The foundation of Pio Abad’s practice can be traced to a single photograph hanging on the wall of his studio. It is a photo of the ostentatious, gilded living room of the former rulers of the Philippines, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, on the evening they fled the country aboard a plane provided by the United States. It was taken by Abad’s parents, who were some of the first protesters to enter the Malacañang Palace after the end of the Marcoses’ oppressive 21-year reign in 1986. Looking at the photograph, it is easy to understand Abad’s fascination with the domesticity of power. After decades of being denied access, this instance of institutional collapse exposed the private fantasies of power that had long been hidden behind public personas.
Abad’s practice explores how objects perform a political function and contain ideologies. In doing so, he gives material form to greed and corruption that might otherwise remain abstract. This is particularly significant when that corruption occurred on an almost unimaginable scale; the Marcoses reportedly embezzled up to $10 billion from the people of the Philippines.
For the work The Collection of Jane Ryan & William Saunders (2019) Abad collaborated with his wife, the jeweller Frances Wadsworth Jones, to 3D print replicas of the jewels confiscated from the Marcoses when they landed in Hawaii having been granted safe haven by then US President Ronald Reagan. The 24 pieces of jewellery are rendered in a ghostly white plastic and displayed forensically as evidence of the scale of theft. The title of the work refers to the aliases used by the Marcoses to open Swiss bank accounts where they hid their ill-gotten funds, exposing the network of complicity they operated in.
Abad’s practice untangles the murky history of the Philippines, but his perspective is not restricted to that country. Instead he sees the Philippines as part of a global history of capitalism, which included the US buttressing Marcos’s reign, despite its brutality, as part of the Cold War. The work titled A Thoughtful Gift (2019) is a letter written by Nancy Reagan to Imelda Marcos assuring the Marcoses safety in the US, carved into Carrara marble by the artist. The tablet canonises the Reagan-Marcos friendship that was hidden behind Reagan’s public attempts to distance himself from the dictator. This monument to a secret history reveals how the Marcoses were not only allowed but enabled and assisted to act with impunity.
The work Notes on Decomposition maps the history of neoliberal capitalism through 12 large-scale drawings depicting various objects bought and sold in auctions from 1991 to the present day. The items include the silverware confiscated from the Marcoses in 1991, the Lehman Brothers’ Chinese porcelain in 2010 and items from the first Christie’s auction in Mainland China in 2013. Despite the objects belonging to different owners, there is an interconnected language of ambition that they share. The ostentatious, European presentation of power in these objects reveals itself in the prevalence of certain items such as Regency era silverware and blue and white porcelain. These objects are tied to critical moments of political and economic collapse; episodes of impunity that empowered the ideologies that have brought us to the current moment.
Discussing the current state of the Philippines, Abad explains how the photograph taken by his parents was once a symbol of victory that has today become an image of failure. However, as his work shows, objects have lives and are transforming. There is the hope that the photograph will once again become an image of victory.
Pio Abad (b. 1983, Manila, lives and works in London) has curated Pacita Abad: Life in the Margins at Spike Island Bristol, 18 January – 22 March 2020. He has an upcoming show Things Entangling at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, 14 March – 14 June 2020.