Glasgow International Festival of Contemporary Art

Deciphering Dazzler: A deep dive into Pio Abad’s exhibition for Glasgow International 2012

Ella Williamson

This essay is authored by Ella Williamson, a Glasgow-based curator and writer who is in the last year of her MLitt in Curatorial Practice at Glasgow School of Art. Ella completed a placement at Glasgow International in Spring 2024, including working to develop and conduct research in the festival’s archive. We invited Ella to produce a text built on her research into the archive, and its connections to themes and practices in Glasgow International 2024. She chose to write about Pio Abad’s exhibition Dazzler at Glasgow International 2012.

Front view of a figure wearing a swimming costume with one foot resting on a sphere. The walls of the interior have a patterned wallpaper.
Rear view of a figure wearing a swimming costume with one foot resting on a sphere. In the back ground is a shop window looking on to a street. The walls of the interior have a patterned wallpaper.

Image captions: Pio Abad, Dazzler, The Duchy, Glasgow International 2012

What do Bo Derek, Disco, and the US military have in common? Surprisingly, not a bizarre crossover episode of a 1970s sitcom. Instead, it’s Turner Prize nominee Pio Abad’s 2012 exhibition Dazzler. Dazzler, presented at The Duchy as part of Glasgow International’s 5th edition, was characteristic of Abad’s early work with an energetic maximalism reminiscent of the vibrancy of his aunt Pacita Abad’s paintings. Abad was lucky enough to be influenced both by his aunt's practice and his parents' background of political activism – with their involvement in the People Power Revolution that led to the end of President Ferdinand Marcos’s corrupt dictatorship of the Philippines in 1986. This richness of experience has galvanised Abad’s own practice, from his Hermès inspired silk scarves featuring motifs of the Marcos era, to his more recent work, including his 2024 exhibition at The Ashmolean, where he reappropriates diasporic objects in post-colonial protest. 2012’s Dazzler is no different in its archaeological documentation of imperialism.

Dazzler can be treated as a visual display of modern etymology. Each element of the installation is rooted in its title, drawing together seemingly unrelated concepts and figures, as Abad interrogates the historical permutations of a single word and its implications. Dazzler firstly refers to dazzle camouflage, developed during World War One by female students at the Royal Academy (where Abad completed his MFA) and later adopted by the United States Navy. The pattern was conceived as an alternative to traditional camouflage – instead of attempting to blend naval ships in with their surroundings, the pattern was meant to ‘dazzle’ enemies, the ships disguised with geometric illusory patterns meant to disorientate and confuse. Abad’s wallpaper becomes his own interpretation, a reclaiming of military tactics to reveal obfuscated connections and associations.

The second ‘dazzler’ of the show is represented by the life-size mannequin of actress Bo Derek in her often-parodied role in 1979’s ‘10’. Dazzler is also the name of a Marvel superhero conceived in the same year – a mutant who converts sonic energy into beams of light to temporarily blind people. In her original manifestation, the ‘Disco Dazzler’ was an African American woman created in the image of Grace Jones, as Marvel sought to capitalise off the success of disco music in the mainstream. Of course, Marvel executives later redesigned the heroine as white and blonde, dropping ‘Disco’ from her name, and envisioning a Bo Derek feature film adaptation. These decisions were likely a reaction to the so-called death of disco, prompted by 1979’s Disco Demolition Derby. Disgruntled radio DJ Steve Dahl – upset by disco getting more airtime than good old American rock ‘n’ roll – organised the event, encouraging audiences to exchange disco records for discounted tickets to a baseball game. The attendees didn't just ‘donate’ disco records, they began to turn in any records made by Black artists. At the end of the night, a dumpster of records was detonated, in an act of post segregation, ethnic cleansing of American pop culture, preluding Reagan era politics. Bo Derek (mannequin edition) stands with her foot atop a disco ball lying in a pile of dirt, a symbol of white nationalism and the oppression of marginalised communities. 

The third ‘dazzler’ is a reference to the United States army’s non-lethal weapon, bizarrely similar to the powers of the Dazzler superhero, but perhaps not so surprising when you learn Marvel has documented ties with the Pentagon and the Department of Defence. The weapon uses intense direct radiation to temporarily blind and disorientate enemy soldiers. Dazzler and its concerns with militarism stem from the US’s history of global military intervention, with the weapon debuted during the Iraq war, one of the US’s countless controversial invasions. Abad gazes indirectly at the Philippines, by proxy of the United States, who colonised the island nation between 1898 and 1946 and continued to intervene for long afterwards. Ferdinand Marcos – the ex-dictator of the Philippines – and his wife Imelda became close with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, keeping regular correspondence throughout their rule and their subsequent exile to Hawaii, exile granted by the Reagan administration. In fact, Abad’s 2019 solo exhibition, Kiss the Hand You Cannot Bite, interrogates this relationship, with a Carrera marble slab inscribed with a letter from Nancy Reagan to Imelda Marcos, ensuring the Marcos' safety in the United States. Abad’s act of preservation of a shrouded history makes permanent the complicity, destruction, and meddling of the Reagans and the US military in the Philippines, and on a larger geopolitical level. Enzo Camacho and Ami Lien’s exhibition Offerings for Escalante, presented at Glasgow International 2024, is centred around the 1985 Escalante massacre on the island of Negros and further explores the complicated history of the Philippines, addressing the collective trauma of imperial brutality.

In the back room of The Duchy, Pio Abad exhibited a framed pair of lacy underwear, adorned with the US Republican party’s elephant logo – perhaps a sign of the scale at which political and military ideology runs rampant. Militarism and its effects are ever present in every domain of culture. From the repeating patterns of a wallpaper, to a mannequin of an actress from the '80s, and even a pair of political panties, Dazzler can be whittled down to the idolatry and cultural dominance of a corrupt military superpower and the ever lasting legacy of their global interference. Abad reveals the layers of deceit and redirection that serve to protect the true intentions of this military power, utilising a method of concurrent concealing and unveiling, that becomes richer with each stratum that is peeled away. Dazzler artfully picks apart these entangled connections, all synchronously tied to a single word, a word that uncovers the dark aftermaths of coloniality.