Annemarie Kok

"Bubbles and Bodies. From evaporation to participation in the 1960s work of David Medalla"

Friday, December 15 // 09.45h // JGU Fakultätssaal Philosophicum


In 1964, the artist David Medalla first presented his Bubble Machines: groupings of boxes containing soapy
liquid that is turned into foam by (electric) compressors. The single bubbles, produced by these ‘biokinetic'
works, grow and expand into large, organic forms and spread slowly along the outside of the boxes, before
they finally evaporate. The Bubble Machines were (partly) born out of Medalla’s fascination with both materiality and immateriality. Calling himself a ‘hylozoist’ (one who believes that matter is alive), he was “interested in seeing how matter could be transformed into energy […] how normally invisible forces could be made tangible”.(1) His investigation into transformations of material, led to works revealing dynamic processes of movement, change, growth and disintegration. As art critic Guy Brett pointed out, the Bubble Machines are characterised by various dialectical relations, among others between creation and destruction, monumentality of form and complete evaporation, material ‘something’ and immaterial ‘nothing’ and making and imagining. With the creation of the Bubble Machines - both a scientific and an artistic experiment - Medalla challenged the notion of a finished, static or unitary work of art and opened the creative process to forces from outside. Besides, he tried to bridge the gap between work and spectator: “The most important thing I think is to give life to materials, so that instead of finding ourselves separate from them we find a complete dialogue with the material.”(2) This dialogue had to bring the spectator sensuous and imaginative experiences and had to release (cosmic) forces in him or her. Medalla’s experiments and creations show some interesting parallels to the ideas of philosopher, literary critic and scientist Gaston Bachelard, in particular to his concept of ‘material imagination’. The two were friends in the early 1960s and Medalla “was deeply moved by his [Bachelard’s] ideas about art and science, particularly his concept of their interaction and transformation in the realm of poetic imagination.”(3)

In this paper we will therefore look, in the first place, at the dynamics of materiality and immateriality, matter and mind, making and dreaming in Medalla’s Bubble Machines and at their connection to the theories of
Bachelard. In the second place, we will scrutinise the transition from Medalla’s ‘biokinetic’ machines to his
participation pieces in the late 1960s. Instead of soap bubbles, the artist would now make use of human
bodies, and their energy and movements, as the basic materials for his works. In connection to each other, the participating bodies would create a ‘sculpture’ that moved and changed forms and would eventually dissolve in different directions. These participatory works - characterised by notions of connectivity, growth, expansion, change, openness, ephemerality, dissolution and interaction - were informed by Buddhist and Hindu philosophies and surrounded by a context of youth revolt, an underground scene and a ‘hippy’ commune.They enabled further investigation into imagination and creativity (in particular, on the part of the spectator) and examination of new roles for artist and spectator. This paper will demonstrate how important themes of the early kinetic works (with references to physics and nature) were translated to participatory works of the late 1960s (related to psychological and social dimensions).

(1) Medalla quoted in Rasheed Araeen, ‘Conversation with David Medalla’, Black Phoenix, 1979, no. 3, p.11.
(2) Medalla quoted in Guy Brett, ‘Lygia Clark. The Borderline between Life and Art, Third Text, 1987, no. 1, p. 74.
(3) David Medalla, ‘Memories of the Sixties. Paris -*- London’, AND. Journal of Art & Art Education, 1988, no. 17, p. 9.

Annemarie Kok is a PhD candidate at the University of Groningen, with a research focus on the dynamics of
freedom and control in European participatory art in the 1960s. Previously, she has lectured at Utrecht University, the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and the University of Groningen on modern and postmodern art, media art, methods and theories of art history, photography and themes in contemporary art. She studied art history at Utrecht University (with a minor in museum studies at the University of Amsterdam and a study programme at the Freie Universität Berlin and the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin) and completed her research master’s in art history in 2009. Her book on Dutch art criticism (Kunstkritiek in een tijd van vervagende grenzen. Over engagement, design en commercie 1989-2015) was published by nai010 publishers in may 2016.