Had you been in Cypress Hills cemetery, Brooklyn, one cold January day in 1993, you might have found yourself being handed a chrysanthemum by an elfin figure with soft brown eyes. This was the artist David Medalla, a pioneering figure in experimental and participatory art, who has died aged 82.
The chrysanthemums were part of a performance called Mondrian in Extremis – the Dutch painter is buried at Cypress Hills – itself one of a series of collaborative events to which Medalla gave the title The Secret History of the Mondrian Fan Club. Over the years – the Fan Club was still extant at the time of its founder’s death – these would come to include works of skywriting (the letter M, for Mondrian, drawn by a light aeroplane over New York); performance (of, among other things, Mondrian puppets dancing the boogie-woogie); film, neon animation and collaged photographs, the last of Medalla lying by Mondrian’s grave, laser-printed on to canvas and then overpainted.
Given that Mondrian’s own practice as an artist had involved an ever-greater whittling-down to a single aesthetic end, Medalla’s multidisciplinary tribute to him seemed unexpected. His explanation for it was that he had first seen the Dutchman’s work as a boy of 14 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and had been moved by the likeness of its maker’s story to his own. Like Medalla, Mondrian had found refuge in London from political oppression: nazism in the Dutchman’s case, the anti-communist purges of the Philippines in Medalla’s.
Medalla had arrived in Britain in 1960. By the end of the year, he had entrenched himself in the London avant-garde art scene, and had produced the first of his now celebrated soap bubble machines, the Cloud Canyons.
These, dubbed “auto-creative sculptures” by their inventor, positioned themselves against the auto-destructive art of another London émigré, Gustav Metzger. Where Metzger’s machines variously destroyed themselves, Medalla’s – simple contraptions of pillars, soapy water and pumps – grew as viewers looked on. His explanation of their lineage, as of his own, was eclectic and possibly fanciful: visits to a soap factory in Marseilles, and a brewery in Edinburgh; watching his mother cook ginataang, a Filipino dessert; seeing, as a babe in arms, bubbles of blood issuing from the mouth of a dying guerrilla comrade of his father’s, shot by the Japanese, in the family’s front garden.
The first Cloud Canyons – including No 3, now in the collection of Tate Modern – were shown at a London gallery called Signals, set up by Medalla and Metzger in 1964. After a short spell in Medalla’s drawing room in his South Kensington flat, the gallery moved to Wigmore Street in the West End. Specialising in contemporary South American art and open 24 hours a day, Signals proved a magnet to everyone from Jonathan Miller to Jimi Hendrix and Yoko Ono.
Though short-lived – it had closed by 1967 – the gallery and its Newsbulletin, edited by Medalla, would have an incalculable effect on British art, helping lay the ground for the multidisciplinary and conceptual modes still dominant today. A two-part exhibition at Sotheby’s S2 space in London in 2018 also recognised the contribution of Signals to a broader European avant garde. Fifty years earlier, Marcel Duchamp had done so, too, creating for the gallery a punning “medallic object”: the Bouche-évier (1968), a bronze sink plug, its surface sculpted in bubbles.
Like one of his own machine sculptures, Medalla seemed endlessly, and effervescently, self-generating. In 1967, his newly formed dance troupe Exploding Galaxy performed in the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream event at Alexandra Palace in north London. In 1974, Medalla founded Artists for Democracy, a group that explored the analogy between political and artistic participation, the better to advance “socialist art through socialist revolution”. An earlier iteration of the group, the Artists’ Liberation Front, had preached the Maoist values of communal labour in a show called People Weave a House! at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1972.
Medalla was born in Ermita, a cosmopolitan area of central Manila, in 1938 (or possibly 1942; as with much else, Medalla’s estimation of his birthdate varied with the telling). His parents were of different ethnic backgrounds – his father Tagalog, his mother a Visayan from the island of Cebu – with admixtures of Chinese, Malay and Spanish blood. Medalla senior’s family was, in his son’s telling, “aristocratic”; membership of the anti-Japanese wartime resistance meant that he was absent for much of David’s childhood.
After University of Manila high school, David was sent to a former American mission school, St Mary’s, in the mountains of north Luzon. From here he won a place at Camp Rising Sun, a summer programme in upstate New York intended to bring together promising young people of the world. Encouraged by the camp’s poetry tutor, Mark Van Doren, to sign up as a student at Columbia University, the precociously clever boy spent two years in Manhattan studying literature and philosophy.
It was in London, however, that Medalla was to find his metier, moving there in 1960 after a summer in Paris where he had, typically, met everyone from Man Ray to Yves Klein.
Perhaps his best-known work of this period was the participatory A Stitch in Time (1968-2017), in which the world at large was asked to sew cotton stitches (or anything else it liked) on to a skein of fabric hanging from a gallery ceiling. The inspiration for this, Medalla insisted, had come from the gift he had made of a handkerchief and small sewing kit to each of two departing lovers at Heathrow in 1967, with the injunction to stitch the cloth at will and pass it on. Allegedly, nine years later, Medalla by chance saw one of these same handkerchiefs at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, on the backpack of an Australian traveller who explained that he had been given it by someone he had met in Bali.
As is the way with straws in the wind, Medalla’s fame was slowly eclipsed by younger artists who, knowingly or not, followed his lead. Given the communitarian nature of his work, this did not trouble him unduly. His mythology, personal and artistic, had a life of its own, each iteration generating the next: A Stitch in Time was installed in galleries around the world and was shown, to critical acclaim, at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The year before, he was nominated for the inaugural Hepworth prize for sculpture.
At the heart of all this was a belief that artworks had a duty to evolve slowly, in as many mediums and places as possible. “After all,” Medalla reasoned, “Mondrian took 25 years to finish a painting.” Aware of his own part in the process, he kept a Filipino passport throughout his six decades in London, reasoning that the visas and red tape necessitated by this would keep him peripatetic.
He returned to Manila not long before his death, with his long-term partner and co-Mondrian Fan Club creator, the Australian artist Adam Nankervis, who survives him.
• David Cortez Medalla, artist, born 23 March 1938; died 28 December 2020