Nadia Plesner vs Louis Vuitton


Written by Yusuf Laher
18 Monday 18th April 2011

Danish artist Nadia Plesner made headlines in 2007 with a Louis Vuitton handbag, a starving Darfurian and a Chihuahua. Aiming to challenge the way we percieve images, and hoping to catch the attention of the star-obsessed mainstream media circus, Plesner painted a starving Darfur kid with a Paris Hilton puppy and a Louis Vuitton bag. She called the piece Simple Living and sold it on t-shirts and posters. But the French fashion giant didn’t see the grand statement of Nadia’s emotive satire. Instead, they launched a legal battle to have Simple Living permanently struck from the record – even though all proceeds went straight to the charity Divest for Darfur. In January 2011, Nadia launched her debut solo show, Intervention, at the Odd Fellow Palace in Copenhagen. The show includes a reinterpretation of Picasso’s Guernica entitled Darfurnica. Again, this time to reclaim her freedom of expression, Nadia re-included the controversial Simple Living image. And again, Louis Vuitton responded with hard-line legal action.           

Insanely, Simple Living did, in fact, raise the awareness she wanted and captivate the media. Sick world we live in, hey? We spoke to Nadia to find out where she stands now, in 2011. 

Do you get in trouble if I mention Louis Vuitton?

I’m sure LV would prefer that I didn't talk about my case, but I decided to go public from day one. This case is important for everyone who believes in artistic freedom and I find the debate regarding my case crucial.

How’s the court case and the appeal going? Must feel pretty surreal?

It all feels very surreal. Actually, it's not an appeal, I’m countersuing. I only heard about this lawsuit when I received the verdict. I have therefore not been able to defend myself. On March 16, 2011, I filed my own lawsuit against LV. We’re going to start summary proceedings to try to have the order lifted. The court has postponed my case until April 20, because we challenged the judge assigned to my case – we found that he is not impartial (he's the one who gave the court order in the first place). We argued that the court order is a judicial mistake and should never have been given. A few days after the first court hearing about the challenge request on March 28, the judge stepped down. A new judge has been appointed for the hearing on April 20.

Does it feel like you’re being bullied?

Artists have used references to known objects and images forever and my work is no different. LV state that they do not wish to be related to Darfur, but personally, I believe the audience understands the meaning of my work without giving any thought to LV as such. That changed after the two lawsuits. My main goal is to show how mass media works today.

Entertainment and advertisement has become such a huge part of even the serious news channels. I started working on this theme because it provoked me so much that Paris Hilton going to prison got more attention than the genocide in Darfur. How’s that possible? Then I made the drawing of a Darfur child holding a big designer bag and a small dog in a pink outfit to challenge the way we perceive images, and to test if he would get more attention this way. He certainly did.

Obviously, LV and I disagree on many things, and they have the right to take this to court just as I have the right to defend myself. But I do find it bullying when they have their lawyers call me at home and make various threats about what will happen if I don't back down. That is why I contacted the media. I wanted this to be public.

Did you ever think about changing the bag to a Prada or Gucci one?

I probably considered every possible change, including other bags, but the Simple Living drawing is my original artwork and I will defend my right to show it. LV suggested in the lawsuit that I should give the boy a big diamond ring or a fancy car, or leave him lying on a nice couch instead. But it’s not up to huge companies to dictate what artists can or should paint. The bag is used as a status symbol, that's it. People even referred to the drawing as “the boy with the Gucci bag” until the lawsuits. So I find that the relation between my work and LV is due to their own aggressive approach.

When I painted Darfurnica, I included the Simple Living image to defend my artistic freedom, but I also included various other symbols – including two other designer bags – to show that this is not about LV in particular. But LV told me that they consider Darfurnica to be an “LV product”, which I find completely absurd.

Are you surprised by how unconcerned they seem about coming across as monsters? I mean, you’re donating the profits to charity, right? Raising awareness and so on?  

All profits from the Simple Living campaign were donated to an organisation called Divest for Darfur. During our dispute in 2008, I asked LV why they didn't join me, but they didn't want to team up. Since all this happened, I have received numerous emails from other artists and people who have been sued by LV as well, so I think it’s just their strategy to sue anyone everywhere. 

How did Anonymous get involved?

I heard it was not the real Anonymous Group, so maybe it was just a rumour. I do not wish to invite people to harm LV in any way, but of course I appreciate support from people in general.

Have you received any messages of support that surprised you? Have people like Bono, George Clooney etc. stepped in at all?

I‘m receiving support from, pretty much, every continent in the world. That’s quite amazing and I feel very blessed when people reach out. The Dutch politician Femke Halsema supported me publicly in 2008 and 2011, and the Danish Culture Minister Per Stig Moller opened my first exhibition of Darfurnica in January this year. He used to be the Foreign Minister, he’s been to Darfur, so he completely understood the message and acknowledged the importance of my work.

As for Bono, I know LV bought 30% of his charity clothing line a few years ago, so perhaps that puts him in a difficult position.

Tell me about Darfunica?

In 2008, I decided to stop selling my Simple Living t-shirts because I couldn't afford the legal fees. My attorney at the time told me it could take up to 10 years in court. So I started a new t-shirt campaign, Simple Living 2. But I felt frustrated with the fact that I’d been prohibited this way.

My former attorney said, “It would have been better if you’d made a more classical art work, like an oil painting. Then you could have painted anything you want without problems”. I decided to make an oil painting about Darfur. I chose to change my medium in order tell the story how I see it.

I included my Simple Living image because it tells everything in one piece – and to claim back my freedom of expression. And I wanted to include various other parts of my research to stress that it’s not about LV, it’s about Darfur and the mass media.

Why do you think Paramount, Victoria Beckham, Paris Hilton, Facebook etc. haven’t sued?

If any of those people or companies have seen Darfurnica, I think they realise that it’s an art work and that all the different parts are references to modern culture.

Who else is in the painting? Who are the three see no evil, hear no evil, speak to evil people on the left?

The three politicians are Ju Jintao, Medvedev and Bush. I included them to comment on the lack of consistent involvement from world leaders to help the people in Darfur.

China has invested £8 billion in Sudan's oil industry in return for access to its six billion barrels of proven oil reserves. Beijing has also sold Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, ground attack aircraft and stands accused, in effect, of bankrolling the Darfur genocide. China has rejected criticism that it has failed to use its influence with Khartoum to bring an end to the violence. Beijing claims its quiet diplomacy carries more weight than the West's tactics.

Some of the weapons used to kill the population are Russian. I was especially horrified when I read that the Sudanese government bought Russian bombers, painted them white and added UN stencils, only to bomb villages in Darfur. Why go to so much trouble? Imagine being in those villages, seeing the planes and thinking help is coming. Stories like this should be breaking news!

What made you base it on Picasso’s Guernica?

Guernica was the first thing that came to mind. It’s been the art world's biggest symbol of the horrors of war and genocide and it felt like a great challenge to make a modern version.

Where’s the exhibit now?

I received the court order on the last day of the exhibition. It included a letter from a plaintiff LV hired to confiscate what they call “LV products”, like the Simple Living t-shirts and Darfurnica. So I took Darfurnica to a safe storage space in Copenhagen. When the case got out, Danish museum HEART decided to exhibit the painting to support me and freedom of speech. It was supposed to be there for one month, but they just added two extra months because the attention’s been overwhelming.

And where’s it off to next?  

I don't know. I dream about Darfurnica travelling the world. The more people who see it, the more my dream will come true.

What’s your take on celebrities adopting African babies? A passing fad?

Hmm... I think it's difficult to judge – I can't possibly know which life’s better for these children. As much as I admire some celebrities using their fame to shed light on certain Third World countries, I’m worried by the very fact that it needs a celebrity to get the attention. Why is the situation not enough? It all becomes a circus to me.

And what about fake designer handbags?

A week ago, I received an email from a guy who had visited refugee camps in Sudan and seen a small child walking around with a fake LV bag. He told me it looked exactly like my drawing, and that he would testify on my behalf if I needed to prove my image is not pure fantasy. The closest thing from my own experience is kids selling fake bags in Asia. There’s such an awkward feeling to it: poor kids trying to sell fake products super cheap to Western people so they can go back home and look wealthy.

How did we get to a point where people think it's normal to pay $10,000 for a bag? What you buy is the importance you communicate wearing it. Real or fake, I find how humans communicate so many things to each other with accessories super interesting...

For more information on Nadia and the Nadia Plesner Foundation, check out her official website. Click here for more information on Darfurnica and Nadia's legal action.

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  • Guest: iluvhatemail
    Tue 19 - Apr - 2011, 17:32
    kick their ass Nadia