Pio Abad: Dictator Style
During WWI Norman Wilkinson designed the naval camouflage called dazzle – a kind of geometric, abstract pattern contrived to confuse the observer rather than disguise the ship. Wilkinson was later put in charge of the naval camouflage unit housed in the basement studios at the Royal Academy of Arts, the exact spot where, 95 years later, Pio Abad takes time out of his MFA studies to chat about his upcoming show Dazzler at the Duchy Gallery, Glasgow.
Dazzler, he explains, is also the name of an effete disco super hero in a 1970s comic book. Her only power is to emit rays of light that momentarily blind her assailants. But though she might pale in comparison to the likes of Superman, hers is a weapon uncomfortably close in reality to a weapon designed for American soldiers to control crowds in Afghanistan.
Abad takes a book from his shelf. It’s Peter York’s Dictator Style – a reference book of images of the interiors of various dictators’ homes, including Saddam Hussein, Stalin and Idi Amin. It’s a chilling view into a world where art is subsumed into the psychology of megalomania.
The book exemplifies the shift of art and ornamentation from genuine self-expression into the proclamation of power. It’s a subject that haunts artists, such as Abad, and perhaps casts a shadow over his ambivalent relationship with decoration and ornamentation. “I guess there’s always this danger that I’m quite wary of,” Abad explains. “Of trivialising these things, and I hope by actually presenting real documents and objects that it avoids that trivialisation.”
With one half of the exhibition a planned installation sponsored by Spandex and the other a curious sounding archive, the show will be a way of unpicking the web of intricate links that underpin Abad’s work. “An element of unpacking is important in my work because I always jam so many references in,” he says. “Sometimes the links are so dense that they just disappear.”
It’s pertinent to compare the disappearance of the links between Abad’s points of reference to a loss of individual identity in mass culture in general. The camouflaging potential of decoration allows leaders, such as Imelda Marcos – the notorious first lady of Abad’s native Philippines and a recurring character in his work – to sweep problems under rich carpets of culture.
Through a vast and expensive cultural development programme Marcos was able to disguise the needs of her impoverished population and obfuscate the dubious activities of her husband’s military regime. Meanwhile, as the central figure of this programme she saw herself throughout as the standard of beauty and cultivation to be aspired to and a display of the exotic culture of the Philippines for the rest of the world to see.
Despite being exiled in Hawaii after the regime was overthrown, Imelda Marcos returned to the Philippines and to politics in the early nineties. A few years ago, Abad’s family received a present from her, a seashell and fake pearl encrusted clock with her own profile painted on the stand. This odd little object, a picture of melancholic exoticism, sits above Abad’s desk. It’s a reminder that even the most banal of objects can be cleverly disguised cultural weapons, momentarily blinding their viewers to the problems of the environment in which they exist.
“I always liked that Walter Benjamin quote – that all documents of civilisation are documents of barbarism,” Abad explains. "In a way I see that as a kind of guiding statement in my practice; the idea of trying to extract ideologies or difficult histories from objects that are seemingly throwaway, or seemingly decorative, or seemingly kitsch, or seemingly benign. When actually, there’s nothing benign about anything.”