by Summer Zickefoose
David Medalla’s repertoire of art forms and methods is vast; he is rightfully considered a pioneer of kinetic, earth, performance, participation and conceptual art. Two of his participatory works, Porcelain Wedding and A Stitch in Time, seem particularly relevant to a contemporary conversation about socially engaged and participatory art practices. Medalla’s participatory artworks followed his better-known series of kinetic and ephemeral Bubble Machines of the 1960’s. In the bubble machine works, the machines created forms that ultimately disappeared, simultaneously encapsulating and subverting sculptural history by showing that form could be both monumental and fleeting. The ephemerality of these sculptural events was reversed in Porcelain Wedding and A Stitch in Time, where the shifting structures throughout the participatory event are later made permanent.
In the galleries where Porcelain Wedding and A Stitch in Time took place, the space normally occupied by an art object or installation became a kind of microcosm of sociability and production. In A Stitch in Time people visiting the installation were invited to sew anything they liked, including small objects of significance, on long sheets of cotton, pulling the cotton thread from bobbins suspended in a hammock-like structure. The fabric was laid out, scroll-like, in the room, accommodating people on both sides to sit and stitch together as though at a long table, with the conversation inscribed upon the surface. The linear elements within the space –the lines of the cloth, the thread, the structure holding the bobbins, the lines of bodies stitching – are tangible and symbolic lines of communication and markers of time. Medalla describes that, “the thing I like best about this work is that whenever anyone is involved in the act of stitching, he or she is inside his or her own private space, even though the act of stitching might occur in a public place.” Acting as a sort of collective sketchbook or travel journal, the fabric becomes much louder than the room, making visible the simultaneous inner conversations translated through thread.
David Medalla’s Porcelain Wedding proceeded as the participants encased a couple, lying naked next to each other, in clay. After the clay had been shaped to the couple’s bodies, it was decorated with linear patterns, cut into small squares, fired, and threaded together to form suits. The suits reference the jade burial suits of China and intertwine the wedding ceremony with that of a funeral. Prior to covering the couple in clay, the symbolic “visitors” of this event also made small clay sculptures to be “offered” at the wedding. The entire event engaged clay as a primal substance that can symbolize in its various physical properties and stages, the stages of human life. The process also essentially turned the couple into sculptures – permanent statues memorializing themselves and the event of the marriage. The participants became the community that witnessed, as intimately as friend or family, the wedding and funeral of the couple.
Both Porcelain Wedding and A Stitch in Time encapsulated the audience’s involvement through the recorded marks on the fabric and clay surfaces. Given that Medalla’s various projects often adopted materials that allowed for change to occur, the choice of thread and clay was fitting. Though there are resulting objects that came out of both events, the conceptual frame of the projects existed within the active spaces of the gallery as the works engaged with and were created by the audience.
 David Medalla and Guy Brett, “Portfolio,” Grand Street 65 Trouble (Summer, 1998): 45. JSTOR (25008337).
 Medalla and Brett, “Portfolio,” 45-46.
 Adam Nankervis, “A Stitch in Time,” Mousse 29 (June 11, 2011). Accessed May 17, 2016. http://moussemagazine.it/articolo.mm?id=707.
 Guy Brett, Life Strategies: Overview and Selection, essay in OUT OF ACTIONS: between performance and the object, 1949-1979 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998), 213.
1. David Medalla and Guy Brett, “Portfolio,” Grand Street 65 Trouble (Summer, 1998): 40.
2 & 3. Adam Nankervis, “A Stitch in Time,” Mousse 29 (June 11, 2011). Accessed May 17, 2016. http://moussemagazine.it/articolo.mm?id=707
4. Guy Brett, Life Strategies: Overview and Selection, essay in OUT OF ACTIONS: between performance and the object, 1949-1979 (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998), 213.
5. David Medalla and Guy Brett, “Portfolio,” Grand Street 65 Trouble (Summer, 1998): 42, 43.
Portions of this essay taken from Activating the Object: the Intersection of Performance Art and Clay, NCECA lecture, 2009 by Summer Zickefoose.
1 response to Participatory Works of David Medalla
Summer thank you for bringing David’s work to my attention. I can’t believe I have never seen his work before.