Category Archives: 52weeks

Week 2 . Thomas Hirschhorn. My Guggenheim Dilemma

Gulf Labor

52 Weeks

Banners, 2009
Photocopies and tape, 66.7 x 53.7 cm 
Made at the occasion of the exhibition: Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum Rotunda, Guggenheim Museum New York, 2010
Courtesy: the artist
This week’s contribution to Gulf Labor’s 52 Week Campaign is by Thomas Hirschhorn:

Dear Nancy, Dear Richard,
As you know, I am one of those who signed the petition for the boycott of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, to put pressure on the museum to do everything it can in order to remedy the labor exploitation on Saadiyat Island, to treat the workers as they deserve to be treated, and to protect their rights as workers. I am happy and willing to do everything I can do in order to achieve this; that’s why I signed the petition for a boycott.

Nevertheless, there is a dilemma. The dilemma – my dilemma – is not about exhibiting, here and now, my work “Cavemanman” in the Guggenheim Bilbao, while at the same time boycotting the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. That is not my dilemma, and the dilemma is not about some other contradiction observers might point out either.

The dilemma, my dilemma, the real dilemma, is the contradiction between the politics of “good intentions”, “the good conscience”, “the engagement of the artist” – that I should in fact call “pseudo-politics” or “making politics”, for it implies narcissism and selfishness, but which I signed the letter for – and my belief and conviction that Art, as Art, has to keep completely out of any daily political cause in order to maintain its power, its artistic power, its real political power.

By signing the petition for this boycott, I am facing this dilemma, my dilemma. It’s a problem without a solution; it’s a dead-end. On the one side, I really want to do what I can, what I think is in my power, to fight for equality, universality, and justice. But I also know that it is easy to add my signature to this fancy artists’ boycott. Too easy, because I know that when signing a boycott, I have to pay the price for the boycott – myself first – so that the outcome can be a real success.

Art – because it’s art – resists a simplified idealism and a simplified realism, because it refuses aesthetic and political idealism and aesthetic and political realism. And Art -because it’s Art -is never neutral, but Art cannot be neutralized by doing politics. I want to admit that this is the “dead-end” I am in. I have to face it. I have to confront this dilemma and furthermore – as an artist – I even have to assert it as my dilemma.

My hope is that something that makes sense remains.
– My signature for the boycott will make sense if it does change the conditions of the workers for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
– My signature for the boycott will make sense if the dilemma, the trap, and the temptation of politics allows me to confront the hard core of reality, which is the limit of such a boycott.
– And my signature for the boycott of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will make sense if I have to pay a price for it.
Thank you,
Thomas Hirschhorn, April, 2011

Gulf Labor is a coalition of artists and activists who have been working since 2011 to highlight the coercive recruitment, and deplorable living and working conditions of migrant laborers in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island (Island of Happiness). Our campaign focuses on the workers who are building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum (in collaboration with the British Museum).

“52 Weeks” is a one year campaign starting in October 2013. Artists, writers, and activists from different cities and countries are invited to contribute a work, a text, or action each week that relates to or highlights the unjust living and working conditions of migrant laborers building cultural institutions in Abu Dhabi.

To learn more visit:

For additional information, please email:


New York, October 17, 2013

What is 52 Weeks?

“52 Weeks” is a one year campaign starting in October 2013. Artists, writers, and activists from different cities and countries are invited to contribute a work, a text, or action each week that relates to or highlights the coercive recruitment, and deplorable living and working conditions of migrant laborers in Abu Dhabi who are building the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum (in collaboration with the British Museum).

Contributions during the first 13 weeks by: Doug Ashford, Doris Bittar, Sam Durant, Matthew Greco, Gulf Labor, Hans Haacke, Thomas Hirschhorn, Lynn Love, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Naeem Mohaiemen, Walid Raad, Oliver Ressler, Andrew Ross, Jayce Salloum, Ann Sappenfield, Gregory Sholette.

Additional contributions in the coming 52 weeks by: Haig Aivazian, Shaina Anand, Ayreen Anastas, Yto Berrada, Noel Doublas, Rana Jaleel, Rene Gabri, Mariam Ghani, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, Josh MacPhee, Marina Naprushkina, Shirin Neshat, Ashok Sukumaran, WBYA (Who Builds Your Architecture), and many others.

Walid Raad, a member of Gulf Labor stated: “If the Guggenheim, Louvre and TDIC [Tourism, Development & Investment Company. Abu Dhabi] were willing to invest as much energy and resources into safeguarding the rights of workers buildings museums on Saadiyat Island, as they are on hiring “starchitects,” building engineering marvels, and buying challenging artworksthen their claims of building the best infrastructure for the arts in the world would be more than words in the wind.  Abu Dhabi, its residents and workers, deserve more than the “edgy” buildings and collections proposed by the best museum-brands in the world.  Abu Dhabi also deserves the development, implementation and enforcement of the most progressive labor laws for their emerging institutions.  If the museums can’t see this, then I can only hope that the ruling Sheikhs and Sheikhas will, and soon.”

Doris Bittar, a member of Gulf Labor stated: “Appearances are deceiving. The workers building the museums in Abu Dhabi look neat in their blue uniforms and hard hats. Their cared for appearance belie the facts that many are working 15-hour shifts, have had their passports confiscated and cannot leave or quit, they cannot congregate or collectively make demands regarding their lack of pay and their poor living conditions, and they have no recourse if they are physically abused because of unenforced labor laws. Sometimes, the only way they can leave and be sent home is in caskets.”

Guy Mannes-Abbott, a member of Gulf Labor stated: “Abu Dhabi is building urban infrastructure, cultural institutions and tourist facilities to developed-world standards using undeveloped-world methods: a cynical, unsustainable position and dreadful legacy. How much better for a future UAE to find a way now to embrace and recognise contributions made by those migrant workers who have actually made it what it is becoming. Responsibility for creating “conditions of forced labour” is shared by remittance-hungry and citizen-abandoning nations, declining western institutions repackaged as brands: the Louvre and Guggenheim, and their greedy architects: Vinoly, Nouvel, Gehry, Foster, but the agency of change is owned by the UAE.”

Naeem Mohaiemen, a member of Gulf Labor stated: “We note efforts to always push blame down the human-labor supply chain: corrupt middlemen, “illiterate” workers, or recruitment agencies in the origin countries. This avoids acknowledgment of the overwhelming power, and responsibility, in the hands of institutions in Abu Dhabi and within the Euro-American art axis.” 

About Gulf Labor: Gulf Labor is a coalition of artists and activists who have been working since 2011 to highlight the coercive recruitment, and unjust living and working conditions of migrant laborers in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island (Island of Happiness). Our campaign focuses on the workers who are building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum (in collaboration with the British Museum).

See the weekly contribution here:

For additional information, please email: contact(at)gulflabor(dot)org