Not Imagined, Not Desired: Art and Responsibility in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Sydney

Ahmet Ogut, from the series Stones to Throw, 2011

Ahmet Ogut, from the series Stones to Throw, 2011

This week, we’ve been watching the situation in Ukraine and the Crimea (all we can say, never trust an “unanimous vote” in Russia – at least not where oil money is involved), but to quote Zaha Hadid, there are “discrepancies all over the world,” so we’re turning our attention to some of the issues of art and responsibility that have made the art world headlines this week. 

The question of an artist’s responsibility to the society he or she is addressing is a persistent problem within the art world. (And we don’t mean the kind that get resolved.) Typically, this line of argument is invoked when dealing with artists who are disseminating deliberately provocative messages – think Pussy Riot – then claiming that these personal expressions should enjoy the protections of free speech. A second instance that it comes up is within sponsorship situations, and we’ve got a few prime examples coming up. 

Amazing LegacyNot an Architect’s Duty: Zaha Hadid under fire for her comments about Qatar

Recently made Dame, architect Zaha Hadid is following up her work at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery with – among myriad other projects – the Al Wakrah Stadium, site of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Here’s a short presentation on its design:

The stadium has already come under fire for its striking resemblance to female genitalia (We know, we know, a male architect builds a skyscraper, we call it phallic, a female architect builds a stadium, we call it vaginal, but, well …  look at it.) Now it’s in the news again, after Hadid made a few frank comments about her role in the exploitation of workers in the Gulf. In brief:  “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at [worker’s rights]… I can make a statement, a personal statement, about the situation with the workers, but I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it.”

The reality is, Hadid’s stadium is one of the five that are currently planned for the World Cup – it also just happens to be the most prominent project. The question is, is it an architect’s duty to answer for the conditions around a building? Should an architect be held responsible for the conditions under which a building is consisted, particularly when this issue is not exceptional, but rather systemic within a given region? Should they be responsible for where the funds paying for the building come from? And, by that logic, should they be responsible for the activities that take place in that building? Each question leads to another, and there are no easy answers. In her comments, Hadid notes that there are troubling situations all over the world – not the least of which is the situation in her hometown of Baghdad – but does that mean architects should stop building altogether?  (As the follow sections show, we’re not only asking about the case of Qatar.)

Image of the February 22 protest at the Guggenheim. Image courtesy of GULF, found on Hyperallergic.

Image of the February 22 protest at the Guggenheim. Image courtesy of GULF, found on Hyperallergic.

G.U.L.F. Protests at the Guggenheim

This wasn’t the only Emirate-themed uproar this week. Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian was on the scene last Saturday at the Guggenheim New York, where the museum was hosting its pay-what-you-wish hours. Visitors to the newly-opened “Italian Futurism” show got a little taste of the “polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals” when roughly forty protesters infiltrated the crowd, taking to the iconic spiral ramp to unfurl banners and shower leaflets down on the foyer, while chanting, “Who is building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?”

Vartanian captured some of the protest on film, which you can watch here:

The author describes some of the interactions with the protesters, who hold a markedly different stance than Hadid:

 “Art, among other things, is about doing, living, and imagining a better world,” said artist Nitasha Dhillon of MTL Collective. “Art should not violate human rights, art should not endanger workers lives, and art should not create debt slaves. And definitely not be part of a system that creates debt bondage.”

Find Vartanian’s full account here. Since the posting, the Guggenheim’s director Richard Armstrong issued a short statement reflecting his concern for the situation, but also noting that, technically, NO ONE is building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, as it still hasn’t entered into construction. From here, things rapidly devolved, with the protesters – organized as G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction) – charging that the museum was underpaying its guards, while the Guggenheim defends that its staff security receive competitive wages and benefits, though occasional event staff may earn by the hour. And from there, it really gets into squabbling. (If, as G.U.L.F. claims, the situation demands in Abu Dhabi demands a public discussion, it’s a shame they themselves could not stay on topic. )

Imagine No Transfield

Breathe easy, Sharjah: not all of this week’s protests were Gulf-related.

Last week the death of an asylum seeker in a detention center administered by Transfield – one of the largest sponsors of the Sydney Biennale, which is set to open March 21 with the dreamy title “You Imagine What You Desire” – prompted a number of the artists to band together behind a plea to the biennale to disassociate itself with this sponsor, who they felt was not an appropriate alliance for the context of contemporary art. From the open letter stating their case [our emphases]:

We appeal to you to work alongside us to send a message to Transfield, and in turn the Australian Government and the public: that we will not accept the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, because it is ethically indefensible and in breach of human rights; and that, as a network of artists, arts workers and a leading cultural organisation, we do not want to be associated with these practices.

Our current circumstances are complex: public institutions are increasingly reliant on private finance, and less on public funding, and this can create ongoing difficulties. We are aware of these complexities and do not believe that there is one easy answer to the larger situation.

However, in this particular case, we regard our role in the Biennale, under the current sponsorship arrangements, as adding value to the Transfield brand. Participation is an active endorsement, providing cultural capital for Transfield.

Now here’s where it really ties this post together:

Our interests as artists don’t merely concern our individual moral positions. We are concerned too with the ways cultural institutions deal with urgent social responsibilities. We expect the Biennale to acknowledge the voice of its audience and the artist community that is calling on the institution to act powerfully and immediately for justice by cutting its ties with Transfield.

We believe that artists and artworkers can—and should—create an environment that empowers individuals and groups to act on conscience, opening up other pathways to develop more sustainable, and in turn sustaining, forms of cultural production.

We want to extend this discussion to a range of people and organisations, in order to bring to light the various forces shaping our current situation, and to work towards imagining other possibilities into being. In our current political circumstances we believe this to be one of the most crucial challenges that we are compelled to engage with, and we invite you into this process of engagement.

The Sydney Biennale’s response was tepid, at best, written, one imagines in the hope that the artists might back down from this “most crucial challenge” and talk it out. The Board of Directors replied that they “truly empathise with artists in this situation. Like them, we are inadvertently caught somewhere between ideology and principle. Both parties are ‘collateral damage’ in a complex argument. Neither wants to see human suffering.” That said…:

The Biennale has long been a platform for artists to air their sometimes challenging but important views unfettered and we would like to explore this avenue of expression, rather than see the demise of an important community asset.

Read the full response here.

Needless to say, this was an unsatisfactory answer for the artists. On February 26, 2014, five of them – Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri and Ahmet Öğüt – withdrew from the Biennale altogether. Öğüt clarified his own position in a post called “Making Decisions with Heart in a Time of Crisis,” which begins:

Maintaining ethical standards in the art world is the responsibility not only of artists, but also cultural institutions and those who support them. Any decision taken by an institution should be made with respect for its public, the people who work for it and the artists who collaborate with it.

Read the artist’s full statement here.

So in short, this week has given us a lot to think about. It will be interesting to watch how these decisions and statements play out (but here we are, imagining what we desire, which is that these questions aren’t just ignored.)

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5 Responses to Not Imagined, Not Desired: Art and Responsibility in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Sydney

  1. Paloma Polo says:

    Following your article I would like to share with you a statement about irregularities and abuses in Spain’s artistic sector, you can read (and sign) a petition in this link:

    And you can find more information in the statement I wrote (please scroll down for English version once you open the link):

    Thank you

  2. Pingback: Let’s Change It All: Sydney Biennale’s parting with Transfield gives hope to Manifesta protests | Baibakov Art Projects

  3. Pingback: Давайте Измененим Все Это: Сиднейская биеннале рассталась с Transfield | Baibakov Art Projects

  4. Pingback: Principles’ Day Out: Manifesta’s Destiny, Posthumous Petition-signers and Boycotters branded as Hypocrites | Baibakov Art Projects

  5. Pingback: Манифеста, протестующие и список поддерживающих | Baibakov Art Projects

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