Ai Weiwei, “Soleil Levant” (2017), installation view at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, life jackets in front of windows of facade. (courtesy the artist and Kunsthal Charlottenborg, photo by David Stjernholm)

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and Ai Weiwei is searching for a legal solution.

The Chinese artist, who currently lives in Europe, filed a lawsuit against Volkswagen and its Danish counterpart Skandinavisk for copyright infringement. Ai alleges that the automaker use an installation of his work at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen as a backdrop for one of its car advertisements without his or the museum’s permission.

The artwork in question is called “Soleil Levant” (2017). Created for World Refugee Day, it consists of 3,500 discarded, bright orange life jackets used by migrants who fled persecution and landed in Lesvos, Greece.

“I was not credited as the artist, and my artwork image was … cropped without permission,” the artist wrote on Instagram in March. “The infringing material was circulated to over 200,000 people, giving the false impression that I had authorized Volkswagen to use my artwork in its ad.”

On social media, the artist said that he ultimately resorted to legal action after more than a year of “fruitless negotiation” with the company, which he said “only engaged in arrogant gestures to trivialize their guilt and dismiss the matter.”

He added: “Volkswagen’s wrongdoing compromises my credibility, and could easily destroy the trust I have built with the refugees I work to support. Why should refugees choose to associate with me if they believe that I would exploit their plight for commercial gain?”

Ai Weiwei, “Soleil Levant” (2017), installation view at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, life jackets in front of windows of facade. (courtesy the artist and Kunsthal Charlottenborg, photo by David Stjernholm)

A representative of the company brushed off the allegations, telling the Danish publication Ritzau that the use of Ai’s artwork was a “coincidence” after a day spent photographing the orange car in “beautiful locations” around the city.

The response has likely inflamed tensions between the automaker and artist. Ai later wrote on Instagram: “Such corporate bullying plunders the fruit of others’ labor, intimidates individuals attempting to enforce their rights, and shows contempt for humanitarian and ethical behavior.”

Online, the artist has also outlined the irony of Volkswagen using an artwork about human rights abuses as a prop for selling its ware. He cited a Hong Kong Free Press article, which said:

 The German carmaker is so deeply invested in China that two reliable sources confirm that prominent figures associated with Volkswagen informally lobbied the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, not to bring up China’s program of mass internment of Muslims and other ideological enemies in Xinjiang when he visited his counterpart Wang Yi in Nov. 2018.

“Should the public not be informed about these facts at the same time when VW forcibly co-opts refugees’ life jackets — the most poignant symbols of human suffering and hope — as color-compliant props in its newest VW Polo ad?” Ai asked on Instagram.

The artist has certainly mounted a vigorous defense on social media, and his attempts to document his battle against the international giant continued within the courtroom. Yesterday, Ai entered the Glostrup District Court in Copenhagen to provide initial testimony before the three judges alongside his lawyers from the Danish firm Poul Schmith.

Attending the public trial were a group of artists including Gianluca Costantini who sketched out scenes from the courtroom. He described the atmosphere as very tense, “especially from the accused side,” he said. Included in his cartoons from the trial are excerpts from the exchange between the judge, Ai, and a lawyer for Volkswagen.

Illustration courtesy the artist Gianluca Costantini

“What do you do?” a judge asks Ai in one of the panels, seemingly unaware of the artist’s global popularity. “I’m an artist!” he responds.

Illustration courtesy the artist Gianluca Costantini

Another illustration focuses on the defense for Volkswagen given by one of its lawyers. “Let’s say that the image has no real marketing effect,” she reasons. “Only very small media covered this exhibition. Few people in Denmark knew about it.”

Illustration courtesy the artist Gianluca Costantini

“I think it is my responsibility to publicize the problems I encounter. Judging from past experience, I don’t trust most systems,” Ai responds. He continues in another image: “These vests are the most important evidence of how human beings try to survive.”

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

3 replies on “Courtroom Sketches from Ai Weiwei’s Legal Battle Against Volkswagen”

  1. I wish Ai success with his quest for justice. On a side note, Ai Weiwei is a mainstream artist, the darling of the West, who has found an opportunity in tapping the misfortune of others and relieve the West of their collective guilt.

    1. Everybody has to make money somehow to eat food and pay rent. If an artist is successful, then good for them! Always better to earn it by pointing out the shocking things happening in the world through art than by running corporations that obviously have zero ethics…

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