A several meter-long band of white cotton fabric hangs loosely from the ceiling of the Arsenale, the location dedicated to artists exploring the notion of the commons, and other ways of building community to counteract individualism and self-interest. Between the many thread bobbins in vibrant, rainbow colours suspended above the white fabric, one can spot shells, bells and pieces of wood that may remind us of objects used in rituals. Sewing needles are scattered over the fabric, inviting visitors to join the ever-evolving embroidery, expressing whatever they feel at that moment in time.
David Medalla in his own words: “All my work is informed by personal experience. It is the seed to which I apply a transcendent dialogue.”
The inspiration for ‘A Stitch in Time’ was simple and also reveals the “atomic” nature of his artworks. He recalls: “In 1967 two lovers of mine came to London. I arranged to meet them at Heathrow Airport prior to their departures. I gave each one a handkerchief (one black, one white), some needles and small spools of cotton thread. I told them they could stitch anything they liked on the handkerchiefs, on which I myself had stitched my name and a brief message of love. I said that embroidery could alleviate boredom, if delays occurred while waiting for their flights. I then lost track of my lovers. One day many years later, while waiting for a flight back to England at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, I noticed a handsome young man carrying a backpack to which a ‘column’ of cloth was attached, like a long pillow. He showed me the roll of cloth which had many little objects attached to it, old Chinese coins, fragments of broken bamboo whistles, torn cigarette packets, and all kinds of embroidered messages. The young man said someone in Bali had given him the roll of cloth and told him he could stitch anything on it. I looked at the bottom of the roll and saw the black handkerchief I had given to one of my lovers with my name and message on it. I handed the cloth back to the young man, but I did not tell him that it had started as my “stitch in time”.
The work is about the act of stitching; when you thread the needle and start stitching you enter into your own sphere, your own psychological, private space, and I find that very moving. It's rare that I do my own stitching in public, but when I do, I realise: 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 how to embroider. And it's just so wonderful because it happens in a public space once you’ve done some stitching, even if it only lasts for thirty seconds or a minute, you are inside your space and I find that magical. You have everybody just doing his or her own thing there. All these ladies that I used to see in this old building in Gee Street, London and in downtown New York, where they worked for a pittance in those awful sweatshops, this was ‘labour’, whereas ‘A Stitch in Time’ is leisure. It is labour, but labour that does not alienate, a different kind of labour without its exploitative implications.”
I first met David Medalla in London, at the start of the new millennium. A friend spotted a small poster in the library that invited artists to become members of a grand network so called the ‘London Biennale’. Maybe it was the handwritten note that aroused our curiosity. The poster simply invited artists to meet up in Soho Square, every other Sunday. From then on, we became part of the ‘London Biennale’, meeting many artists, musicians, poets, writers, Lebenskuenstler, photographers, performers; wonderful people passing through London during the summer months. David had the idea of the project as early as 1998 on a ferry off Robben Island during the Johannesburg Biennale, accompanied by his collaborator and partner, the Australian artist Adam Nankervis. Two years later the London Biennale project was launched, and has been growing in popularity ever since, showcasing many international, emerging and established artists.
Today, the notion of the art world and its bienniale as a large state- or enterprise-funded event with curator-selected artists is questioned and transformed by opening borders between geographical location, citizenship, nationality, race and ethnicity. The art world has created a myth that art is exclusive, that it can elevate you, and the middle classes can become connoisseurs if they acquire the appropriate art works. The art business has defined ‘connoisseurs ‘as those having access to an elite set of artists from a unique set of distributers. This has isolated many artists from the central system. The amazing capability of David is that he organises himself and his work in such a way as to be to be completely untouched by this system. Instead he rises above it with elegance and generosity, and a great deal of passion for all things creative.
‘A Stitch in Time’ was part of the central exhibition at the 57th Venice Biennale. During his presence, David Medalla invited artists and passers by to join him to recite a line by W.B. Yeats: ‘In Dreams Begins Responsibilities.’
About the artist
Medalla was born in Manila, the Philippines, in 1942. At the age of 12 he was admitted at Columbia University in New York upon the recommendation of American poet Mark van Doren, and he studied ancient Greek drama with Moses Hadas, modern drama with Eric Bentley, modern literature with Lionel Trilling, modern philosophy with John Randall and attended the poetry workshops of Léonie Adams.
Guy Brett is his most fervent champion, publishing Exploding Galaxies (1995), that tracks and documents Medalla’s impressive oeuvre and truly significant network of influences on generations of emerging and established artists worldwide.