Saadiyat Island, or “Happiness Island,” is a luxury development under construction off the coast of Abu Dhabi, the capital and second-biggest city of the United Arab Emirates. When completed in 2020, the island will be home to New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, an outpost of the Louvre, and a branch of the Guggenheim designed by the starchitect Frank Gehry. The island will cost at least $27 billion and will also feature a golf course, malls, boutique hotels, and villas. Abu Dhabi has reportedly paid $520 million just to franchise the Louvre brand, and at least double that amount in management fees, art loans, and construction costs. (The deals with NYU and the Guggenheim, for which the UAE is also footing the bill, are confidential.) The work of building the island, like everything else in the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf, is being done by some of the millions of predominantly South Asian migrant construction workers who make up the majority of most of these countries’ populations. The average monthly pay of one of the workers employed to build Saadiyat is $177. In 2013, the salary of Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong was nearly $760,000.
These figures have been highlighted by a group called Gulf Labor, which was created by the Lebanese artist and Cooper Union professor Walid Raad, NYU professor Andrew Ross, and other artists and academics to shame the Guggenheim and the Emerati government into respecting international and domestic labor law. That would include refraining from confiscating workers’ passports, delaying their pay, or forcing them to work overtime or at the hottest hours of the day; not punishing and deporting them for making complaints or staging strikes; and not turning a blind eye to the coercive recruitment fees that workers pay in their countries of origin or when they arrive, and to the false promises that leave them heavily indebted for years.
Gulf Labor has now produced The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor (OR Books; Paper $20), which recounts its activism during the last five years. In 2011, artists, curators, and writers affiliated with the group signed up for Gulf Labor’s boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. In New York, they projected messages on the museum’s outer walls, dropped fliers inside, and pasted their own work on its walls alongside exhibitions. At the Venice Biennale, they assailed the Guggenheim site by boat. With the group’s 52 Weeks campaign, which was launched in October 2013 and is documented in The Gulf, artists created works—mostly video and print materials—to support the campaign, sharing them online over the course of a year. Many of the pieces draw their power from simple juxtaposition. Of salaries, as mentioned above; of square footage (the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s 322,917 square feet to the 182 square feet of a windowless dorm room for 10 workers); of the grandiose design of the museum to the punishing mathematics of the workers’ debts, pay, and work hours. In a digital collage entitled 2015: Grand Opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Janet Koenig simply Photoshops workers into the lobby of the museum they have built, where they look terribly out of place but also possibly like a brilliant installation.
For the members of Gulf Labor, Happiness Island epitomizes the conquest of art by corporate interests and speculators, and its reduction to little more than a luxury accessory. They argue that the development is both an egregious example of ultra-inequality and a strategic opportunity: Because the oil-rich emirates and their Western partners are concerned with their public image, they are (somewhat) susceptible to pressure.