacific and just off the coast of mainland Asia, its culture is basically Hispanic. It’s eighty-five percent Roman Catholic and about five percent Muslim, and then it was under Spain for three hundred and fifty years. Christianity is a strong thing that you can’t just eradicate from a people. Then it was under the USA for fifty years, so our lingua franca actually is English, although we have some twenty languages because there are seven thousand islands you see. So we grew up knowing a lot about Anglo-Saxon culture. We grew up reading T.S. Eliot, I had a lot of Filipino friends who were reading The Wasteland, and we had this idea that “Oh it’s wonderful to come to England!”. Little did we know that England, London, was a wasteland, T.S. Eliot was actually telling the truth when he talked about how awful some parts of London were in his time. It’s changed because there are a lot of foreigners now in London, you and I are two of them. London has become more … glamorous.
GJ I want to return to the word ‘mobility’ and also to ‘transformation’. Words which I connect with your practice. Transformation through mobility is so much part of what you do and what you expect the audience or participants to do. In other words there is something you expect of us.
DM It’s a dialogue. I think the one thing I love about philosophy, whether it’s Eastern or Western, is that it’s dialogical. For example you have the famous Socratic dialogues and the Buddhist ones. One of them I used with my friend John Dugger and the group Exploding Galaxy as the basis for performances we did in the open air. This was a dialogue called The Questions of King Milinda. Milinda was Menander, a Greco-Baktrian king who asked a famous Buddhist monk called Nagasena “What is identity, what is a being, what is it composed of, is it the hand or the head, or the heart, or the leg?” Nagasena had to answer this, and his answer was very curious. It was like a meeting of Eastern and Western concepts. The Western viewpoint is to divide things into specific categories. The non-Western viewpoint is that everything is really one cosmic whole, so identity does not reside in a specific part, but in the inter-relationship of the parts.
When you asked what do I expect from people, I expect a simple dialogue. The reason why it seems that my work has so many references to Western culture is because those things that I did in the West are the ones that have been documented. But I did a lot of things during my three visits to Africa. I also lived in India, Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Malaysia. In those places the work that I did was totally ephemeral except for one or two things that were photographed by chance. But they were just as valuable to me as for the people I encountered there, because they related to what I saw there. To give you an example of this, recently I was in Texas. Now that’s not Asia but it’s just as exotic as any place for me, and the one thing that I enjoyed doing there was meeting and working with the Filipinos who lived there and the Tejanos and Tejanas – the Mexicans who ruled Texas before U.S. colonisation. I was involved in doing performances with people who were either in jails or people who were in jails which have become museums. Being a country full of banditry their jails are about their greatest monuments. They have the most beautiful structures and I did these wonderful events in them, so there was an inter-relationship. I did a performance with masks, which I have done everywhere, including Rotterdam and Paris, but in Texas I did it in a Texan way with on-line dancing.
GJ One of the pieces of work which has featured strongly in your oeuvre is Cloud Canyons. There are eleven versions of it now, from the first simple box version to the very complicated plexi-glass ones. In a way it’s a wonderful machine that through the simplest of means brings together many things. Movement and stillness, chaos and order, as Guy Brett said: “the material something and the immaterial nothing”, and I believe this to be central to this work and to quite a number of other pieces. Yet because it appeared in Documenta 5 it was read as Minimalism. I always think of it in another way: it is doing the most with the least, and that is so much part of what artists from the so-called periphery have to do, because we never have enough equipment, we never have enough money, we never have enough of anything. We are practical minimalists. We have to find ways of making very simple things address more complex ideas.
DM That’s very true, it’s a beautiful observation. It reminds me of an experience I had in the Philippines in 1986. I was living on Manila Bay and there were some young men who earned a living climbing up coconut trees to take the sap and sell it. It’s a bit like cider. These trees were owned by some rich merchants who paid them very little money for a day’s work. When they accumulated a little bit of money they ate. One day they invited me to come and have some “Adidas”. I didn’t realise what they were talking about because ‘Adidas’ is a brand of footwear, and to be able to have some footwear is to be fairly rich in those poor areas, and to have an ‘Adidas’, I suppose is equivalent to Reebok or Nike these days. It was in fact a meal of chicken feet. They could only buy chicken feet, and I didn’t realise this was a feast for them. I thought this was so brilliant, because out of that very little they were able to make a feast.
GJ You have of course played quite a substantial role here in England directing us towards a notion of an international art which is not hierarchical and institutionalised, but actually does look at practice in a broader way. A perfect expression of a syncretic internationalism is the title you gave to one of your groups – the Baroque Buddha Brotherhood: three words which epitomise the mid-sixties, when brotherhood was a very powerful expression particularly to people from the so-called periphery. There are also all the organisations you formed. Artists for Democracy, The Exploding Galaxy, The Artists Liberation Front which I still remember with a lot of delight and of course the magazine Signals. So was there in all of this a clear internationalist aim?
DM Well, sometimes there was, but sometimes I have to say that there’s an aspect of me which is maybe very Dadaist. I also made organisations, that you might not have heard of, but they did exist. I used to be active in a group here called the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. In fact I helped organise the first showing of films from The Peoples’ Republic of China, before it had any kind of relationship with England. That society was mainly composed of English businessmen thinking there’s a big market in China, and I saw their point, and why not. But I formed one called The Society for Anglo-Chinese Misunderstanding. And then you can just go on because you have all these societies like the Society for Anglo-Bulgarian Friendship, you can have Anglo-Bulgarian Enmity, you see what I mean. I have an element of that in my work which unfortunately I think gets me into a lot of trouble. Before May 1968, I made one of my most beautiful conceptual works. I used to go back and forth between Paris and London. In Paris they had student restaurants which were subsidised by the state, so they were very cheap and I had very little money so I would go to them and I would eat as a student. I actually was enrolled once as student so I didn’t feel like I was cheating the state. But one summertime I arrived and these restaurants were closed and I went to the Sorbonne and met some people there who said they do still run a restaurant somewhere in the Sorbonne but for delegates who were having a conference. These were presidents of universities and colleges from around the world. So I said “How do I enrol?” and they said “Well you have to be a president of a college or university. In France they make these cartes des visites, so I got one made which said “Président Universitaire de Failure”. They thought this must be a new university in the Pacific Islands, the “Isles du Failure”, so they enrolled me. It was wonderful you know, and then they said “What is your school, where is it?” and I said “Well at the moment we’re having problems in the Pacific”; this was when there had been atomic tests in that area, “So I’m moving it to England as a correspondence school “. They were very serious and wanted my address. Months later, back in England, I started receiving correspondence from people saying “Can you please tell us what your university is?” and I said “Well, we just guarantee that we’ll fail you in anything”. People would write to me and say things like “I’m just newly married and my husband likes me to make a special type of omelette but I always seem to make a failure of it, and I’m getting worried he might be turned off by me”. So I wrote to her and I said “Don’t worry I’m sending you a certificate and tell your husband that I guarantee you will fail every omelette that you make.” So I had a lot of these people who were afraid of failing in something: their driving test, reaching an orgasm etc., and I was running a correspondence school all over the world because of this wonderful university. Finally somebody from the Ministry of Education here visited me. He said “Are you David Medalla?”, and I said “Yes”, “You know that it is illegal to conduct any correspondence courses in England unless you have a permit from the Ministry of Education?” I was horrified so I said “Oh I didn’t know that”. I was terrified of being deported so I had to write to all my students saying sorry I failed in this one too. This was to be my most beautiful work. I call them cosmic propulsions.
My latest one is a foundation for an endangered species: single, straight male artists. I started this foundation for preserving them because there are very few of them left. I asked my artist friends to send me sightings of this endangered species from all over the world.
GJ Receiving correspondence from across the world suggests internationalism. And would you say that the way you’ve approached life is based on an internationalism which is not about institutional fixity?
DM I am mostly an optimist, but I have this feeling that we may be entering a new Middle Ages. With the new information technology, what is happening now is that the mega-corporations are economically more powerful than single states with the exception possibly of the major industrial states: America, Japan, Germany etc. These mega-corporations can actually control people’s lives. This happened in Europe in the Middle Ages, kings were only kings in name but the real power was in those corporations like the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Augustinians, the Benedictines and the Knights Templar, who had control of very big sectors of the economy. I think that’s happening to the arts too. In the Middle Ages artists actually travelled. For example, an artist wasn’t known for being French but as a great maker of spires, he would be working in Norfolk, or in southern Spain, and they would say “Juan de Ollanda”, you know John of Holland “who is working in Spain”. That is really what is happening to artists now. Most of us, although we may be based in specific countries and come from elsewhere, we do have to find different venues, markets, or audiences for our work. It has become like that, and there’s a positive side and I think also a negative side because there will be greater emphasis on people who are more packagable and marketable. Its happened in the movie industry. In the past, most countries in the world which had some form of movie industry produced a wide variety of films geared to their national interest, but now they have to gear themselves to this bigger market with the exception, maybe, of India, where there is a big internal market for Indian films. Now most countries have to conform to Hollywood marketing strategies. A French director makes a certain type of film and Hollywood then makes its version of it. I think this may be happening to some artists. Perhaps there are great artists from Cuba and then the international art dealers say well that’s quite interesting but let’s get somebody else to do that type of art because it will be easier to market, that’s the negative side of this internationalism.
GJ I’ve heard that you are a national treasure of the Philippines?
DM Oh I am a national treasure but they don’t give you any money. I think you have to give them money! Yes, I am actually a national treasure. We imitated the Japanese, you know they make things like ‘living treasures’.
GJ Because mobility is so much part of your life and your work, and you’ve never settled long in any one place, do you have a notion of home?
DM Well, home is the world for me. I’ll tell you something that is very strange about my upbringing. I had lots of brothers and sisters, some were actually adopted by my parents because it was after the war and they were orphans, but you know we all grew up as brothers and sisters. One part of my family could be described as aristocratic. Our house was large and everyone in the neighbourhood was invited to eat with us. Our friends were not only Filipinos but children of ambassadors, so I had almost from the very beginning a rather cosmopolitan upbringing. One day we would be eating spaghetti with the Italian ambassador’s family, then the next day we would be with the Indian ambassador eating some biriyani, so even as a kid my cuisine was global. I don’t think that happens to everybody, except now if you live in the middle of London or New York and your parents are like Tony Blair and Cherie!
Home is where your friends are and luckily for me I do make friends everywhere because necessity sometimes finds me totally poverty stricken. I’m very strange in that way, I have a roller-coaster life, sometimes I have lots of money and sometimes I have none. This year I’m looking forward to Berlin. Chis Dercon informed me that I had been granted an award by DAAD. I will ive in Berlin for one year with a substantial grant. I plan to make participatory events there which I have collectively entitled Art Lifts Berlin.
I went to Texas and not only were the Mexic Arte Museum, directed by Sylvia Orozco, and the University of Texas very kind and good to me, but I met all these Texans who were so wonderful to me. When I came back here and I started talking enthusiastically like a Texan, it was simply out of gratitude to those new friends I made in Austin.
GJ You made a work in Gee Street in 1994 called Pair of Mud Machines which I’ve always read as a kind of instrument to locate yourself, because it has images of the heavens and it has the word mud which I find very much about terra firma.
DM About the earth, yes that’s true.
GJ Again there is an in-between. I mentioned earlier that I see you as someone who inhabits an in-between space. Is this work like that?
DM Oh that’s true, that’s very beautifully put. I actually did want the heavens and the earth, that’s true, that is a concept I’ve always liked. Of course to me the heavens is not just what you look up at, it’s actually just as much looking down. No, that’s a very accurate description, because I was just thinking that later this year I will in fact be in South Africa with my friend the Australian artist Adam Nankervis doing some events which I’ve decided I will not construct in any way. We were invited by Gerardo Mosquera and Okwui Enwezor to participate in the Johannesburg Biennale. In Cape Town, Adam and I will do events relating to the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope. When the Cape of Good Hope was first rounded by one of these Portuguese navigators, he called it the Cape of Storms. The Portuguese King who never went there said “call it the Cape of Good Hope for Christ’s sake, nobody will want to go there and invest in this thing if you call it the Cape of Storms.”
GJ The Mud Machine is like a compass, you could read the two disks as the southern and northern hemispheres. It’s again that notion of the simple saying something quite enormous, covering quite a large conceptual domain with very simple material. It’s also like a game, and there’s a notion of chance operating in the work. But just to stick with this idea of location, and you being at home all over the world. You’ve said that you’ve never felt like an exile.
DM No, no, that’s the difficulty that I had with a lot of Filipino artists and writers because they do have a concept of exile. Some of our writers even now are very attached to their homes even though they spend a lot of time abroad. In some cases they left our country because of political or economic reasons. I didn’t leave my country for economic reasons, that’s another paradoxical thing about me. I was at Columbia at the age of twelve, and when I came back to the Philippines I had an exhibition. I had this amazing chance of meeting some of the best artists in New York when I was a boy, so when I went back to the Philippines I had an exhibition and it was opened by the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and all the newspapers said this was the best show they had ever seen. I was shocked by the response because I wanted them to criticise me properly. My mother said “they wouldn’t dare say that your art is bad because you’re the son of your father”. My father was from an aristocratic family. That wasn’t fair. How could I know if I was a good artist or not, I had to go somewhere where nobody knew me, to cut my teeth. So I said okay, Europe is where I’m going, it was Paris actually, not London. I only came to London to rest and read books, but it was in Paris I wanted to cut my teeth and I did. I was pleasantly surprised that people like Tinguely, Takis and Yves Klein, who were superstars in Paris in the sixties, actually took me seriously. I was a teenager. There was a negative side to it too though. When I came here I had an introduction from people in the Parisian world to people like Herbert Read and Roland Penrose and through them I met some of the big name artists here. Although they liked me as a person and some of them even wanted to go to bed with me, I couldn’t be in exhibitions with them, they were old and famous, I was young and unknown. And then there was the fact that I was a foreigner which was also very detrimental because the English have this thing about the Englishness of English art, I don’t actually know what that means. And so I never found myself as an exile or outsider, at least not in the art worlds of London, Paris and New York. The exile concept has gone, but you have all these amazing permutations. When I recently was in Newquay in Cornwall, I could easily have been in Sydney, in Durban, or in Southern California, because I was in the midst of the surfing crowd. Those guys, the surfers, wear the same body suits, they listen to the same sort of music, they have the same kinds of tattoos, and they have the same kind of language. I think if you scratch the surface of the art world you’ll see that it’s the same, you have all these people into video, performance, conceptual art, post-conceptual, and ‘funky’ art, etc. in all the art centres of the globe.
GJ You point to something we call globalism. Personally I don’t like this horrible general term very much. The appropriation of stylistic assumptions, of clothing, language and life style, seems to be an attempt to conceal local differences. I want to talk about the torn paper mask pieces you made. A mask both conceals and reveals. It raises all those questions about cultural, personal, and sexual identity. And because your masks are paper, they bring to mind another mask, that of the ‘paper tiger’ which Mao Zedong used as a metaphor for the frightful enemy who is just a paper effigy.
DM I’ve always done masks in performances, but the mask I made in Venice really worked well. I did my piece in the Academy , it was called Voyages and Somersaults of the Pilgrim Monkey. I always believe that where you are you should try to relate yourself to the environment. Venice is the one city in Europe that for a long time was the meeting place of East and West, so I came across a poem about Alexander the Great going to Persia and conquering Darius. Now this is a theme, incidentally, of a painting by Veronese which hangs in the National Gallery and I love this painting a lot. There’s a monkey in part of this painting, and of course in the Renaissance, monkeys were considered extremely intelligent. I decided to play this role of the monkey by reconstructing the story from the poem. After conquering Darius, Alexander the Great went to the desert to this big temple with a perfect dome which Darius had built. The dome’s interior was undecorated, so Alexander asked his ambassadors to look for the most brilliant artist they could find in all his kingdoms. One set of ambassadors found a young Greek artist in Alexandria, and brought him all the way to the desert, while another found an old Chinese artist with a monkey who had been decorating the caves of Duhuang. Alexander divided the inside of the dome into two parts with a huge, thick curtain and he gave each of the two artists a part of the dome to decorate with the theme “the beauty and unity of the cosmos”. So each one started work. The young Greek artist said to the older Chinese artist “I like painting in daylight, do you mind if I paint near the door?”, and the Chinese artist said “Actually that’s good because I like painting in moonlight, at night, and there’s enough cracks in this dome to make me see”. So they worked on this thing for a period of a month and when Alexander came back he saw the work by the young Greek as he entered. It was beautiful and perfect like everything in Greek art at that time, a pantheon of creatures of creation. When Alexander went to the other half of the dome which was in a kind of darkness, he looked up and there was nothing on the ceiling and he got very angry. He said to the Chinese artist who was up there in a basket with the monkey, “Hey listen you didn’t understand what I told you, you didn’t do anything”, and the Chinese said “No, no don’t be angry your majesty, it’s just that it’s too dark in here, if you remove the curtain you’ll see what I’ve done”. So they removed the curtain, and all of this time the Chinese man with the help of his monkey, had polished his half of the dome so it became a mirror, and it became the unity of the cosmos. So you have these two visions. In doing this performance I had to make masks, and because I had very little time I made them out of things I found while working in Venice. One of them was a pizza box. I started to make it into a paper mask. People laughed and they said “Oh my God it looks like an ancient Greek mask”. In fact there’s a photograph of me wearing it, and that was the beginning of these paper masks. Now I’ve made them so that people can make them themselves. In Rotterdam, for the start of the De Kooning show, the paper masks were made in such a way that we cut out the lips and pasted on our smiling lips for a work called Smiles for Willem, for De Kooning.
GJ The other thing that you’ve mentioned which comes to mind is that you see the artist as a ‘questioning shaman’. I think that’s very important because it distinguishes your position from what I call the Beuysian position where he sees himself as the shaman mediator.
DM Beuys emphasised the idea of survival, his art was a form of personal biography, a very individual thing. My biography is not like Beuys’, who was shot down as a Luftwaffe pilot during the Second World War. I had happy memories as a child, I had wonderful sex as a boy, I have been very lucky in my friendships and have good friends everywhere. I want my art to be a form of hope, a kind of good fortune. Like a church would order a beautiful altar piece to increase the harvest, something like that. In the Philippines they’ll have a typhoon and an entire fishing village will be gone and yet, once the winds subside, people start singing and dancing. Maybe that’s the only thing they can do to cheer themselves up. In one sense I’d like my art to be like that, to be a token of good fortune or a solace in bad and miserable times.
GJ You also say that your art is dialogical, meaning that there has to be a common language for discourse. There’s something you expect the audience to be, you expect them to be prepared to engage in a conversation. But are these dialogues predominantly about culture or are they about almost anything? Do they step outside of culture? I think they do.
DM Oh yes, they do, they do.
GJ What happens when they do? In other words what is the role of the participants in your pieces?
DM Well there are two kinds of participants you know. Those that already have an artistic language, who I sometimes involve them in my performances, but then on the other hand you have … I’ll give one example, A Stitch in Time which is very dialogic. I want to emphasise that none of my art comes from outside of me, it must first be subjective before it becomes objective, in other words I cannot go out there and say “Oh I’m going to make an artwork about an aeroplane” before I’d even been inside one. A Stitch in Time started in 1968, I had two lovers who by chance arrived in London at the same time. One was going back to California and the other was going to India, and in those days you had even longer waits in airports. I had to see both of them at the same place and I had nothing to give them. I had two handkerchiefs, this is how it started, and I had some needles and thread and I’m very bad at stitching things by the way, I couldn’t even stitch a button, so I said “Hey listen, just in case you get bored along the way why don’t you just stitch things”, because I understand that if you do some needlework it’s very therapeutic and waiting for aeroplane flights becomes less boring. I gave each a handkerchief, and at first I sort of embroidered my name and the date and love and all that, and I didn’t see them again, neither the lovers nor the handkerchiefs, for many many years. Then one day I was at Schipol airport in Amsterdam and there was a young, very handsome, tanned Australian who was lugging something which looked like a very crazy sort of totem and it looked very interesting. He said “Somebody gave this to me in Bali and you can stitch anything on it”; it had become a column of my Stitch in Time. I looked at the bottom of it, and it was my Original handkerchief. The people had stitched in a vertical way because it’s small. I said to him “You know, I think I know the person who did this”, but he had to go and catch a plane, so I haven’t seen those works again. Things were stitched on like bones and Chinese coins, all sorts of things. After that I started to make different versions of A Stitch in Time in different places.
It coincided with my Marxist period when I was looking at historical conditions more and more, because when I was in India I was horrified by the gap between poverty and wealth; it was so extreme, that I wanted to find out what were the historical conditions for this, and Marx was one of my best guides. I enjoyed reading him and Engels about the way societies create technologies, and the way technologies give birth to societies. Artists never think in those terms, I didn’t anyway. I was thinking in terms of form and beauty and composition etc. So I started to do works based on things like the beginning of industrialisation or the beginning of pottery; I made works like Porcelain Wedding, and International Dust Market. A Stitch in Time reflected a higher form of industrialisation: the age of the cotton mills. It came from personal experience and I recently revived the concept again. In Paris where I installed it at the Musée d’Art Moderne, many of the young people would go to the toilet and take polaroids of themselves naked and stitch them on, and then I think somebody kept taking them off because they were terrified that the museum might be closed for pornographic reasons. In Texas, some people would stitch a marijuana joint, and then another would stitch a hundred dollar bill and pick up the marijuana joint. Recently I put up another version of A Stitch in Time in Cornwall at the A Quality of Light exhibition at the Tate, St. Ives. In the first few days, because St. Ives is very Methodist, many people were stitching prayers on it, quotations from the Bible and things like that. One lady put a beautiful fish and then an explanation that this was the symbol for Christ. That was the first week, but by the second week the tourists started coming in and now they put nothing but tourist things that they’ve picked up everywhere: hotel brochures, restaurant menus, railway and bus tickets. So you see there is a dialogue, but it begins to be more and more like a choral symphony because you can look at what people have stitched, and begin to realise that in one sense it refers to a specific time and place, a specific person, then you see the densities and the diversities of people. In many cases they just take things out of their pockets, and the things they take out are fascinating because there are two kinds. On the one hand something they want to get rid of, like an old ID card, and on the other hand something that they treasure, like a small photo of their lover or friend or of themselves. One guy stitched a quotation from Gandhi which he had found in Bangalore and kept in his pocket for years. This little text from Gandhi was something he treasured. I remember from the Sixties and Seventies some totally insensitive people who would light cigarettes and burn little holes with cigarette butts, but actually it became quite an artwork because somebody would start with just one little hole and then somebody else would add to it and then before you knew it you had a Fontana or an Yves Klein in miniature.
GJ So this is a work that does have quite an extensive social rapport in many countries.
DM Just one more thing about it. It is the actual act of stitching, when you thread the needle and start stitching you have your own space, your psychological space, apart from the physical space, and I find that very moving. It’s rarely that I do my own stitching in public, but when I do it I realise “My God I’m into this”, I’m concentrating. It doesn’t matter how good or how bad you are, even a little child can easily learn the concept, and the practice, of stitching. And it’s just so wonderful because you have this public space, an art gallery, or sometimes I put it up outside a railway station, and yet once you do that act, even if it only lasts thirty seconds or a minute, you are inside your space and I find that magical. You have everybody just doing their own thing there, and it’s labour that is already liberated from the concept of labour. All these ladies that I used to see in an old building in Gee Street, Londom and in downtown New York, where they work for a pittance in those awful sweatshops, they labour, whereas A Stitch in Time is leisure, it goes to another level.
GJ There’s another piece of work you made in the seventies called International Dust Marke” which was about moving around lumps of coal until they deteriorated into dust. This was symbolic of work processes. I think the two works have dialogical, transformative elements. You have a lot of works which you call ‘impromptus’, but you initially called them ‘ephemerals’.
DM There’s a difference actually. The ‘ephemeral’ is a physical thing that I used to do. There were artists like Lygia Clarke and Hélio Oiticia who were my friends in the sixties, they were such pioneers in participation art. Lygia Clarke made a work with a stone on a plastic bag. You blew into the bag and your breath sustained the stone. You could feel its weight. It’s a beautiful work, a masterpiece in fact of modern art. Hélio did things where he would have containers full of bright pigment and you plunged your hands into them so that you felt the colour inside.
I did pieces that were very simple things like games with a line and cone for picking up raindrops, or in some cases I did things with leaves where you darkened one part with saliva or with tea stains and then measured sunlight with it. Just standing there measuring sunlight, very ephemeral. But the impromptus were different because they came from performances. There was one impromptu that I did with Kai Hilgemann, where we used to walk in the cities at night to all these windows selling men’s clothing. I’ve always admired Casanova, to the horror of my feminist friends, for his writings, and I did a piece called Mr Casanova International. They have all these Miss World contests, Miss Universe contests, and I wanted to go around and feel the muscles of men! Just to measure the hardness and thickness, not for any erotic reason, I just wanted to do it, to go around and say “Can I pinch your biceps?”, but I didn’t have a camera at that time so I just said “Oh I’ll figure out the density and hardness” and they would just look at me. I thought the worst they could say was “Oh you’re being gay or get out of here”, but actually they were rather flattered. People who build their muscles have a narcissistic streak in them. At least they look better than me! Anyway the other thing I would do at night with my friend Kai, because we couldn’t afford expensive clothes, was to look in the windows of men’s stores. This was the time when artists were beginning to dress in Armani suits and Versace shirts, it was the new style. I enjoyed performing in front of these windows. I would talk to people and I would say “Heh, do you want to get rid of your shirt?”, and they would say “Yeah, do you want it?”. So I started to make them into actual instant installations on street pavements by using a very simple spectrum concept, using the rainbow, putting the darkly coloured shirts onto one side of the pavement and the lightly coloured ones onto the other side. Then I would put the different shirts into different formations on the pavements of cities at night. People walking by, who are used to beggars and homeless just thought I was one of them, but then I started to perform in front of these things. I would go to cities where I didn’t know the language, I couldn’t speak Catalan in Barcelona or German in Germany. I would get some of these magazines that advertise sexual things, there’s a lot of them around – “I am twenty four, very well hung, looking for a wonderful woman to be a wife, preferably Asian so she can cook for me!” – and things like that. So I would read these out and I would pretend to be one of these dummies, so I’d say “Isch veen ein . . . . ” It was a good way of learning the language, and people passing by would ask what I was saying and doing? I would say “This is Mr Casanova International”, it’s all about the desire for love, the desire for partnership.
So there is an impromptu, it was of the moment, but there is an actual structure to all of them, it’s a very subtle structure, like the impromptus of Mozart or of Molière they are very spontaneous but the spontaneity has got a certain kind of inner coherence. Of course anyone could just jump up and down and say heh this is an impromptu. My impromptus are carefully constructed and very subtly done. Once I coerced Guy Brett  to come with me, on a walk from Brixton to Westminster. I asked him to bring his camera. Unfortunately, a lot of my impromptus are not recorded because I don’t have many friends with cameras, Guy Brett is an exception. So I said to Guy “Oh don’t worry just come along with me and we will talk and walk”, and then we arrived at Westminster Bridge and I put a bust of Mozart and Beethoven on each hand, pretending they were boxing gloves and I put on a mask, one of my paper masks, which is actually the cover of a book entitled Psychic Self-Defence. I had a little tape recorder at my back playing Mozart or Beethoven. Then I start confronting people with Mozart and Beethoven. Occasionally I punched, ever so lightly, a passer-by. Other passers-by said “Oh my God what’s he doing”. It was an act of ‘psychic self-defence’, protecting myself with effigies of two great composers.
I spent a year in Rotterdam and often I just walked down the street where there’s the flea market: the Blaak. I did impromptus called Celebration of World Mythologies. Rotterdam is a big port and people come from all over the world with all sorts of things. There you have every single kitsch you can imagine, from Greece, Kenya, Taiwan, Uruguay, etc., and I gave myself the problematic, that if I found anything I had to dance with it, I had to do a specific dance. People asked “how do you manage to do this? It’s so wonderful”. It’s because it’s all contained in my knowing this plethora of cultures. Likewise, I can just take a walk around you here in London, one way it’s Spaghetti House, another it’s a Thai restaurant, and another is Greek, and then there’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, so I have all of these as well. I make these connections all the time by the way, because I think it’s a way of not becoming alienated.
GJ Being conscious of how the world is actually structured.
DM It’s a performance, and sometimes it gets recorded, and the interesting thing is that the photographs that are taken look so beautiful. And people say to me “Why are they so beautiful?” and actually it’s because they are from a pictorial mind. I actually started as a painter, so I’m very conscious of the painterly, even though it doesn’t look like that at first. People say “Oh what are you doing here now, you’re doing something crazy in the street”, and then when they take a shot they say “Oh it looks so nice”. I did a piece in Texas where I was trying to be like a crazy cowboy and I had all this ice because it’s very hot. I just went to the refrigerator and coloured the ice with different colours. Americans love all this lemonade and blackberry. I had cast all these little cowboy toys in ice and when they started melting they became limping cowboys. It was beautiful, it was an impromptu, but it was done thinking pictorially using what was available.
GJ Looking at all the different strategies you have used over the past thirty odd years, you personify a critique of the institutionalised, and the hegemonic notions of European art that exists in our gallery structures. Do you see yourself in this role?
DM No, not deliberately, because I’ve never put myself in any ideological position either for or against those things, because those things are just phenomena. I’m not a pluralist in the sense that I cannot make a distinction between a proper Michelangelo statue and a Michelangelo statue key ring. I actually do see the difference, but I use the key ring in order to subvert the notions we sometimes have about those great icons of art. Unfortunately when real art is there it accumulates a miasma of readings.
I had a lover who was an out of work actor and we had to go to visit Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in Aldeborough and we went there in the winter time, it was so cold, it was in the middle of January or February, and we found the only Bed and Breakfast that was open. It was winter, and the heating was not on. We were dying of the cold, but on the wall was a beautiful painting of the Sunflowers by Van Gogh. Everything was dark and dismal and windy, and I said “Oh my God, the only way to be an artist is to have sunny sunflowers and be happy”. Then later on I saw Rose Finn Kelcey’s beautiful sunflowers made out of money which is all about exchange, a wonderful piece. So the meaning of these things just keep permutating.
Institutions also permutate but they take longer because they have I think, if one accepts Marx’s idea that they are superstructural things, to maintain the powers that be. To go back to this thing that I said earlier, the fact that we’re entering a new Mediaevalism. Fewer and fewer people go to churches and temples, etc., but more and more go to art galleries. They have become a kind of temple too, which was the original intention; the museum was for the muses, but now it’s not only a temple it’s also a shopping area, you know they go shopping now in some of the best public art galleries. Now the museums are for the musers.
 Guy Brett is a writer and critic and long standing friend of David Medalla. He is the author of “Exploding Galaxies: the Art of David Medalla (London: Kala Press, 1995).