The year 2016 has been fuelled by global political upheaval. Brexit resulted in an increase in physical expressions of cultural animosity and might trigger another referendum on Scottish Independence. In America, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s fight for the presidency has become increasingly scandalous and unpredictable. The refugee crisis has no end in sight, as migrants continue to brave deadly waters in hopes of reaching a safe haven in Europe. With uncertainty brewing in the political developments in many corners of the world, Philippines-born, London-based Pio Abad has mined his homeland’s political history as inspiration for his presentation at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, “Notes on Decomposition,” an exhibition that explores the abuse of power and exorbitant wealth obtained by influential political figures.
Entering the exhibition space, visitors first encounter a large flag. Flag III (2016) presents two objects on a field of red: the handle of an auctioneer’s hammer crossed with a champagne glass, its liquid content spilling out in the curvilinear form of a farmer’s sickle. Abad’s work is a direct reference to the flag of the Soviet Union; both share the red color and variations of the same message. However, Abad playfully corrupts the USSR’s stated alliance, which began between workers and peasants during the 1917 Russian Revolution, by replacing the party’s sickle and hammer symbols with an overflowing champagne flute and a golden auction gavel. By perverting the original iconography, Abad conveys his disenchantment with the entanglement between governmental bodies and economic powerhouses, which he believes diminishes the importance of the laborer while the overindulgent lifestyle of the rich takes priority.
In the next room hangs the exhibition’s namesake piece, Notes on Decomposition (2016), which is composed of 12 large-scale ink drawings of valuable items previously owned by powerful authority figures, as well as wall text explaining the provenance of the items and records of their eventual sales by auction houses. Visitors are offered details of the 1991 sale of Filipino kleptocrats Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos’s silverware, and the selling of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s personal belongings in 2015, among many others. Abad’s documentation of these auctions showcases the overwhelming wealth accumulated by specific powerful figures, and urges the viewer to question the methods these characters may have used to funnel public money into their private coffers. It is notable that these collectible objects became publicly available only after their former owners had left their respective positions of power. In Notes on Decomposition, Abad’s wall of text compliments the intricate drawings by describing their historical context, driving home the point that corruption, when driven with hunger and precision, results in vast, tangible, and yet questionable, wealth.
The show’s final piece, Not a Shield, but a Weapon (2016), presents 100 bespoke handbags produced in Marikina, Philipines. Marikina was once known for its leather industry, though production sales declined during the 1990s. Here, Abad has utilized Marikinese leather to replicate Thatcher’s iconic Asprey bag, mocking the 2011 Christie’s charity auction, where Thatcher’s original was sold for GBP 25,000 from the collection of former Conservative Party deputy chairman Jeffery Archer, who was also the guest auctioneer for the event. Abad’s installation proposes that Thatcher’s decision to ease trade restrictions in the early ’90s was a factor for Marikina’s economic downturn. At the same time, Abad questions the absurd valuations of certain personal possessions by parodying Archer’s auction, listing the leather bags in his installation for GBP 25,000 each on eBay. To mirror Archer’s charity auction, Abad plans to give 79 percent of his proceeds to the manufacturers in Marikina—the number 79 is most likely a direct reference to the year Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The artist does not consider this an act of charity, but a challenge to the traditional capitalist hierarchy, in which he places the manual producer in a position of privilege over the speculator of value.
The exhibition’s title, “Notes on Decomposition,” bluntly reminds visitors of the decay of economic and political power over time, which many world leaders have been unable to avoid. Abad emphasizes this collapse via a forensic showcase of the sales records of each figure’s personal possessions, highlighting their dissolution of power. Indeed, he beautifully articulates complex themes of corruption, abuse of power and their impact on society. While the artist and his audience may feel anger or even disenfranchisement when pondering the alleged political corruption that takes place every day, Abad’s artwork also asks us to reflect on our own political histories—and even our own methods of accumulating wealth.
Pio Abad’s “Notes on Decomposition” is now on view at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, until October 30, 2016.