David Medalla

Cloud Canyons No. 3: An Ensemble of Bubble Machines (Auto Creative Sculptures)

1961, remade 2004

On display at Tate Britain

David Medalla born 1942
Metal, Perspex, 2 compressors, 2 timers, water and soap
Overall display dimensions variable
Purchased 2006


This work is a kinetic sculpture consisting of wooden boxes arranged in a circle on the gallery floor with a tall plastic tube placed at their centre. At the bottom of the tube is a quantity of soapy liquid that is turned into foam by compressors located inside the wooden portions of the sculpture. This results in the foam being projected upwards and out of the tube, forming a jet of bubbles that extends above head-height. The plastic of the tube is clear, such that once the bubbles are released they can be seen rising up inside the tube. The bubbles are produced constantly and form cloud-like clusters at the top of the tube, and once these clusters have been propelled upwards they drop back and slide slowly down the exterior of the tube to its base, where they rejoin the bath of soapy liquid from which they came.

Cloud Canyons No. 3: An Ensemble of Bubble Machines (Auto Creative Sculptures) was made by the Filipino artist David Medalla in 1961. It is among the earliest of several ‘bubble machines’ that Medalla produced at the time and first exhibited in 1964 at Signals Gallery in London, a space devoted to international kinetic art that Medalla co-founded that same year. Cloud Canyons No. 3 bears the additional date of 2004, as it was recreated that year for the exhibition Art & The 60s: This Was Tomorrow at Tate Britain in London.

Although the materials and construction for Cloud Canyons No. 3 are controlled by Medalla each time it is installed, the sculpture changes constantly once it is on display due to the varying shapes formed by the foam. In an interview in 1979, Medalla noted that he had been attempting with his sculptures to give ‘tangible form to invisible forces ... to find a model which would show the transformation of matter into energy’ (quoted in Araeen 1997, p.11), and the words ‘cloud’ and ‘canyon’ in the work’s title reflect the artist’s interest in the random shapes formed by the earth’s natural processes. The art critic Guy Brett has described the first installation of Cloud Canyons No. 3 in 1964 as follows:

The foam was allowed to follow its own aleatory paths, emerging and forming according to its own energies interacting with gravity, air currents, atmospheric pressure, and the shape of the containers ... the analogy with clouds was no exaggeration. It was never the same two days in a row.
(Brett 1995, p.53.)

In creating his series of Cloud Canyons, Medalla drew on a range of artistic practices as well as scientific theories that were emerging at the time. He was inspired by the ‘auto-destructive’ sculptures of the Polish artist Gustav Metzger, a friend of Medalla who was also involved with Signals Gallery, and by current research into relativity and cellular biology. Medalla has explained that his use of bubbles was also connected to specific childhood memories, including the clouds in tropical sunsets in Manila; watching his mother cooking; a visit to a brewery in Edinburgh; and the frothing mouth of a wounded Japanese soldier he discovered in the family garden. Although his work was inspired by personal experience, Medalla was concerned with breaking the boundary between the spectator and the artwork and intended for viewers to bring their own personal interpretations to the cloud-like forms created by the bubble machines. He said in 1968:

The most important thing is to give life to materials, so that instead of finding ourselves separate from them, we find a complete dialogue with the material.
(Quoted in Brett 1995, p.62.)

Photographs of the bubbles created by Medalla’s work were reproduced in the Signals Gallery Newsbulletin in September 1964. In the accompanying text, Metzger called Medalla ‘the first master of auto-creative art’, implying that Medalla’s practice was a variation on Metzger’s own auto-destructive art. Metzger argued that the bubble machines were ‘capable of achieving not only the most complex forms and motions but also an aesthetic content of the highest order’, and that they were extensions of the work of earlier modernist sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi, Hans Arp, Alexander Calder and Naum Gabo. In 1968, Signals member Paul Keeler showed a copy of the September 1964 Newsbulletin to the artist Marcel Duchamp, who subsequently created an edition of one hundred sculptures entitled Medallic Object that took the form of a medal bursting with bubble-shaped forms.

Further reading
Rasheed Araeen, ‘Conversation with David Medalla’, Black Phoenix, no.3, Spring 1979, pp.10–19.
Guy Brett, Exploding Galaxies: The Art of David Medalla, London 1995, pp.50–65.
Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2006, pp.126–30.

Fiona Anderson
May 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

Display caption

Medalla has described himself as ‘a poet who celebrates physics’, combining science and nature with art. He has made a number of cloud machines which are meant as a kind of living system; the machine produces a steady flow of tiny bubbles that refract light into rainbows. In such works Medalla employs technology to produce forms that are organic, sensual, shifting and playful. The streams of bubbles evoke cells yet also embody the ephemeral, hovering between a material presence and an immaterial nothingness.

Gallery label, October 2016