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Ai Weiwei to Sue Volkswagen for Using his Refugee Artwork to Sell Cars

The artwork, which features 3,500 life jackets, was used to advertise an orange VW Polo

Ai Weiwei holds his middle finger up to the Volkswagen logo, 2019. Courtesy: Instagram

Ai Weiwei holds his middle finger up to the Volkswagen logo, 2019. Courtesy: Instagram

Ai Weiwei is suing Volkswagen for copyright infringement after the car manufacturer used Ai’s artwork Soleil Levant (2017) as the backdrop for an advertisement for an orange VW Polo car.

The artist’s installation of 3,500 orange life jackets, some of which were worn by migrants and refugees who landed in Lesbos, Greece, was installed at Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg in honour of World Refugee Day in 2017.

However, in October 2017 the Kunsthal’s director Michael Thouber contacted Ai to inform him that his work had been used in a Volkswagen advertisement.

Writing on Instagram in March, Ai said: ‘I was not credited as the artist, and my artwork image was uncredited and cropped without permission. 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 for the new Polo.’

‘I was astonished by Volkswagen’s brazen violations of my intellectual property and moral rights,’ he continued.

Ai Weiwei, Soleil Levant, 2017, installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2017, life jackets in front of windows of facade. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthal Charlottenborg; photograph: Anders Sune Berg

Ai Weiwei, Soleil Levant, 2017, installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2017, life jackets in front of windows of facade. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthal Charlottenborg; photograph: Anders Sune Berg

The Chinese artist has also hit out against what he sees as Volkswagen’s hypocrisy regarding human rights abuses in China in another Instagram post, dated 17 May. Ai quoted an article, published in the Hong Kong Free Press 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 programme of mass internment of Muslims and other ideological enemies in Xinjiang when he visited his counterpart Wang Yi in November 2018.’

Ai responded: ‘Should the public not be informed about these facts at the same time when VW forcibly co-opts refugees’ lifejackets – the most poignant symbols of human suffering and hope – as color-compliant props in its newest VW Polo ad?’

Ahead of the court hearing, which is scheduled to begin on Wednesday 22 May in Copenhagen, Ai posted a picture of himself holding his middle finger up to a Volkswagen logo on Instagram. The caption reads: ‘On the way to Copenhagen to attend the court hearing for our case against Volkswagen.’

A representative from Volkswagen told Danish news agency Ritzau that the use of Soleil Levant was a ‘coincidence.’

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