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How do we productively map the historical and contemporary relationships that exist between North Africa, the Middle East and the Global South?

Pio Abad
6 November 2014

Oh! Oh! Oh! (A Universal History of Iniquity)


The Cultural Centre of the Philippines opened to great political fanfare on 10 September 1969, with a ceremony that was graced by none less than California Governor Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy acting on the orders of President Nixon. Sitting on 77 hectares of reclaimed land along Manila Bay, the Cultural Centre was designed by the modernist architect Leandro Locsin as the nucleus of Imelda Marcos' vision for 'A New Society' – the rebirth of the Philippine nation under her and Ferdinand's auspices. In her speech during the opening ceremony, Imelda proclaimed the Cultural Centre as 'our Parthenon built at a time of hardship, a spring-source of our people's living conviction on the oneness of our heritage… a place where the Filipino can discover the soul of his people, and relate the saga of his race to the vast human experience that begins in the past and advances into the limitless future'.[1]


This vast collection of modernist buildings would eventually encompass The Theatre of Performing Arts, The Folk Arts Theatre, the Philippine International Convention Centre, The National Film Theatre, The Philippine Centre for International Trade and Expositions, The Philippine Trade Pavilions, numerous hotels and a lavish guesthouse constructed entirely out of coconuts. It was designed to play host to various cultural and economic spectacles intended to distract the public from the less savoury manifestations of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos' particular brand of conjugal dictatorship, which they (and Washington) had ludicrously rephrased as 'democratic authoritarianism.'


Democracy as mere gesture[2] became characteristic of the cultural initiatives that flourished under Imelda's regime. The co-optation of the International Style was in deference to the American architectural model for development despite public pronouncements of nationalist self-realization. Conceptualism became the preferred mode of art production. It served the dual purpose of resembling critique and institutionally sidelining the more activist social realist movement. A paradoxical situation emerged where an avant-garde scene flourished with the full backing of a military dictatorship. Under a veneer of progress was an artistic world without alternatives.


A tessellated slice of this episode in Philippine history provides the basis for Oh! Oh! Oh! (A Universal History of Iniquity), a piece I made specifically for Market Forces: A Friction of Opposites, a group exhibition at the Osage Gallery staged alongside the inaugural Art Basel Hong Kong in 2013. Here, a repeated image of the Philippine International Convention Centre's Locsin chandelier forms a wallpaper pattern that serves as the backdrop for another history to play out. A series of ersatz gold plastic bottles, drenched as much in architectural bathos as the sweet scent of cheap perfume, are arranged into an impoverished tableau of Middle Eastern progress (specifically, Dubai). A golden camel, followed by a blunt scimitar, a stock Orientalist palace bedecked in plastic rubies, then the Burj Al Arab and culminating in the Burj Khalifa rebranded as a perfume called 'Highest'. These supposedly aspirational objects, in reality purchased from street markets frequented by immigrants in East London, present another narrative of progress as mere performance.


I wanted to consider these two problematic histories of cultural progress within the increasingly hyperactive creative economy emerging in Hong Kong, itself another 'free zone' subject to the tightening grasp of the powers that be in Beijing. By diminishing these architectural representations, modernity as wallpaper, monumentality as cheap perfume, the installation phrases the argument in ergonomic terms. Amidst kaleidoscopic exuberance and gilt plastic sheen is the dawned realization that democracy as mere semblance has transcended geopolitical boundaries and infiltrated even the recesses of the domestic space.  



[1] Sanctuary of the Filipino Soul, remarks delivered the First Lady, Imelda Romualdez Marcos, at the formal dedication of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, 10 September 1969.

[2] Patrick Flores, 'Total Community Response': Performing the Avant-garde as a Democratic Gesture, unpublished.

Pio Abad

grew up in Manila and is now 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 had solo exhibitions at the Zabludowicz Collection, London; PLAZAPLAZA, London and the Duchy Gallery as part of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. He recently took part in group shows at the Mackintosh Museum, Glasgow; Osage Gallery, Hong Kong; 68 Square Metres, Copenhagen; Green Papaya Art Projects, Manila and Whitechapel Gallery, London.

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