Pio Abad

Pio Abad Interview - By Steven Cox

Over the past few weeks, HUNTED PROJECTS has been in dialogue with recent Royal Academy Schools graduate, and finalist of the 2012 Converse/Dazed Emerging Artist Award, Pio Abad.

Pio Abad's work explores a series of political topics surrounding his personal experiences of living under the shadow of Imelda Marcos, the wife of Philippine Dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  Marcos' obsession with luxury and excess is what Abad explores through his work, aiming to cultivate works that visually narrate and explore the irony of greed and overabundance.

Within this interview, HUNTED PROJECTS gets to grips with Abad's practice, discussing his influences and what is to be expected for the Converse/Dazed Emerging Artist exhibition that opens to the public on Friday 26th October 2012, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.  The winner will be announced on Wednesday 24th October.

Can you tell HUNTED PROJECTS about yourself and creative background?

PA: I grew up in Manila and lived there until I was 22. I moved to Glasgow from the tropics, as you do, to study painting at the Glasgow School of Art and ended up staying in Scotland for five years. In 2009, I went to London for my MA at the Royal Academy Schools. I have just finished this summer and, for now, London is my home.

How would you describe your regular working day within your studio environment?

PA: My working day varies depending on the work I’m making. Although my practice started with a very hands-on approach, I now see myself more as a producer.  Most of the time, the work is actually made outside the studio and the studio itself functions as a space where I plan the exhibition.

I am particularly interested in some of your older works, the fetishized drawing and painting works that you created at the time of your undergraduate degree show at Glasgow School of Art.  These black, red and white works encompassed diamond cube patterns and intricate detailed drawings of powdered wigs that hovered between abstraction and figuration.  Would you be kind enough to discuss these early works and how they originated?

PA: The drawings I made during my time in Glasgow were part of a series of works called ‘Dogeater’s Discourse,’ which proposed this fantastical world populated by creatures called Dogeaters whose obsessions with luxury and excess have made them into nothing more than an assemblage of pompadour wigs, ribbons and pearls. They take their name from the fact that all they do is consume to the point where they’ve developed an appetite for their tiny pet dogs. ‘Dogeater’ was also a pejorative term used by the Americans to refer to Filipinos during the Filipino American War.

Looking back, it all seems quite simplistic now but these works marked the beginning of my interest in the aesthetics of power, which is what still drives my practice…looking at ways political narrative are manifested in the domestic sphere. There was a quote from an article during the Arab Spring that says every revolution as a Lady Macbeth figure and my interest in this link between power and domesticity has led me to making work that refer to these figures.

A huge part of this interest comes from my own experiences of living under the shadow of Imelda Marcos in Manila. Apart from being a shoe collector, she was also the Philippine dictator’s wife who ruled the country harshly until they were booted out in 1986.

I was born at the end of the Marcos dictatorship and the stories of her legendary excess filled my childhood. One of my earliest school memories was a trip to this hastily constructed museum at the basement of the presidential palace a year after the revolution that sent them to Honolulu. The new government wanted the people to see the extent of their greed so everything they left was laid out… racks and racks of gowns, thousands of shoes, there was even a gold plated toilet bowl. These memories continue to influence the work I’m making now.

Much of Imelda Marcos’ shoe and clothing collection has now been destroyed by termites and mould, are you interested in exploring the deterioration of extravagance?

PA: I’m currently in the process of getting permission from the National Museum in Manila to document all these decaying Marcos paraphernalia. I’ll keep you posted on how this project proceeds.

Your recent exhibition Dazzler, took place as part of the Glasgow International Festival earlier this year.  The exhibition explored an interesting link between the dazzle camouflage created by Norman Wilkinson for WWI naval warships which caused a 'dazzling' effect on the viewer, and the 1980's superhero Dazzler, who's main superpower was to emit rays of intense dazzling light.  Can you expand on how this connection between militarism and disco/comic culture become an area for investigation and re-interpretation?

PA: When I was asked to do the show at GI, I was reading Holy Terror, Bob Collacello’s memoir of his days as Andy Warhol’s right hand man at Interview magazine. A friend told me to read it, as there were lengthy anecdotes of Warhol’s numerous attempts to get a portrait commission from Imelda Marcos, attempts that inevitably took place on the dance floor of Studio 54. Later on, I did a piece as part of my MA show at the Royal Academy that conflates these ‘Imelda Warhol’ anecdotes with another anecdote to do with Imelda’s obsession with Heinz Sandwich spread… When the Marcoses fled the palace, the protesters who stormed in and found a house tucked in the back garden filled from floor to ceiling with Heinz sandwich spread. The piece claims to be a replica of a Heinz Sandwich Spread silk satin terno (a form of Philippine national dress popularised by Imelda) commissioned by Imelda Marcos, for a portrait sitting with Andy Warhol that never happened.

But I digress…what struck me about that era, which was the time when disco was at its most vulgar, was how the disco floor was a point of convergence for the cultural elite like Warhol, the dictators that were coddled by the American anxiety of the Communist take over like the Marcoses and the Pahlavis, and the scions of wealthy right wing political families…Ronald Reagan’s daughter even had a brief stint working for Interview magazine.

I ended up reading about cultural icons from the 70’s and became fascinated with Bo Derek, who was this symbol of the liberal lifestyle in the film ‘10’ but ended up becoming a hard core Republican activist. I thought the shifts in the ideologies she represented mirrored the ideological decline of disco. It started off as this all-inclusive movement that transcended race, sexual preferences and social status but ended up behind the velvet ropes of Studio 54, this decadent environment thriving on right wing money.

The silk scarf works that you have recently produced relate to your broader interest with historical representation, as well as high fashion, for the scarves themselves could be considered Versace imitations.  Can you tell HUNTED PROJECTS a bit more about this series of works?  Do you see the scarves becoming an on going body of work that combine painful political issues and luxury products?

PA: The first silk piece I made which I showed at the Whitechapel Gallery emerged from these stories that came out during the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 when the American soldiers found these ornate bathrooms in Saddam Hussein’s palaces decked out with gold water taps. Suddenly, this benign bathroom fixture is transformed into a symbol of dictatorial excess.  In the silk piece Loot, Saddam Hussein’s gold plated tap becomes the central motif in an imitation Versace silk scarf.

I keep on going back to the Walter Benjamin quote from his Theses on the Philosophy of History. He says that there is no document of civilization that is not, at the same time, a document of barbarism. I have always been interested in the possibility of objects behaving like cultural weapons. That even the most benign, the most ornamental things can function to enforce a certain ideology, a certain way of living.

I started using the silk scarf as a format in my work because it’s one of the most ornamental pieces of clothing but looking at the history of its design, there have been numerous attempts to use it as a vehicle for commemorating specific historical episodes. I found it as an ideal structure for where my interest in ornamentation and in ‘histories within histories within histories’ come together. Hermes, for instance, has a whole series of scarves depicting the colonial exploits of France and another one celebrating the naval victories of the French military. I thought it was deeply problematic that these historical narratives of oppression are transformed into decorative surfaces and I thought of making work that point out this problem and extend these representations of trivialized histories to include recent events.

It’s also allowed me to create these intricate drawings but the piece takes on the appearance of a readymade object, so instead of merely pointing to luxury the work become more directly involved in this value system.

Can you tell how you would most ideally like your silk works being viewed or experienced?  Would you be interested in these works being available for wearing in a fashion context?

PA: I see each piece as a singular object and I think the moment it enters that context of fashion, in the sense that its worn or produced in multiples, then it loses its potency as an artwork, becoming just like the object that its critiquing.

You are currently shortlisted within the Dazed and Confused X Converse Emerging Artist Award…what can be expected within your show at Osborne Street that opens on Friday 25th October?

PA: I’m making a new series of scarves for the Dazed show, which uses the diaries of the Mira Markovic as a starting point. Markovic was the wife of Slobodan Milosevic, a Serbian Imelda Marcos with a penchant for fur coats, plastic surgery and Hermes scarves. As with most of my work, different histories, even different versions of the same histories, converge on one surface. On the one hand, I’m looking at Hermes scarves that depict the history of military costume in France and using these motifs but substituting the objects with images from Ziyah Gafic’s The Book of Belongings, a photographic archive of personal effects commissioned by the International Commission on Missing Persons. The archive is used to identify the victims of the Yugoslavian conflict.

I see this series as a continuation of my interest in the persona of the Despot as a Consumer, this recurring historical representation that I find problematic. Although it does expose the excesses of these characters, this representation can also be reductive and can take precedence over the actual horrors that they have committed.

Can you discuss some of your influences and explain how these have had an impact upon your work?

PA: One of the largest influences in my work has been my family. My parents were labour activists during the Marcos years and have since occupied numerous roles in Philippine politics. Now, my siblings are involved in this world as well. Growing up in this highly politicised environment is the fundamental reason I make the work I make and the reason why I believe art needs to continuously address the social and political context that it exists in. 

Do you have any exhibitions scheduled for 2013?

PA: At the moment, I have solo shows planned for London in April and Manila in October. I’m also starting a curatorial project that brings text and object based contemporary practices to the Philippines…so I will be doing a lot of long haul commuting.

Pio Abad