Ai Weiwei sues Volkswagen for copyright infringement

The Berlin-based Chinese artist is suing Volkswagen in Denmark for an ad that shows one of his installations made of discarded life jackets used by migrants.

Artist Ai Weiwei is taking Volkswagen / Skandinavisk Motor Co. to court for copyright infringement, as the company published a magazine advertisement for the car VW Polo in 2017 that featured one of his art installations as a backdrop. The trial started in Copenhagen on Wednesday.

According to Ai, the image was used without the artist's or the museum's knowledge or permission. "These actions are clear violations of my intellectual property and moral rights, but more importantly they raise larger questions of corporate power and responsibility in our era of global capitalism," Ai wrote in an opinion piece published by The Guardian and on his Instagram account.

Titled "Soleil Levant," the installation seen in the ad was created for World Refugee Day in 2017. The work comprises more than 3,500 life jackets that were worn by migrants on their perilous sea journey to reach Europe. The work was exhibited on the facade of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg museum in Copenhagen from June 20 to October 1, 2017.

The ad shows an orange car in front of the brick wall of the museum with the bright orange vests as a backdrop, without any reference to the work or its meaning, as this Instagram post by Ai Weiwei shows.

The activist and artist has been dealing with the current refugee situation in his recent artworks and films. In his comment about the lawsuit, he refers to the fact that he arrived in Berlin in 2015, the same year that a great number of refugees arrived in Europe and were welcomed in Germany, which led him to focus his work on the issue. 

Read more: Ai Weiwei's 'Human Flow' and 11 other memorable films on refugees

"It is against this backdrop that I learned that my artwork about refugees had been used contemptuously and irresponsibly to advertise cars for Volkswagen, one of Europe's largest corporations and a pillar of German enterprise. My surprise soon turned to anger," Ai wrote.

Audios and videos on the topic

The artist also mentions in his piece that he spent more than a year trying to solve the case "amicably" outside of court before deciding to proceed with a lawsuit. He aims to draw attention to the fact that the company is setting up new factories in states where human rights are violated, such as China.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

'Good Fences Make Good Neighbors'

Ai Weiwei knows what it means to be a refugee. He was persecuted in his homeland China. His fall 2017 show in New York deals with the global refugee crisis through artwork distributed over the city's five boroughs. One of the largest of his installations, entitled "Gilded Cage," is located on the edge of Central Park (above). It invites viewers to enter and exit it by passing through turnstiles.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Focusing on refugees

His largest work to date, "Law of the Journey," is a 70-meter-long inflatable boat with 258 faceless refugee figures that was shown in Prague. Ever since he moved to Berlin in 2015, Ai Weiwei has worked on numerous projects related to the plight of refugees, often meeting them personally. His documentary "Human Flow" was up for the Golden Lion Best Film award at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Art or self-representation?

In late 2015 the image of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up lifeless on a beach made headlines around the world. In January 2016, Indian news magazine India Today published the above image of Ai Weiwei on the Greek island of Lesbos. While some praised the image as artistic activism, not everyone found the visual protest against European refugee politics ethically acceptable.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Luther from Ai Weiwei's perpsective

The exhibition "Luther and the avant-garde" features contemporary art. According to the 16th century religious reformer himself, images are neither good nor bad; they can inspire belief and prompt contemplation of God. Martin Luther's perspective on artistic freedom paved the way for modern art. Above, Ai Weiwei displays his take on individuality, religion and resistance in the exhibition.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Political art with Legos

In 2015, Lego refused to deliver Ai Weiwei a bulk order of the toys on political grounds. Supporters around the world sent millions of pieces in protest. Ai had already used Legos for a work of art on freedom of expression, shown in the abandoned prison of Alcatraz. It featured over 175 portraits of political activists and prisoners of conscience, such as Edward Snowden and Nelson Mandela.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

'Berlin, I Love You'

During the 2015 Berlinale film festival, Ai Weiwei directed a movie which depicts his long-distance relationship with his six-year-old son, Ai Lao, who lives with his mother in Berlin. He delivered his instructions for the short film using satellites and via Skype, a logistical tour de force.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

First-ever solo exhibition in China

Ai Weiwei was allowed to hold a solo exhibition in Beijing in June 2015: This was seen as a sign that the government was easing on his case. Although he avoided direct political works in the show, the authorities pushed back its opening date by a week, as they did not want it to be accessible to the public before June 4 — the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Sunflower seeds

This is part of another famous work which counts millions of pieces. These sunflower seeds are deceptively realistic, yet they were all handcrafted in porcelain by hundreds of artisans. The installation comments on the current "Made in China" economy and also refers to Mao Zedong’s brutal Cultural Revolution (1966—76), where sunflowers were typically used in propaganda images.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Sign of the zodiac

There are different versions of this installation, "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," which features 12 animal heads reproducing the traditional Chinese zodiac once part of a fountain clock at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. The sculptures were looted after French and British troops destroyed the imperial retreat in 1850. In June 2015, a bronze version of the work was sold for 3.4 million pounds.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Preserving tradition

In 2014, Ai Weiwei held a huge solo exhibition in Berlin, which he also managed without leaving China. These 6,000 wooden stools filling the atrium of the Martin-Gropius Bau museum, collected throughout the countryside of his Homeland, did make the trip. Wooden stools have been used for centuries in households, and the artist sees them as a symbol of the disappearing traditions of rural China.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

From two wheels to four

Private car ownership is growing exponentially in China, while the bike fleet is declining. Cyclists are being blamed for causing accidents and congestion. This work is made of 150 bicycles and also commemorates Yang Jia, a Beijing resident arrested for riding an unlicensed bicycle. During his detention he was assaulted and accused of murdering six police officers, leading him to a death sentence.

Ai Weiwei's art in pictures

Artist with gas mask

Ai Weiwei constantly posts pictures of himself on the Internet, such as this one. Air pollution is a major source of protest in China. Social media has become an integral part of the artist's work, allowing him to reach a very wide audience and establish his reputation as a dissident — inspiring many others. He was the recipient of Amnesty International's 2015 Ambassador of Conscience Award.

Photographer claims he didn't notice life jackets 

During the first day of the court case, the photographer of the image and head of press at VW Denmark, Thomas Hjortshoj, took the stand and claimed he didn't realize that the backdrop of his photo was a museum and that it featured an installation of life jackets. He said he didn't notice the life jackets "because they were stacked into the facade and they were in a rush" when the picture was taken. He also said in court that he didn't wonder what was on the facade.

The artist is documenting every step of the court case through social media channels including Twitter and Instagram.

Europe's largest Ai Weiwei show asks: 'Where is the revolution?'

'Laundromat' (2016)

This laundromat-styled installation features some 2,046 pieces of clothing hanging on 40 clothing racks, freshly cleaned and sorted. The pieces were left behind by refugees in 2016 when the so-called Balkan entry route into Europe was sealed off. Ai Weiwei gathered the clothes and gave them their current appearance, simultaneously giving recognition to their owners' perilous experiences.

Europe's largest Ai Weiwei show asks: 'Where is the revolution?'

'Blue and white porcelain plates' (2017)

The artist also focused on human suffering of migrants in this series of porcelain plates. Made in Jingdezhen, the center of Chinese porcelain ware, the plates' decoration at first appears quite traditional. But in fact Ai Weiwei used his own photos and others found online that documented migration as the basis for the designs. The plates depict war, ruin, sea travel and refugee camps.

Europe's largest Ai Weiwei show asks: 'Where is the revolution?'

'Camera with Plinth' (2015) and 'Odyssey' (2016)

The wallpaper pays stylistic tribute to Odysseus, the protagonist in Homer's epic poem who spent years far from home. But the motives actually depict flight and migration. In front stands a marble camera symbolizing state surveillance, a recurring theme of the artist. In 2011, he was arrested in Beijing and detained for 81 days and then kept under government surveillance for more than 20 years.

Europe's largest Ai Weiwei show asks: 'Where is the revolution?'

'Study of Perspective' (1995 to 2011/2014)

Ai Weiwei's Odyssey wall also includes numerous photos from a series. The photographs show cultural or governmental landmarks, with the artist holding up his middle finger before each one. The juxtaposition can be seen as a rejection of and protest against powerful political and social decision-makers.

Europe's largest Ai Weiwei show asks: 'Where is the revolution?'

'Study of Perspective' (1995 to 2011/2014)

These photos from locations in China are the only black-and-white ones in the series. They show Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 repression of students by the Chinese government, on the left, and the Hong Kong harbor on the right. With this year being the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests and many in Hong Kong today fearing greater Chinese control, the works are strongly resonant.

Europe's largest Ai Weiwei show asks: 'Where is the revolution?'

'S.A.C.R.E.D.' (2011-2013)

This installation consists of six iron boxes that show scenes from Ai Weiwei's 81-day incarceration in 2011. Viewers can look though small openings to see the scenes that feature the artist and guards. It's a realistic portrayal of the human rights abuse he experienced. Above, a guard oversees the toilet entrance.

Europe's largest Ai Weiwei show asks: 'Where is the revolution?'

'Straight' (2008-2012)

This work is another indictment of authority. A total of 142 coffin-like transport boxes made of reinforced steel hold straight steel rods that have been cleaned with cement. With this work, Ai Weiwei remembers the 70,000 people who died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. More than 5,000 children alone died in schools that collapsed because corrupt local politicians had cut building costs.

Europe's largest Ai Weiwei show asks: 'Where is the revolution?'

'Zodiac' (2018)

The 12 images in this series are made up of Lego pieces, which is why they look pixelated. The animal heads call forth a vision of eternal cycles and predestined destiny. In the background of the zodiac signs, Ai Weiwei shows representative buildings from his series "Study of Perspective," thus merging two series.

Europe's largest Ai Weiwei show asks: 'Where is the revolution?'

'Sunflower Seeds' (2010)

Millions of porcelain sunflower seeds were individually made by 1,600 artisans over two years in the Chinese porcelain capital Jingdezhen. The artwork has a deep political association: Chairman Mao Zedong was often portrayed as the "Sun," and the people were his seeds. In another more present-oriented interpretation, the installation also refers to Chinese mass-produced goods.

Europe's largest Ai Weiwei show asks: 'Where is the revolution?'

Video 'Sunflower Seeds' and 'I.O.U. Wallpaper' (2011-2013)

A video on the manufacturing process of the 100 million sunflower seeds is displayed in front of a billfold wallpaper. After his detention, Ai had to pay an alleged tax debt of €1.7 million. People sent him money, and he designed 13,719 IOU notes symbolizing their contributions. Ai Weiwei's largest European exhibition to date runs through September 1 at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.