If you’ve ever left anything on the bus or tube in London, it’s probably ended up in Baker Street. Behind an inconspicuous doorway on the main road is the TfL Lost Property office, a small, benign, clerical space where you pay a fiver to retrieve your belongings. What most people don’t get to see is beneath this room: three floors of expansive, dark warehouse space crammed to the brim with reams and reams of stuff. Umbrellas, coats, bags, crutches, toys, shoes, shopping trolleys, phones, trinkets and general miscellaneous tat; thousands of things, which are sifted through, categorised and meticulously stored in London’s attic.
In this bizarre environment, London-based Filipino artist Pio Abad has chosen to focus his work for Art on the Underground, TfL’s art commissioning and curatorial arm. Selected to create a Night Tube map cover, Pio naturally gravitated towards the Lost Property office due to his borderline obsessive interest in archives and inventories, what they say about collective memory and how they mirror culture.
“I’ve always been drawn to the history of domestic things,” he explains as we sit amid the shelves full of labelled items, next to a spiral slide where newly arriving lost property piles up. “The domestic things often end up telling more political narratives.”
One of his most recognisable works, Not a Shield, but a Weapon, exemplifies this notion: a collection of 180 counterfeit replicas of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag, displayed in rows like a military parade. It shines a light on Thatcher’s “problematic legacy in the unlikeliest of places”, the city of Marikina in the Philippines, once a thriving hub of leather production which suffered dramatically when trade restrictions were eased in the early 90s.
Another example is the Notes on Decomposition series of ink drawings he exhibited at Glasgow’s CCA in 2015, depicting an catalogue of items from auctions, but not just any auctions – ones with a contentious narrative, such as the leftovers from the collapse of the Lehman Brothers bank. Alongside the drawings was a detailed list of the items and how much they sold for.
His subject for the Night Tube map purposely isn’t political (“a lot of my stuff is quite heavy so it was an excuse to do something fun” he smiles) but relates to his existing work in its examination of the history of objects “and what that tells about us”.
“There’s a contemporary archaeology of things,” he says. “You can’t get a more honest portrait of London at this specific moment than the TfL Lost Property. Museums are, in essence, filled with objects people left behind, and this place is the same, except it evolves, it’s a living archive.” Only holding three months’ worth of items at a time, the Lost Property is more organic than a museum, Pio says. “It’s a portrait in real-time.”
Faced with an overwhelming amount of societal detritus, Pio decided to depict one key item he found among the mountains of lost things: a huge stuffed gorilla named Eddie, wearing a Hawaiian shirt. “Eddie was found between 1995 and 2005 and has become a sort-of mascot for the Lost Property,” he explains. “I wanted to focus on one oddity rather than encompass the world through this project. Plus, when we found him I just couldn’t resist. It’s a perfect image for the Night Tube!”
Pio grew up in Manila in the Philippines, before moving to Glasgow in 2004 to study painting at the school of art, and then London to study for his master’s at the Royal Academy. In the last few years he’s exhibited at London’s Gasworks (where his studio is based), e-flux in New York and the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, his work taking on many forms with one underlying theme of inventory.
“I’m always trying to find ways to tell stories, and often the best way is through things we can relate to in proportion to ourselves, as opposed to a sweeping portrait. Generally I’ve made postcards, scarves, wallpaper, bags, CCTV cameras, things we see every day. The job of the artist is to see them differently, and offer new insight.”
“A lot of my work involves researching in archives and storage areas of museums where they keep the domestic things deemed not important enough for official displays. I guess that’s also why I ended up here,” he says, looking around the TfL warehouse.
He refers to Song Dong’s Waste Not exhibition at the Barbican in 2012, wherein the Chinese artist scrupulously presented 10,000 everyday objects from plastic bottles and magazines to toothbrushes and TVs collected over decades by his mother, who was a hoarder. “In some ways it was an intimate portrait of his mother, but on the other hand contained the world. There’s a universality to one person’s belongings.”
An ongoing project has seen him gather a visual inventory of objects owned by the Marcoses, the dictators of the Philippines from the 1960s–1980s. “As someone who grew up in Manila, you heard about the outrageous lives they led but you were never privy to it, because, that’s how power is right? You hear about it but you never see it.” He recently produced Counternarratives, a series of drawings and sculptures further analysing the Marcos dictatorship and how its history is quickly “unraveling” through images that “reflect on acts of mythmaking, monumentalising and forgetting”.
In a more graphical outlet for his fixation with cultural leftovers, Pio has also produced multiple collections of silk scarves. One series, Every Tool is a Weapon if you Hold it Right, features silk printed with ink drawings of everyday objects such as disposable razors, shoes, toothbrushes, watches, combs and keys. A seemingly idle collection that tells a much bigger story. “I discovered this photobook of things left behind in the Balkans conflict,” he says. “It’s bleak territory, but I found it fascinating. So the scarves started with that, but have expanded to encompass my Marcos archive, then my dad’s seashell collection… they’ve become like sketchbook pages, as well as personal inventories.” The application onto silk scarves was borne from his RA days. “Having a studio in Piccadilly on my MA, you inevitably walk down Bond Street, and I would see these scarves every day – like Walter Benjamin looking in. I noticed the scarves would tell specific stories, like the colonial exploits of France or Native American history, all in a Hermes shop window. So I began to translate my still lifes on to silk, to tell their own stories, on a medium that has a context of its own.”
By taking the objects out of context and presenting them in this format, Pio hopes the viewer sees beyond the familiar object and further, to its wider context. “For me, there’s a link between making inventories and remembering, or the process of remembering. I always think of zooming in and zooming out, which is essentially what inventories are. I’d like people to see these objects as a system of relationships; that within one thing there are so many histories.”