In our late-capitalist and highly corporate era, some artists have fully embraced the idea that their work may eventually be commercialized and used in advertising. Ai Weiwei is certainly not one of them. This week, the prolific contemporary maestro and impassioned political activist traveled to Copenhagen for proceedings in a lawsuit he has filed against Volkswagen.
The trial, which has been in the works for at least a year, is set to begin today. Weiwei sued the car manufacturing company for intellectual copyright violation after a Volkswagen ad that was released in 2017 featured his work Soleil Levant without the artist’s permission.
The work in question is an installation that consisted of 3,500 life jackets worn by refugees who fled their home countries and subsequently arrived in Lesvos, Greece. The piece remained in Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen throughout the summer of 2017 and features stacks upon stacks of the fluorescent orange vests bursting from the brick building, as though the structure was overflowing. In the ad, an orange car sits in front of the installation.
“Volkswagen, one of Europe’s largest corporations and a pillar of German enterprise, made use of my artwork about refugees in their advertisement in a manner both contemptuous and irresponsible,” Weiwei wrote on Instagram. “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?”
A Volkswagen Denmark spokesperson told CNN that the company had conceded its mistake in depicting the artwork as part of their ad, and that it had been trying to reach a resolution with Weiwei for the past year. “It was unfortunately not possible; that’s why we have been to court today,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Now we have to wait seven to eight weeks for the court’s conclusion on the matter.”
Even if Volkswagen’s use of Weiwei’s work was purely unintentional, it seems unconscionable that it didn’t ask the artist for permission before running the ad in the first place. Two years later, it looks like there’s still a lot of mess left to clean up.