(The National Post, 3 May 2016)
Last week, the front of the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York erupted into a gigantic billboard. It was a light projection from a truck at ground level, a fairly common art technique these days, but it had nothing to do with art shown at the museum. In fact, it was unauthorized by anyone connected with the Guggenheim and not at all pleasing to its directors.
Upper-case letters screamed two visual messages, ULTRALUXURY ART and ULTRA LOW WAGES. It was an attempt to shame the Guggenheim and its plans for a new museum, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
This project will be the fourth Guggenheim franchise, after the original snail-shaped building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum on the Grand Canal in Venice, and Frank Gehry's Bilbao in Spain.
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will rise on Saadiyat Island, a tourist attraction that sounds like a World's Fair that will run permanently. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, authorized by the original in Paris, will be another of the attractions.
The Guggenheim Foundation and the city of Abu Dhabi are to be partners in the new museum. Abu Dhabi will receive the benefit of some expertise, the distinction of the Guggenheim name, and the kind of international recognition that Qatar acquired when it won the right to stage the 2022 World Cup. For renting out its brand, the Guggenheim will receive a substantial pile of oil money.
The unauthorized projection on Fifth Avenue was an attempt to publicize the labour practices of Abu Dhabi and persuade the Guggenheim to demand that they be amended. The Middle East is endlessly discussed but most people in the West know little about the all-too-common mistreatment of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Artists usually lobby for professional benefits, like increases in grants to cultural agencies, but in this case they are concerning themselves with the troubles of people working half a world away.
Like most of the UAE, Abu Dhabi is suspected of underpaying its workers and otherwise mistreating them. Human Rights Watch and scores of other nongovernment organizations detail the abuse of migrant construction workers in the region. Governments do all they can to keep foreign organizations from studying the construction sites; police ban every journalist who sets out to interview workers.
By all accounts the workers are among the most hopeless on earth.
They are there to send money home for their families, which means no chance to build savings. Just to get the job many go into debt at the beginning for a recruitment fee of $2,000. They can't leave till they pay it back, which makes them prisoners.
The involvement of Gulf states in cultural enterprises and the welcome they get from institutions in the West raise moral questions. Should museums collaborate with the dubious practices of Gulf government? Should artists?
Artists in several countries have been talking lately about ethical questions. Many of their activities are chronicled by an online publication, Hyperallergic.com, self-described as a forum "for serious, playful and radical thinking about art in the world today." A typical article is headed "Remembering Art's Role in Social Change." A similar organization called CultureStrike claims it "empowers artists to dream big, disrupt the status quo, and envision a truly just world rooted in shared humanity." It campaigns for immigrant workers in the U.S. and the employees of Walmart.
Artists have long cherished the idea of playing a direct role in the affairs of the world. So far it's more intention than reality. They haven't yet managed the Hollywood strategy of persuading big names to make their points.
The Gulf Labor Artist Coalition was responsible for the projections at the Guggenheim, along with their associates in G.U.L.F (Global Ultra Luxury Faction).
A current book, The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor, edited by Andrew Ross, a New York University sociologist and founder of the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, defines the class structure of the Gulf: "The opulent lifestyle of a minority - composed of citizens and corporate expats - is maintained by a vast majority (up to 90 per cent in the UAE and Qatar) who function as a servant class, with no rights and very little mobility, and whose compliant labor is secured through the fear of abuse."
Led by Human Rights Watch, more than 90 rights groups, many from the workers' countries of origin, signed a call for reforms of labour policies in the UAE. Abu Dhabi replied that a new law was recently passed to improve the rights of workers. The rights groups say that construction companies don't follow rules Abu Dhabi previously set up, so there's no reason to think they'll abide by new restrictions. Apparently the Gulf states will continue to deserve careful attention.