Unexpected views: Pio Abad on Gerrit Willemsz Heda’s ‘Still Life’ | National Gallery


My name is Pio Abad. My work looks at the social
and political life of things. I’m interested in the idea of objects
as networks of relationships, carrying interwoven histories
of incidents, ideologies and people. I work in a range of media, from sculpture to installation,
to textiles, photography and drawing, in order to recreate forgotten artefacts and to imagine possibilities
of social justice. It’s absolutely brilliant to see
so many of you here this evening in the depth of the National Gallery, otherwise known as Gallery A, for the next in our series
of Unexpected Views talks. My name is Priyesh Mistry. I’m the Associate Curator
for Modern and Contemporary Projects here at the National Gallery. And I wanted to quickly introduce
the series. The Unexpected Views are a great way for us to invite artists
into the National Gallery to choose a work from the collection and use it as a way to explore
some of the themes and ideas in that work that might relate to their own practice
in some way. Before I introduce today’s artist, I wanted to first thank Hiscox for their sponsorship of the evening as the National Gallery’s
Contemporary Art Partner. Without their support, we wouldn’t be able
to hold events like this or record it
and have the recording go online and be enjoyed by everybody for evermore. So, without further ado, I would like to introduce tonight’s speaker. I’m very pleased
to be introducing Pio Abad. Pio lives and works in London, having first studied Art
at the University of the Philippines, before continuing
at the Glasgow School of Art, and then his MA
at the Royal Academy Schools just up the road in Piccadilly. Over the past five years, Pio has exhibited
in numerous galleries internationally, including, I’m going to list quite a few
because Pio travels the world, the Moscow Art Museum of Modern Art, Para Site in Hong Kong, the Centre for Contemporary Art
in Glasgow, Gasworks in London, for which the exhibition
we’ll talk about today, and most recently in KADIST
in San Francisco. Pio has also participated
in major international exhibitions, such as EVA International Biennial
in Limerick in 2016, the Gwangju Biennale in 2018 and the Honolulu Biennial
in Hawaii just last year. He’s currently showing in Dubai
at the Jameel Arts Centre with an exhibition called
the ‘Phantom Limb’. And, as many artists, Pio wears many hats, so Pio also teaches at Goldsmiths
at the Art Department and is also a curator and has co-curated a fantastic exhibition
of his late aunt’s work, Pacita Abad, at Spike Island in Bristol. So, I do encourage you all
to go to Bristol if you can’t get to Dubai
in the next week. -Or both.
-Or both. Yeah, I mean, I’m sure there
are flights from Bristol to Dubai. Pio’s practice is concerned
with the complex histories behind objects, often unpacking the social
and political resonances of these objects through the collections
in which they reside or places that they have occupied. Working in a range of media
to include textiles, drawings, installation, photography and sculpture, his artworks originate from research into the alternate or repressed accounts
of historical events, drawing out the threads or connections and complicity between incidents,
ideologies and people. Please join me in welcoming Pio
for our conversation this evening in which we’ll be exploring
some of these ideas. Thank you. So, firstly, I want to ask Pio: why did you
firstly bring us down to Gallery A? But also, why did you choose this work? So, this work is
a 17th-century Dutch painting by the artist Gerrit Willemsz Heda. We know very little about him, but it’s an intriguing painting. So, why did you choose this? I think when you invited me
to do this talk, initially, I already knew that I wanted to have this conversation
here at Gallery A, not just because
it’s the hardest gallery to find and it keeps things interesting, but I spent quite a lot of time
in this gallery when I was preparing
for my exhibition at Gasworks, as you mentioned, in 2014. And that exhibition
actually became foundational in terms of how my practice has developed
over the last five or six years. I was really interested in this idea of
this space being a museum within a museum. I think at that time it had just opened. I think my show at Gasworks opened in
September and this gallery opened in June, so it was just the right time
to provide a little bit of inspiration towards the end of producing that show. And, as you can see, the gallery has, you know,
this collection of work and it’s actually… the collection
kind of functions as a summary of the museum’s 400-year-old collection. And I found that really interesting, this idea of one room being a summary of the larger institution. But also, there’s a reason
why the paintings here haven’t made it to the main galleries, and there’s multiple reasons. One is, you know,
the paintings here would have been made in the studios of the Old Masters
rather than by the Old Masters themselves, or they’re considered secondary work
by the Old Masters, or they’re kind of in the midst of transit as they’re about to go on loan
or they’re about to return to the museum. So, I’m really drawn to that circulation, but also this idea that all of these historical paintings
are considered minor works. And I think as we talk more about my work, you realise how invested I am,
and my practice is, in minor histories. And also there’s something about this idea of thinking about the museum as
a play and these are all the understudies, so we’re watching a play
performed by the understudies, this is something interesting too. It’s really interesting, then,
that when we were walking round, you landed on this painting
as a still life, because, in a way, still lifes, particularly
17th-century Dutch still lifes, were made of a group of objects that an artist would have put together. So, again, this idea of bringing together
a set of players in order to kind of create a composition and create some sort of narrative, often a narrative about,
as vanitas scenes are, this idea that our worldly goods are temporary and we shouldn’t be putting… It’s a morality story in a way, that we shouldn’t be putting
all our passions into these… -To one thing.
-…into these worldly goods. One thing that drew you to the painting
was particularly the focus of the work. So, the title of this work
is ‘Still Life with a Nautilus Cup’. I wonder if you could talk a little bit
about your choice of this painting. Well, I’ve always been seduced
by Dutch still-lifes. There’s something about
these sort of different, exquisitely-rendered surfaces
kind of tumbling into each other. You have like this sort of silk fabric
pouring into the gold surface, pouring into what looks like
a bit of fish. And so there’s this interplay
of different surfaces, but, again, like underneath that surface is kind of a much less triumphant history. There’s a reason why museums in Amsterdam have decided to stop using
the phrase “Golden Age” when they refer to paintings
made from this period because this phrase, Golden Age, actually negates
the history of subjugation, histories of oppression
that have actually allowed Dutch art and culture
to flourish during that time. So, that kind of interplay
between surface and also politics was something that drew me
to the painting. But also, you have this sort of quite
ridiculous object right in the middle, which is this nautilus cup, and it’s called a cup
but it’s never actually used for anything. It would be commissioned
by Dutch merchants to put in their cabinets of curiosities. So, it never actually performs a function. But again, looking deeper into the material of the objects,
you have a nautilus shell, which would have been found by Dutch ships floating along the seas of Indonesia,
Philippines, Malaysia. And then you have silver,
in this case it will be gilt silver, which would have been culled, which would have been taken
from mines in South America. So, this history of extraction being contained
into this ridiculous object is something quite appealing but also disturbing,
but also weirdly contemporary. We’re trying to understand
all of these relationships now and trying to place ourselves within this quite complicated, often violent history. So, yeah, that was the draw. It’s interesting because nautilus cups
in Dutch still life, particularly in this time, are really common,
so, actually, in any museum you would go to across America or Europe and you see, you know, a Dutch still life, chances are they’ll have a painting
with a nautilus cup in it. And it became this kind of symbol,
I think, of the wealth that was really
being celebrated at the time, the kind of connections
that the merchant trade was having with the rest of the world. So, by pulling together these materials,
you know, and also this idea of having
something very natural with something very man-made, as well this idea
that you could create something that might come to represent what a Dutch identity might be
around that time, I think is also really interesting. I wanted to just touch a little bit
on your work, in the way that your work operates
in sort of a similar way. So, here… …these objects are kind of made, so you have the shell,
which is seen as something very exotic, and then you have the gilt silverwork that’s kind of made, to make it
into sort of this trophy or this cup, and then it’s celebrated
yet again by being painted. So, there’s a sort of act of translation
that’s happening there. It’s interesting to look
at this more closely because, actually,
I think this is far more extravagant than any of the other nautilus cups
that you might see in the other paintings
or that exist in museums. It’s just far more lavish. So, I wonder if there’s
another act of fantasy that Heda is doing here, you know. There’s this sort of level
of it trying to achieve realism, -but then also going, perhaps, beyond…
-It’s a translation. And you also do that in your work. I think there’s an interesting,
you know, your… …project where you look at collections, and then often take those objects and kind of translate them
into other media. So, everybody has a postcard
on their chairs. I wondered if you might be able
to talk a little bit about the postcards, but also the larger project
that that’s related to. I think that the word lavish
is sort of a key aspect of how I make work
and how I choose objects that then become part of my work. But, again, there’s always
the scratching underneath that sort of well varnished
or kind of polished surface. And I think that’s when the interest
in working with collections come in. I mean, talking about the postcards
that everyone got in their seats, Oprah Winfrey style… One, the sort of… I guess the project that I started
at Gasworks in that show in 2014 and the project I’m continuing up to now concerns this particular collection that actually has all these histories. It has histories of Old Masters, it has kind of gilt silverware, it has very expensive fine jewellery, but then it tries to refract that
through a particular lens. And, for me, that particular lens
is Philippine history. I grew up in Manila. I mean, I’ve been living in the UK
for the last 15 years, but my formative years
were in the Philippines. And so much of that time was shaped by the dictatorship
of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, who, if you’ve been reading the news,
are back. Well, Ferdinand is not,
but Imelda definitely is. And I think that’s when
the project takes a turn away from just being interested
in the form of the objects, but looking at the politics
underneath them. This phrase from Walter Benjamin
comes to mind and it also relates really well
to the nautilus cup, that all documents of civilisation
are documents of barbarism, and that certainly is true of the collection
that the Marcoses put together. So, for the last 10 years, I’ve actually been researching
through auction catalogues, through government archives,
through the back rooms of museums, trying to put together this collection
that they’d amassed during their time in power. And recently that’s taken another turn because they’ve come
back into power, so… …you start talking about the past, but, suddenly, the works have
a different urgency, like, by putting together this collection, you’re actually also putting together
a body of evidence. Yeah. And then, through that research and through that accumulation
of trying to piece together what this collection might have been like or… so a lot of these kind of objects are now sort of out in the world or have been reclaimed or auctioned off, but there’s also parts of the collection
which are still unknown or still kind of missing. How does that come through in the way that you present
and create your installations? So, for example,
if we can talk about the postcards. So, the postcards feature images of different works by an Old Master in their collection. Where do the images come from? And what are the texts
on the back of them? So, the images are
from a single catalogue. So, after the Marcoses
were kicked out of office, Christie’s helped the revolutionary
government in the Philippines put together what was left
of the Old Masters collection that was left in the presidential palace. So, they actually then,
through Christie’s, the revolutionary government
auctioned off these paintings, so Christie’s then produced
this catalogue from 1991. And I happened to come across it
in my research, and it was actually
the first time that I’d seen the extent of the Marcos collection. I think so much of… Imelda Marcos has been
kind of, sort of, jammed into… …you know, a pair of stilettos that you forget the body of the collection is so beyond anyone’s capacity to actually sort of lay them all out. So, the paintings that you are looking at are from this auction. So, they were the paintings that the
Marcoses had left behind when they fled, but the better ones,
so I think lucky ones would have had a… There’s an El Greco there and maybe a… I think there might be a Goya
in one of those postcards. But these were paintings that were
actually found in a yacht in Cannes. And the yacht was owned
by this Saudi businessman named Adnan Khashoggi, who, incidentally,
is the uncle of Jamal Khashoggi, so we talk about histories being repeated, and he was also very much involved
in the Iran-Contra scandal. So, you have all of these kind of
different histories of provenance coming into these paintings, and, interestingly,
that conversation about provenance happens again in this painting. So, when we were researching
about how this particular painting had come into
the National Gallery collection, we found out that it was donated by a certain,
I’m going to read his name… Where is this? Claud Dickison Roche, a gentleman who made his money
running rubber plantations in Malaysia and Sri Lanka. So, again, these objects are not… …innocent in any way. They’re the conduit but also the witnesses of histories
we’d rather not talk about. And what I think is really interesting, I want to bring it back
to the postcards again. So, when you show the postcards
in your exhibitions, you have them laid out in a rack and visitors are kind of free to come in and pick up the postcards. And what they do is,
you have them facing up, so you have them facing so that they might pick up
the images that they like. And then on the back
you have different narratives. And these are kind of quotations
from different… Yeah, these are quotations
usually taken from newspaper articles. So, they’re pertaining to how, either to how these paintings were found
or how they were acquired, so, you know, one of them, there’s one text there
where it talks about how back in the day Imelda Marcos
would go to Marlborough Gallery and say, “I need 20 post-impressionists
for a dinner tonight. Go.” And so, again, the act of collecting becomes something else completely. It’s an act of window dressing, but also becomes an act of imitation. It’s Imelda performing the role of being
a European, sort of, patron of the arts. And I think as you look at
the different texts and all the postcards you realise when you talk
about the Marcoses you’re only talking about,
you’re kind of entering… …a narrative kind of three-quarters in, that, actually, there is
a much larger history of empire. There’s a much larger history
of colonialism that this is all part of. And by turning them into postcards, I think, for me,
it becomes a way of kind of… …imagining restitution,
it’s never going to happen, but there’s a kind of like… …I guess there’s a defiance to it, but also there’s a kind of,
a sense of hopelessness to it as well that in the end, you know,
all we have are these postcards. Nothing is liquidated. No one is kind of punished for anything. So, it kind of…
I guess emotionally I kind of… I mean, I think we all do
at this particular political moment, there are mornings when you feel defiant and there are afternoons
when you feel less… And I think that’s sort of in the work and that’s kind of always been
a huge part of the practice. There’s something interesting
about this act of translating, in a way. So, same as the way that, you know, the nautilus cup
might have existed as an object and then get translated to a painting
and then celebrated and circulated much wider, so… …from an elite to a sort of
growing wealthy merchant class, and then you do this another step further. So, you take the images
from the auction catalogue, and then you produce these postcards,
which then can be sort of circulated, but also you do that with other objects
in different ways as well. So, you have kind of… there’s a project, I wonder if you could describe it more, where you’ve taken
Imelda Marcos’s jewellery and translated it into,
kind of, another form or kind of enlarged it
into another sculpture that might also reference something else, so like a body or something,
I wonder if you could talk about that. Yeah, I think a huge part of this project
has been reproduction and trying to find different ways
to reproduce, you know, turning images into objects
in a kind of formal way. And one of the projects
that is part of this kind of 10-year Marcos
reconstruction project is a project I’ve been doing with my wife,
Frances Wadsworth Jones, who, luckily, is a jewellery designer,
a very good one. And so we’ve been recreating Imelda Marcos’s jewellery as 3D prints. And it’s interesting
how that sort of happened because I got access
to the images of the jewellery. Again, there was supposed to be
an auction, but it never happened. This jewellery was photographed, but the photographs were never released, but I got access to it. But, because of
the current political climate, I couldn’t use the photographs. So, we went through this process
of what to do with it, and, in a way, the best solution was to actually transform them
and to reconstruct them digitally from single photographs. And so there is this process of actually
creating 3D files and then printing them, so, in a way,
they’re as printed as the postcards, it’s another way of printing. But then it talks about… …I think, if the postcards
are about distribution, there’s an element
of like ghostliness or spectrality to these objects, and that’s kind of… Yeah, that’s the current show
that we’re showing in Dubai. You know, like this… Yeah, reconstructing these luxurious items not just as evidence
but sort of strange effigies. I wondered also if, through this research and through the act of kind of translating
and presenting again this mass of objects, this quite lavish
and quite extraordinary collection, I mean, it makes me think about, well, why are the Marcoses
collecting in this way, you know? What does it mean at that
particular moment for the Philippines to have a ruling family
who are collecting Old Masters? There’s no sort of connection
in terms of heritage -in that way.
-No. So, what’s the draw? And it could be something
about aspiration, and I wondered, you know, in a way, that’s kind of how a lot of… …Dutch merchants
were also collecting these… -That’s how collections emerge, right?
-Yeah. This idea of aspiring to show wealth, exactly what
the vanitas still life paintings -are warning against.
-Yes. And that kind of comes into this idea of the sort of post-colonial narrative. Yeah, I was reading this description of imperialism
which was really interesting. It talked about imperialism as this process of disassociating well-documented objects from undocumented narratives and people. And I thought that was a quite a beautiful
way of basically summarising, you know, civilisation as we know it. And also quite… as a process, as a kind of photographic process,
or as an image-making process, it’s kind of an interesting challenge
to an artist that, you know, in a way… For me, making art is actually about asserting
these associations that so many institutions have tried
to put under the rug and silence, and there’s something there
about kind of image making and… yeah. OK. So, one of the interesting things
about this painting in the collection is that we don’t really know exactly if it was Gerrit Willemsz Heda
who actually painted it. And we’ve kind of come to that conclusion because… …because he worked
under his father’s studio. So, his father is Willem Claesz Heda, and, actually, the National Gallery
have work of his in the collection. Ironically, it’s shown upstairs because it’s kind of noted by many academics and colleagues
around the world that his works are of better quality. And it’s interesting because,
originally, I think this way work came in as one of his father’s,
but it got reattributed to his son. -Because it was painted…
-He wasn’t as good as painting silver. Possibly, I mean,
there’s a difference in quality, but I think there’s also
a difference in technique as well and the way that the images
are kind of composed. It brings me to mind
this idea of the workshop and the idea of the family relationship. You’ve already talked a little bit about the work that you make with your wife, but I also wanted to just touch
on the work that you’re doing to promote
your aunt’s work as well, and how you feel that comes
into your practice in some way. You know,
the kind of familial connections. Because, obviously, with the Marcoses, we’re also talking about a sort of family. It’s interesting that both the projects
that I have on now involve family, and interesting talking about this
painting in the context of that as well. And I think the way I see it is, you know, the role of family and my work
is kind of inseparable from how I grew up as a political person and how my art has developed
over the last few decades. And it’s interesting… …working on my aunt’s estate because it’s become
this kind of interesting process of running an artist’s estate
as artistic practice. And I don’t really see it
as separate in the same way that I don’t see collaborating
with my wife as separate from what I do. It’s sort of part of this, I guess, part of understanding
my role in the world and also part of telling the stories
that actually haven’t been told. So, then I’m going to bring it back
to your work again. So, we kind of touched on the… So, the greater project that you’ve
been working on in the past five years is called ‘The Collection
of Jane Ryan and William Saunders’. And this has always intrigued me, I mean, could you talk
a little bit about why the greater title
of the project is called that? And who are they? I think this goes back to me talking about the Marcos history as going into a story three quarters in. Jane Ryan and William Saunders
were actually the fake names that Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos used
to open Swiss bank accounts in the 60s. And so then,
you stop talking about their history just as a history of the Philippines. But then you start reading it in the context of capitalism,
of Empire, essentially, that you know, A, they chose these really bad American
sort of Hollywood names, and, B, that actually
it was this banking system that enabled them to amass this wealth, this system of shell companies, fake names, tax evasion. I mean, these are… …these are things that are happening now and have been happening before. So, the history of kind of impunity
and corruption and colonialism is something that, you know,
we’re still living. It’s not the past. It’s something that we need
to deal with in the present. So, just thinking about that in terms of sort of names and labels,
but also images, I think we’ve come to realise that,
actually, when we look at objects now, this is something that your work
does really effectively, that you are able
to really look at objects and know that there’s
these underlying histories to it. So, at once,
when you see sort of, you know, a huge collection of Old Masters
in the Marcoses’ collection, perhaps it’s kind of, on the one hand,
a sort of celebration of wealth, of culture, of civility, this idea of civility, but actually it comes to represent
something else. It’s this idea of sort
of aspirational precarity. I wonder if we can look back, then,
at the painting and think about the nautilus shell but also the other objects in this. So, it’s interesting kind of thinking
about your choice of this painting, thinking about your work,
but also then looking back at the kind of, you know, the gilt silver Nautilus cup
really stands out. It really kind of takes up
the central space in this painting. But for me now, with all the kind of… …the sort of, the knocked-over objects and the way that everything is
kind of put together in quite a rough way, it gives it a sort of sense of precarity. And I wondered
what your thoughts were on that? Well, I think that’s the interesting thing
about these compositions, it’s that they are these luxurious objects but they’re all in the process
of collapsing. And maybe, there’s a kind of…
this is over-reading the work perhaps, but there’s a kind of allegory
to the present, that the sort of… …the glitziest, the sort of loudest, but the most non-functioning element
in the work is the one taking up all the space. And I’m not going to… I don’t think
I need to explain it even further, but, you know, there’s reflections
in the current time we’re in, the kind of current
political climate we’re in, where, you know, you have these characters that are so colourful and so entertaining and so shiny but ultimately so lethal. Yeah. And there’s also something interesting
about the way that it signals to that merchant trade. You’ve got not only the nautilus shell,
which comes from afar and the gilt silver, but also you’ve got symbols of the sea,
so the salt and the fish. But everything else apart from the cup is in this state
where it’s kind of falling over or kind of spilling, so it’s something
that they kind of kept in, I think, I find this painting
really fascinating now because the cup is almost kind of
the thing that’s not the most stable, but yet I think it’s the most sort of… They all kind of gather around it. …complex, yeah. And almost kind of the most contradictory,
in a way, because of the fact
that it’s so sort of… …because it’s sort of not of,
you know, the Netherlands, not of that place. But I think that’s
a kind of interesting thing about, when you think about at that time the nautilus shell
would have been so fantastical, and silver, you know,
maybe would have been fairly new in terms, but the fact that it was turned
into something even more grotesque or even more fantastical, it’s like,
there’s so many layers of fantasy, but also maybe denial that kind of
was involved in producing the object. Actually, talking of the grotesque, it’s interesting to think
about the kinds of paintings that the Marcoses also acquired. And the kind of idea of where grotesque is in their collecting habits, but also actually in
the kind of result of the regime, you know, the kind of… …the kind of effects of it and the kind of repercussions
of it afterwards. I think we’re realising now
that maybe the grotesque, we think there’s a limit to it,
but we keep on finding that there’s a depth to the grotesque
that we didn’t know existed before. -Yeah.
-And that’s quite interesting. Yeah. Great. -So, please join me in thanking Pio…
-On that note. …on the note of the grotesque,
for joining us this evening. Thank you. Thank you for watching. If you’d like to know more,
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