by Elettra Stamboulis
The story of the lawsuit attempted by Ai Weiwei vs. Skandinavisk Motor Co. A/S, accused of having used without permission one of the artist’s public installations for a Volkswagen ad campaign. This is the story of what happened, together with drawings by Gianluca Costantini, invited by Ai Weiwei to document the trial.
When the attorney of Ai Weiwei (Beijing, 1957) enters the courtroom, the first thing she does is apologize for the weather: “We only have two weeks of summer in this country. And usually NOT when we are on vacation…”. It is obvious that she wants to ease the tension. The artist woke up at 2 a.m. to review his testimony for the trial against Skandinavisk Motor Co. A/S, which represents, among others, the car manufacturer Volkswagen. And many people of his staff seem tired for lack of sleep, too. On the taxi, while we are heading to court, a printed booklet pops-up with all the relevant materials of the case: these are the miracles of the Ai Weiwei studio’s organization, a group of dedicated individuals working with the artist. The booklet reports a statement of the prosecutor, the history of the car manufacturer, pictures and various materials related to the events that led to this legal case filed in 2017, when Kunsthal Charlottenborg hosted the Soleil Levant installation: 3,500 life jackets installed in a huge contemporary mosaic in the large windows of the Danish museum, with a deep orange chromatic effect.
The exhibition ran from June to October, gaining so much attention that the museum director, Mr. Michael Thouber, believed that it reached a press coverage of about 280 million people worldwide, which made it very unlikely that Volkswagen was unaware of the fact that the facade of the museum was a work of art when they chose to take pictures for advertising reasons of a Polo that “by chance” happened to be orange in color and had the art installation as its backdrop…
We are here to record “visually” this trial that takes place in the suburbs of the Danish capital, where the company charged with copyright infringement has its headquarters. Here, posters showing the face of each European candidate do not hang from trees everywhere, such as downtown. We are in those areas that house services, such as the buildings of this huge court, but which do not have a clear urban scope.
We enter a court that, if it were not for the security checks at the entrance, would look like a hotel. Let’s think for a moment. Indeed, as an artist cooperating with the major museums of Europe and in general across the globe to challenge the seventh company in the world acting as the main sponsor in many sports and cultural initiatives is not a trivial thing. These are choices that for many artists would be prohibitive or in any case would put them in an uncomfortable position, elements that today are often connected. And all of this for a picture in a promotional magazine? “Of course,” the artist says when we ask him. “This is a matter of credibility. Of a relationship based on trust. I owe this to the thousands of migrants that I interviewed and met over the years. They must not think that this can become material to sell a car.”
We are a large group of people following the trial. Not just the aides of the studio, but also a Danish-Chinese translator friend of the artist, a Danish freelance journalist, and other friends of the artist. The court comprises two female judges and a male judge, and both the prosecution and the defense are led by women lawyers. We cannot fail to notice this. In this country, of course, this is standard.
Ai Weiwei’s prosecutor has one hour of time available to make his case. Of course, it is not easy to listen to the translation in Chinese, which is not so great. Since this was expected the translation into English, a language in which Ai Weiwei is perfectly fluent was requested. However, apparently, it was impossible to arrange for it. Thus, we have a homemade LAN where we receive summaries in English from a bad translation into Chinese. In short, the details are lost.
Even the fact that the trial does not have a single judge, in a case like this, makes it clear that the apparent ease of Skandinavian Motor, represented by its CEO in the courtroom, is indeed apparent only. The news was in the spotlight at the national level across all media and, specifically, on the day we write, The Guardian published an article by the artist explaining the reasons for his actions. The arrogance and superficiality with which his claim was approached during the negotiations show, in his opinion, the arrogance that these companies hide behind their bright advertisements and their acts of “charity”. The message was delivered and perhaps the whole issue was taken seriously in the final stretch.
It is striking that this latter aspect is mentioned immediately by the CEO during his defense testimony: “We are a small Danish company, representing 50 brands including Volkswagen. We do charity work. We did it for the refugees too, as well as for Africa and for children suffering from cancer.” Well done, one could say. Yet, the issue is different here. Kusthal Charlottenborg’s director makes it extremely clear: “They are not just the rights of the artist to have been violated, but also those of the museum that commissioned the work. If this breach is not acknowledged, art is destined to die.” Hard words, in a speech that did not fear, even in this case, the reaction of any private sponsors linked to the institution he is managing. Would that be possible in Italy?
ETHICS AND VIOLATION
While Gianluca Costantini draws the faces and — above all — the position of the feet of the participants, it is natural to wonder about the level of ethical righteousness that we demand from the sponsors who donate in favor of culture. Not to mention the use of the artists’ material. In some periods, the sponsors become the monument along with their brand: remember the Colosseum covered with ads?
But by now those architects and those artists are dead and buried. Certainly, we cannot go back and ask for explanations of what consumer neo-capitalism deems natural and almost due.
The mocked photographer and magazine editor mumble: “I never stepped in that museum.” Is that true? But above all, is it a justification? Thus, in the final indictment, the defense attorney pumps it up: “After all, the image had no marketing effect. Few people in Denmark knew about the exhibition.” The embarrassment in the audience, especially among the Danes, grows. Our ignorance will be our defense? Or do we deem one of the most influential and well-known artists in the world to a nobody in this country?
Taking pictures or shooting videos in the courtroom is forbidden. Thus, the safe and grounded feet of the CEO will be immortalized forever only by the eyes of Costantini. In those lines, we see a lot of the impossible dialog between corporations and society at large. Between society and capitalism that turned into a political dragon, capable to make deals with anyone in exchange for continuous and geometric growth, yet unable to spot a work of art.
This sort of cultural narrow-mindedness, inherent in this system of production and consumption, is embodied by those feet and shoes. Especially, in the sly smile that Ai Weiwei held during the long indictment of the defense, when he was basically being told: “Well, you know, you are not really good for selling cars.” The court took 72 days to decide, therefore the verdict will be published in July. Meanwhile, the Chinese artist does not seem to be interested in winning rather in the public debate on the subject: what is the relationship between corporations and freedom of expression? Where does the artist’s work end, if it ever ends? And a whole series of dilemmas that are at the heart of the relationship between art and capitalism.
Originally published on the Artribune.com website on June 2, 2019, Rome
Translated from Marion Sarah Tuggey