Fri, May 24, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Ai Weiwei fights back against use of his art in Volkswagen ad

By Ai Weiwei (艾未未)  /  The Guardian

In October 2017, I was astonished when Michael Thouber, the director of Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Charlottenborg, informed me that my artwork Soleil Levant had been used in an advertisement for the new Volkswagen (VW) Polo.

Soleil Levant is an installation comprising 3,500 life jackets worn by refugees undertaking perilous sea journeys to reach safety in Europe.

Many refugees survived due to these life jackets; some perished. Some life jackets were fake and those wearing them could have drowned.

I created Soleil Levant especially for World Refugee Day in 2017. It was exhibited on Kunsthal Charlottenborg’s external facade from June 20 to Oct. 1, 2017.

The installation was used as the backdrop for an orange VW Polo without my knowledge or permission by a company that imports Volkswagens into Denmark.

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.

The refugee situation is one of the most critical issues facing the world today. Germany is one of the European nations that took a decisive humanitarian stance on this issue.

In 2015, when the Chinese authorities returned my passport, my right to travel was restored and I came to Berlin. Many refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries were also arriving in Germany around this time.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had said that her nation would welcome refugees and many took encouragement from her words, particularly those fleeing the Syrian civil war.

I have been deeply involved with refugees since arriving in Germany. I made two documentary films about the refugee crisis, as well as many artworks and exhibitions. I traveled with my team to 23 countries and visited dozens of refugee camps, where we met and conducted hundreds of interviews with refugees. It was an extremely intense, even painful experience.

The refugee issue embodies many perceived conflicts between civilizations today. It is the result of constant wars over resources, regional and geopolitical conflicts, environmental change and economic impoverishment. It tests the ability of people from different ethnicities, cultures and creeds to tolerate and help one another.

It is a major challenge for Europe, not simply in terms of its physical borders, but also as an idea: Europe as the bastion of human rights, human dignity, freedom of speech and the rule of law. The refugee situation now poses the greatest test to European ideals since they were articulated by the UN in the aftermath of World War II.

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.

As an artist, I face serious consequences for this misuse of my art. The advertisement gives the false impression that I have given permission for my work about refugees to sell Volkswagen’s cars.

This misrepresentation severely damages my artistic reputation and a lifetime of work defending human rights. Consistency and integrity are important qualities for an artist’s credibility.

This wrongdoing compromises my credibility and could easily destroy the trust I have built up with the refugees I work to support.

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