Illustration by Belinda Chen.

Empire of Happiness

United Arab Emirates
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

“We are writing to let you know that the boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi remains in place,” asserts the latest communiqué by the Gulflabor Coalition (GC). The GC is an informal group of artists, myself included, who, along with another 1,300 signatories, have been campaigning for human rights and fair labor practices at the Guggenheim’s Saadiyat Island construction site in Abu Dhabi. It is here, in the United Arab Emirates, that a palatial Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum is expected to rise from desert sands, together with a new Louvre and a New York University (NYU) campus that is already open for business. Saadiyat Island hopes to emerge as a world-class cultural center well before the end of the decade, not only usurping Beirut as the new “Paris of the Middle East,” but also guaranteeing economic sustainability after oil supplies inevitably go dry. In the meantime, GC’s intervention has been made possible precisely thanks to this juncture of petrodollars and Western cultural capital.

GC’s public campaign began six months earlier, on March 16, which was also the opening day for both Art Dubai and the 10th Sharjah Biennial. Posted on iPetitions.com, signatories vowed to withhold support for the museum if it did not “obtain contractual guarantees that will protect the rights of workers employed in the construction and maintenance of its new branch museum in Abu Dhabi.” The Guggenheim responded in a letter posted on its website the next day, insisting “very important steps” taken over the previous six months demonstrated the museum’s commitment to human rights on Saadiyat Island. Before “going public” with the boycott letter in March, several members of GC had sought and failed to get an adequate response from the Guggenheim about its commitment to fair labor standards following the publication of a Human Rights Watch report focused on deplorable labor conditions in Abu Dhabi, including its “Island of Happiness”—Saadiyat Island. Within days some 1,100 additional signatures had been added to the online petition.

At stake are the rights of thousands of workers brought to the UAE from less developed countries, workers who must pay steep fees for the right to be employed, whose passports have been confiscated and whose involvement in activism or unions is met with harsh retribution. And no doubt pressure coming from GC has paid off. Following meetings with the museum’s curators and director, a visit to the island’s work camp by some GC members, as well as discussions with the Abu Dhabi Tourism Development and Investment Company, which manages the project in the UAE, the result has been the hiring of a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) labor monitor, publicly announced by the Guggenheim in June this year.

There are other issues: for instance, while the Guggenheim displayed strong support for the release of jailed Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei earlier this year, it has yet to comment on upcoming trials of prodemocracy activists in Abu Dhabi. Once again, a highly visible Western museum’s powerful voice could serve to support human rights in the latter case too.

GC may be the first moderately successful action organized by visual artists since the late 1960s when groups such as the Art Workers Coalition and the Guerrilla Art Action Group demanded rights for living artists, while publicly denouncing the unlawful war in Vietnam. Today, there is often skepticism in the art world about the level of commitment and self-critique, even among younger practitioners. However, the added value that artists give, and at times receive, from such institutions, is also open to question. Curator Okwui Enwezor noted this entanglement in a recent Artforum article, suggesting that GC misses the broader geopolitical intricacies by focusing its critique on the Guggenheim, and that this is more likely the swan song of 1968, rather than something akin to the Arab Spring. Yet, as I posted in response to Enwezor, his critique “should not take place at the expense of what is one of the few successful artist interventions in favor of human rights that we have witnessed for decades. Effectively, those who collectively prop up the museum’s global brand have demanded a small say in how this cultural legitimation is consumed.”

Although reminiscent of modernist utopian projects in the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s as much as Brasília in the 1960s—in which the avant-garde sought to inspire and transform the international working class through art and architecture—the highly capitalized Saadiyat Island experiment makes absolutely no pretense that those who construct this empire of privilege and culture will ever be permitted to participate in its happiness once completed. Perhaps with pressure from the art community that too will change?


After ArtAsiaPacific 76 went to press, the New York Times on October 24 reported further delays on the Guggenheim Museum project in the Emerati capital. The Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the state-run firm building the cultural district on Saadiyat Island, told the Associated Press construction has been temporarily halted after it recalled the tender for concrete work on the site due to a review of its tendering process, saying it will refund the money submitted by the 11 contractors as part of their tender process. Construction on the museum’s foundations has commenced, however the announcement rules out any further work on the site’s base and walls.

The review is closely related to difficult economic conditions in Abu Dhabi, which has been significantly affected by recent market instability, with property prices expected to fall as much as fifteen to twenty percent. Among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, its construction sector is one of the weakest, second only to Dubai. Hence, Abu Dhabi’s developers are re-evaluating construction contracts hoping for better value from the slowing companies.

TDIC has previously said the museum would open by 2013, and the Guggenheim has responded to this latest setback with repeated assurances that delays will not affect the future of the project. However, the latest information available from TDIC states that the Guggenheim opening will be pushed back to 2015; and despite assurances, there remains no indication when TDIC will again be accepting tenders, and hence when construction will recommence.