Ai Weiwei Is Suing Volkswagen for Using His Installation of Refugee Life Jackets in an Advertisement

The artist says he is taking the company to court as a last resort.

Ai Wei Wei, Soleil Levant (2017). Photo by David Stjernholm courtesy of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen.
Ai Weiwei, Soleil Levant (2017). Photo by David Stjernholm courtesy of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen.

Ai Weiwei is taking Volkswagen to court in Denmark for copyright infringement after a Volkswagen advertisement published in 2017 used an installation of his work as a backdrop.

The ad, which features an orange car, is set in front of his work Soleil Levant (2017), an installation of 3,500 discarded, bright orange life jackets used by migrants who fled persecution and landed in Lesvos, Greece. The work was created for World Refugee Day and was presented on the facade of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen.

“I was not credited as the artist, and my artwork image was… cropped without permission,” Ai 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.” He added: “I was astonished by Volkswagen’s brazen violations of my intellectual property and moral rights.”

As the Chinese artist prepared to head to Copenhagen for the trial, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday, he posted a selfie giving the middle finger to Volkswagen on Instagram.

The artist claimed to have resorted to the lawsuit after more than a year of “fruitless negotiation,” during which the company “only engaged in arrogant gestures to trivialize their guilt and dismiss the matter.”

Ai is also criticizing Volkwagen for what he sees as hypocrisy as it looks to increase its market share in China, while allegedly turning a blind eye toward the nation’s human rights abuses.

Ai Weiwei, <em>Soleil Levant</em> (2017). Photo by David Stjernholm courtesy of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen.

Ai Weiwei, Soleil Levant (2017). Photo by David Stjernholm courtesy of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen.

The artist cited a story in the Hong Kong Free Press, which said that “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.

A representative of the company told Danish news agency Ritzau that the use of Ai’s artwork was just a “coincidence” after a day spent photographing the car in “beautiful locations” around Copenhagen.

View this post on Instagram

I am suing Volkswagen in Denmark for violating my intellectual property and moral rights. My artwork “Soleil Levant” (2017), which I created for World Refugee Day, was installed at Copenhagen's Kunsthal Charlottenborg from June 20 to October 1, 2017. The work comprises 3,500 lifejackets used by refugees who fled to Lesvos, Greece, escaping persecution and conflict. In October 2017 Volkswagen Denmark used an unauthorized photo of “Soleil Levant” in an ad for its VW Polo campaign. 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. Since November 2017 I have been trying to resolve the matter with Volkswagen. In more than one year of fruitless negotiation, they only engaged in arrogant gestures to trivialize their guilt and dismiss the matter. Intellectual property protection lies at the heart of a society that values human invention and makes our useful accumulation of knowledge possible. Respect of intellectual property law is one cornerstone of a functioning international legal system. As one of the largest European companies, Volkswagen should understand these same laws. Volkswagen and other multinational corporations have tremendous bargaining power in intellectual property protection as well as environmental and human rights. They are not above the law. Human rights, like intellectual property, is a popular concept but one that is difficult to enforce. We should remember that Germany took in one million refugees in 2015, a powerful humanitarian act in a divided world. As one of Germany’s internationally most visible companies, Volkswagen’s disregard for fair play and humanitarian issues is truly disturbing.

A post shared by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

Ai isn’t buying it. “Such corporate bullying plunders the fruit of others’ labor, intimidates individuals attempting to enforce their rights, and shows contempt for humanitarian and ethical behavior,” he wrote.

As of press time, representatives for Volkswagen had not responded to artnet News’s request for comment.


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