My art has been shaped by an obsession with the biography of things. Over the past few years, I have kept a growing collection of objects that have served as witnesses to, and subsequent residues of, specific moments in political histories. Through the course of my own work, the roles of these objects have continuously shifted: from research reference to invitation image, from studio ornament to found sculpture, and back again. More recently, as the political histories contained within these things have unravelled at an unimaginable pace, they have assumed an even stranger quality. Objects that once seemed merely ridiculous have now assumed an air of menace. What were fragments of the past now appear as glimpses into a swiftly encroaching future.
The first object in my collection is a small plastic and polystyrene clock decorated with lacquered seashells and set on a clamshell base. The clock was given to my father as an unwanted Christmas present in 2010 by the former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, whose profile and logo are imprinted on the clock’s base. That year, my father joined the cabinet of President Benigno Aquino III’s newly installed government, while the Marcos family celebrated their own electoral victories. Imelda was re-elected to the Philippine Congress, and her eldest daughter and son were elected as provincial governor and senator, respectively. Imelda gave the clock as a personal gift to congressmen, senators, and cabinet secretaries. It served as much as a tacky Christmas ornament as it did a souvenir of her family’s return to power. Suffice to say, the clock was quickly thrown into the trash, from where I, just as quickly, re-appropriated it as an art object.
The gifting was a shameless and flippant gesture given my parents’ history with the Marcos regime. My mother and father met in the mid-1970s when they were both working as trade union organisers, and were subsequently instrumental in the social democratic movement that fought against the dictatorship. In 1978, my father was imprisoned for the first time for taking part in street protests against electoral fraud. Two years later, he was charged with conspiring to assassinate President Ferdinand Marcos. My parents spent months on the run trying to escape arrest, moving from one town to another and seeking refuge with sympathetic relatives and friends. Eventually they were caught by Marcos’s soldiers and incarcerated for one month in a military prison before the Jesuits from Ateneo de Manila University intervened, threatening to close down the campus unless they were granted custody of my parents and other social democratic activists. They remained in captivity for a year, along with my older sister, who was one year old at the time.
My parents were luckier than most other victims of the Marcos dictatorship. Many were tortured and raped, or brought to military camps and disappeared. When the Marcoses were forced out of power in 1986, my parents were both involved in the country’s difficult and often disheartening transition to democracy after two decades of authoritarian rule.
Salvaging this unwanted clock in 2010 was the beginning of an ongoing process of reimagining recent history through its residue, and through that process trying to understand how a violent dictatorship, once overwhelmingly rejected, could be politically absolved and even reassume power. This inquiry is even more pressing in 2018. Ferdinand Marcos has since been re-interred as a national hero and the current political dispensation in the Philippines has made forgetting a state-sponsored activity.
In hindsight, the return of Imelda Marcos was perhaps inevitable, and the qualities that describe the seashell clock are perhaps the same qualities that Imelda wholeheartedly embraced in order to endear herself to a traumatised and forgetful public. As a ridiculous rococo figurine, the clock serves as the unlikeliest symbol of a returning dictatorship. By trivialising herself as an absurd and ostentatious figure, Imelda Marcos gained absolution for her crimes.
In 1990, during her trial for fraud and racketeering in New York City, Imelda presented herself as nothing more than a well-loved wife, lavished with expensive presents by a devoted husband. Her performance as a naive and distraught widow was sensational. She repeatedly broke down in tears as the prosecution presented evidence of bank transactions and shell companies that allowed her to use the Philippine national treasury as a personal piggy bank, amassing jewellery, works of art, and real estate. At one point, Imelda collapsed in the middle of the trial and was later strapped to a portable blood-pressure monitor, which would gurgle loudly every time her blood pressure rose.
Unfortunately, her performance also proved convincing. After a three-month trial, Imelda Marcos was acquitted of all charges. The jury decided that the late Ferdinand Marcos looted the Philippine treasury without the explicit knowledge of his wife, despite her previous roles as minister of human settlements and governor of Manila. Immediately after the verdict, she headed to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and proceeded to creep down the entire aisle to the altar on her knees. After the acquittal, there were no longer any legal impediments to bar Imelda’s return to the Philippines, and on 4 November 1991, an unrepentant Imelda Marcos landed in Manila, just under six years after being chased out the country.
I recently came across an American comedy programme called On the Television, which was produced around the same time as the trial. In a sketch entitled ‘Our Maid Imelda’, Mrs Marcos ends up as an inept servant for a wealthy Beverly Hills couple after her fall from grace. The still lacquer-haired Maid Imelda bumbles through her new job, bemoaning her fate in a cod Oriental accent that would put Mickey Rooney to shame, while breaking plates and racking up phone bills with mysterious calls to Switzerland. In one scene, Maid Imelda is cleaning a wardrobe when her employer enters the room; as she stands up, her employer’s shoes spill out from underneath her bejewelled apron. Cue laugh track.
The portrait of Imelda in popular culture as the consummate shoe fetishist served as the perfect diversion as she sought to expunge the Marcoses’ fraudulent legacy from collective memory. When she opened a footwear museum near Manila in 2001, she explained to a delighted crowd that people ‘went into [her] closets looking for skeletons, but . . . all they found were shoes, beautiful shoes’. The catalogue of the Marcos regime’s abuses was subject to one final insult—an estimated ten billion US dollars of plundered wealth, 3,257 executions, and 35,000 torture victims were all conveniently shoved into one of Imelda’s stilettoes.
I first exhibited Imelda’s seashell clock at my MFA show in June 2012, as part of an installation entitled 1986–2010. Taking the form of a museological display, the work was a collection of found and made objects pertaining to the fall and rise of the Marcos regime—anecdotes as artefacts. For me, it also served as a way of remembering my first experience of a museum; an experience irrevocably tied to the dictatorship. For a number of years after the 1986 revolution, the basement of the presidential palace was turned into a provisional museum. As a six-year-old on my first school trip, I vividly remember walking through endless rows of mahogany shelves and tabletops, each one spilling over with things: ornaments, perfume bottles, clothing, and the infamous pairs of shoes. When these remnants were packed away in the early 1990s, the urgency to remember and commemorate one of the darkest chapters of Philippine history seemed to go with it.
My exhibition was held around the period of the so-called Arab Spring. As triumphant images of Libyan rebels posing next to Muammar Gaddafi’s gilt mermaid sofa spread across the globe, there was a growing consensus that the age of the flamboyant despot was over. The political return of the Marcoses was a manageable fluke, as the rest of the world was evidently moving in a more democratic direction powered by the transparency of the World Wide Web.
Six years later, what was never going to happen again seems like it will be happening from now on. Democracy is now imperilled by the very same thing that made it seem inevitable, and the epidemic of tacky gilt sofas has spread from Malacañan Palace to the White House.
It is worth stating that 40 Wall Street, one of the Manhattan properties purchased by the Marcoses, ended up falling into the tiny hands of Donald Trump.
Cue laugh track.
This article was originally published on Podium, M+ Stories.
Pio Abad is a Filipino artist living and working in London. He began his art studies at the University of the Philippines before receiving a BA from Glasgow School of Art and an MA from the Royal Academy Schools, London. He has participated in exhibitions at Art Basel Encounters, Hong Kong (2017); Para Site, Hong Kong (2017); Kadist, Paris (2017); Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow (2016); 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney (2016); EVA International, Limerick (2016); e-flux, New York City (2015); Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong (2015); Museum of Contemporary Art and Design Manila (2015); Gasworks, London (2014) and Jorge B. Vargas Museum, Manila (2014).