SAN FRANCISCO — Pio Abad’s show at KADIST, Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite, examines the political consequences of Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the Philippines (1965–1986), and its effects abroad. Many Filipinos fled to California during that time, and Abad believes the authoritarianism of that time manifests today.
With the exhibition, Abad’s first solo show in the United States, the Manila-born artist says he’s looking for accountability at a time when facts are being stretched and givens called into question. A letter from Nancy Reagan to Imelda Marcos (a congresswoman and the First Lady of the Phillippines) has been engraved on Carrera marble and on the floor. There’s also a large concrete reconstruction of a bracelet Imelda Marcos tried to smuggle into Honolulu. Abad makes permanent fixtures of these relics.
The show also includes a photo by the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Kim Komenich, taken on the day the Marcos left office, which shows a hand holding a piece of barbed wire, making the sign of an “L,” with the thumb extended and the index finger pointing up, a symbol for the revolution.
Both the Marcoses and the Reagans saw the power of mythmaking and fiction in creating a nation, Abad says. I spoke with the artist at KADIST, where he talked about memory being mediated, how the past is becoming present, and the idea of “monumentalizing” at a time when things are in flux.
This article has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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Hyperallergic: How does the legacy of the Marcoses extend beyond the Philippines, and how do you show that in the exhibition?
Pio Abad: I’ve been working on this for seven years, and the more I try and get away from it the more I realize there’s this nexus of relationships. If you think about the Cold War, [the Marcoses] were part of this transnational network of dictatorships that benefited from America’s patronage. You can’t talk about Marcoses without talking about the Pahlavis or the Pinochets. They were enabled by a United States that was determined to hold on to power. Beyond politics, you realize in the world of global finance that the Marcoses were largely able to stash their money in shell companies and in Swiss bank accounts and offshore locations. They were kind of stealing at the time when global finance was trying to get away from national responsibility; that’s how the loot they were able to amass became so epic, because they were kind of enabled by capital. Then you look at the presence of Imelda Marcos in popular culture. When [the Marcoses] were kicked out of Manila in 1986, there was this really determined effort to try to portray her as this eccentric figure that was all about shoes. You wouldn’t have Imelda Marcos if she hadn’t played around in the ’70s and ’80s of New York City, in the same cultural context that created Donald Trump. It’s all these relationships I’m trying to get across in the exhibition. When you zoom out even just a tiny bit, you realize you’re talking about this global network that in some ways we’re all complicit in, in some ways we’re all paying for, and in some ways, we’re all suffering from.
H: You say with this show you’re trying to monumentalize some things and make them permanent. Why is that important?
PA: The central piece in the exhibition is this 12-foot replica of a pearl, ruby, and diamond bracelet that is one of the pieces of jewelry Imelda tried to smuggle into Honolulu when they were given exile there by the Reagans. By enlarging it and translating the material into concrete, by translating it literally into a monument, it becomes something else, and it stops being just a piece of jewelry. It suggests a body on the floor, and everyone kind of approaches like a corpse. Also, it’s like a mausoleum in the way it’s thrown on the floor like an object of mourning. It also becomes this undeniable body of evidence. The Marcoses amassed something like 10 billion dollars from the national treasury, and because of the scale, it became so abstract. By turning it to something that confronts the viewer and puts the viewer’s body in relation to it, I really wanted to transform it into something incontrovertible. It’s literally concrete and figuratively concrete.
I guess that’s the same way the Nancy Reagan letter is transformed from a document to a marble slab. Even by shifting the material, these archival objects that are prone to being stashed away or being hidden become these weighty objects and weighty evidence of history. I think the role of monumentalization is always an assertion of the incontrovertibly of things.
H: Do you think the letter from Nancy Reagan was meant to tell Imelda Marcos that she wasn’t going to be prosecuted?
PA: That’s how I read it. It’s something like “you have access to the benefits of the legal system,” and a few years after that, Imelda Marcos was acquitted. You question to what extent politics played into that. How were they able to stash this much money? I think a conviction would have opened up more questions about complicity. My reading is the United States was not prepared to answer these questions because it forces a confrontation of the role they played in the world order of the late ’80s and early ’90s. And these figures — not just the Marcoses, but the Pinochets — the role they played in making sure these people maintained their power, allowed America to position itself in the global world order. So from that single letter, it becomes this grand narrative.
H: The show has a photo by Kim Komenich that you say is tied up with your memories of the revolution.
PA: I was looking for images of the revolution in the Bancroft Library in Berkeley — which has one of the largest photographic archives in the country — and I came across Kim Komenich’s photographs. I think he was in the Philippines from ’84 to ’86 on and off, so he documented the waning years of the dictatorship. When I was going through the Bancroft archive, I realized that so many of my memories of the revolution in ’86, when the Marcoses were kicked out of power, were based on these images. What happened then was Marcos’s generals defected and asked Fernando Marcos to resign. They were holed up in an army base in the center of Manila. Marcos was ready to just drop bombs into that encampment, but then two million people came out of homes and surrounded this military base where the generals were, which prevented Marcos from enacting his plan. Kim photographed that tumultuous period, and there were these really dramatic images of nuns giving soldiers flowers. You start thinking about the nature of memory and how it’s so mediated. It was interesting to realize my memory was mediated through the lens of a single person. It was amazing to meet him here in San Francisco and get to hear his stories.
H: Why do you say this show is really personal for you?
PA: It’s kind of a privilege and a curse to have these histories embedded in my personal life. It means the work is always rooted in a struggle that’s very palpable. My parents — my mom’s gone but my dad is still here — they were very much involved in the democratic socialist movement that was crucial in overthrowing the dictatorship. When I was growing up, I had the experience of seeing them fight against the dictatorship. They were then tasked with setting up a democracy. Much later, seeing the hardships of the movement, it just feels like the world has gone back to where we were. There’s a saying — I forget where it’s from — that the reason they call it a revolution is because at the end, you find yourself right back where you started. And that’s kind of where we are now. But seeing the struggle firsthand means there are certain urgencies and poignancies that can never just be theoretical. It’s not just an interest — it’s embedded into my life.
H: You talk about the past becoming present. How is that in this show?
PA: I think this being my first show in the US and showing it at a time like now, it’s really hard not to make these parallelisms. I guess because there are a lot of specters that kind of hover over the exhibition. One is the brutality of Rodrigo Duterte in Manila. It’s the Philippines going back on itself. The other one is this kind of comic excess of Trump and where that’s going. There’s this discussion of Trump being cozy with Saudis, so it’s all these narratives, and when you really zoom out, these kinds of alliances have always existed and continue to exist and still affect us.
I started this project when Obama was president and the Philippines was under a liberal government, and there was a lot of hope that finally there would be some kind of justice and some kind of accountability, but fast forward seven years later and it’s really changed. My relationship with my work has changed completely, and the impetus behind producing it in 2014 has been completely upended. Going back to this idea of past, present and future and the fragility of things, that photo by Kim Komenich, Hand and Barbed Wire, was in 1986 a very triumphant image, but reading it through the lens of failed government and political disappointments and impending rise of authoritarianism, it becomes a symbol of failure. Hopefully, it might gain another life when things get better if things get better. There’s an instability to things, and that’s what interesting working on this show, you live through that instability and the fact that nothing is assured. Everything is in flux, so you try and hold onto bits with art, and you turn then into concrete or marble.
Pio Abad, Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite is on view at KADIST (3295 20th Street, San Francisco, California) through August 10.