UP IN FLAMES: FASHION'S ILLICIT USE OF ART CONTINUE
March 20, 2023
Billie Miró Breskin
*This article is published in collaboration with Brown Art Review*
In late January of 2023, Zadig&Voltaire set their Instagram account ablaze. The French luxury ready-to-wear brand was promoting their upcoming Fall/Winter 2023 fashion show using as a central image a burning fountain. On Instagram, twin videos of the slow-motion fire-flow flanked a third video, which documented the unfurling of a massive banner depicting a still of the video on a Parisian building. On the streets of Paris, posters covered metro stops. The same video received one million views on TikTok. The campaign quickly garnered attention, primarily in the form of heart and fire-emoji comments.
Cropped Still of Zadig&Voltaire Instagram, January 19, 2023
For a few viewers, however, their attention was caught in all the wrong ways. “Brands ripping artists off… when is this ending?” read one comment by @andreasgysin. Others agreed: “Buy yourself a real artistic direction” wrote @alexfourgous. “You steel [sic] art from other artists and do not even feel responsible when officially caught #shameonzadig #artthief #copycat” commented @bloodfashiontears. Additional comments, which have since been deleted by Zadig&Voltaire, tagged a particular artist, believing the fire fountain in the Zadig&Voltaire campaign to be his, or protesting that it had been stolen from him. The artist in question? Julian Charrière. The work in question? Charrière’s 2019 video piece, And Beneath It All Flows Liquid Fire.
Charrière, 36, a French-Swiss artist based in Berlin, found out about the campaign when friends and fellow artists began sending him Zadig&Voltaire’s posts. In an email with the author of this article, he confirmed that he had no prior contact with the brand. Thierry Gillier, the founder of Zadig&Voltaire and an avid art collector himself, was quick to deny any wrongdoing to journalist Olivier Guyot, assuring him that while he “expected this to be an issue [with the similarities between the images]… For us, there’s no issue,” further pointing out that “A number of artists have interpreted this theme.” While it’s true that the juxtaposition of fire and fountains has been explored before (most commonly, it seems, by those wishing to add an exciting feature to their backyards), the specific similarities between the two videos in question are too numerous to ignore.
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Julian Charrière, And Beneath It All Flows Liquid Fire, 2019, Video still
Both videos depict three-tiered stone fountains with flames cascading down in place of water. They both are captured in slow-motion. They’re both set to soundtracks of crackling flames. They both feature glistening cobblestones in the foreground. Both are occuring at night, or at least in darkness, and the framing of the fountain—filling the frame with no surrounding buildings for context—is identical. The biggest visual difference between the two is the smoothed-out quality of Zadig&Voltaire’s digital rendering, a wan facsimile of Charrière’s real-life production. It is worth noting, however, that Zadig&Voltaire did include a real burning fountain as the centerpiece of their fashion show, which was held, ironically, at POUSH, an “innovative venue dedicated to contemporary creation” and the support of developing artistic talent.
The greatest contrast between Charrière’s artwork and the Zadig&Voltaire campaign, however, is the intention that informs the two videos. Charrière made And Beneath It All Flows Liquid Fire originally as a performance in Lugano, Switzerland, to accompany the premiere of his film Towards No Earthly Pole at the Museo d'arte della Svizzera Italiana (it has since been displayed in its video form across Europe and the United States, from the Venice Biennale to Studio Berghain, Berlin, to the Dallas Museum of Art). In an email, Charrière described the concept behind his piece:
“Along with the control of fire, the fountain is one of the most fundamental achievements of human civilization. The original spring fountain, which provided vital water, was followed by ornamental fountains, which with their jets publicly displayed the technical achievements, but especially the power and the "overflowing" wealth of their creators. The dystopian image of the burning fountain in And Beneath It All Flows Liquid Fire exerts a hypnotic effect on the viewer with the play of the elemental opposites of water and fire, but should serve us as a memorial against the hubris of humankind, that places itself above nature and plunders its resources.”
To say Zadig&Voltaire’s intended message differs from Charrière’s would be a significant understatement. In the Instagram captions that accompanied their posts, Zadig&Voltaire gave the dates of the show along with the tagline, “Embras(s)e la nuit,” which translates to “Kiss the night” or “Set fire to the night” depending on the inclusion of the extra S. Cecilia Bönström, artistic director of Zadig&Voltaire, stated that the flames of the fountain “represented the burning desire for independence.” An intricate look at history and climate the Zadig&Voltaire campaign is not, and the erasure of the original work’s significance adds insult to Charrière’s injury. The reproduction falls into the very trap Charrière carefully avoided. He shared, again via email: “The context of such a powerful image as that of the fire fountain is incredibly important for its perception, otherwise we run the risk of celebrating our own decadence, completely alienated from its original meaning and blinded solely by the eerie "beauty" of the sight.” Indeed, the nonconsensual use of the image for the profit of a multi-million dollar company removes the work both literally and figuratively from its original context, cheapening its intellectual value while extravagantly raising its capitalistic worth.
After Charrière discovered the copy, he posted a message on his Instagram clarifying his lack of involvement in the show and then reached out to Zadig&Voltaire in hopes of coming to a collective solution. Charrière wrote that his offer was “a settlement deal with a compensation fully dedicated to a non-profit organization that works to protect the rainforest. I felt this would do the original intention of the work justice.” However, Zadig&Voltaire demonstrated “no interest in a joint solution to support a good cause.” Instead, Charrière was offered, as he puts it, “a fraction of an adequate compensation as hush money,” which he rejected, citing a disinterest in personal financial gain and a commitment to speaking publicly about the matter. Just as the brand deleted comments drawing attention to similarities between their campaign and Charrière’s work, so too would they like to ‘delete’ Charrière’s right to defend his intellectual property and voice his side of the story. This attempt to silence Charrière is shameful; instead of taking responsibility for their transgression and working with Charrière’s unselfish and philanthropically-minded solution, Zadig&Voltaire would rather put a tiny portion of their immense wealth into suppressing an artist. Between Gillier’s denial of any issue of plagiarism, the company’s immense funds, and the unfavorable intellectual property laws in France, pursuing a legal pathway would be a long, expensive, and possibly unsuccessful route for Charrière.
When asked what he planned to do moving forward, Charrière was clear on where he stands: “As an artist, I want to be able to focus on my work and have little interest in any disputes.” This issue, he pointed out, “is about something fundamental: commercial brands should not be able to just ruthlessly help themselves to the works of artists and at the same time be lulled into a sense of security from serious consequences, because they believe they are untouchable due to their advantage of scale.” While the dispute has been picked up by publications such as Artnet and ARTnews, Zadig&Voltaire have yet to release an official statement, acknowledgement, or apology.
While this plagiarism of Charrière’s work is deeply disappointing, it, unfortunately, is not uncommon. As Charrière puts it, the incident is characteristic of a “recurring and systemic issue between creative fields.” On February 21, 2023, news broke that the Joan Mitchell Foundation sent a cease and desist letter to Louis Vuitton after the luxury brand used the late artist’s paintings as a background to their handbag ad without the foundation’s consent. This behavior does not align with the artistically-minded image both Louis Vuitton and Zadig&Voltaire attempt to present. Both brands have worked collaboratively with artists in the past. In August of 2022, Zadig&Voltaire gave five artists free reign to reinterpret their clothing designs through their “Art Capsule.” In fact, the most expensive item available on the Zadig&Voltaire website (coming in at a cool $1,498) is a poncho designed in collaboration with Korean artist Core Cho. Similarly, Louis Vuitton released a collaborative handbag line with artist Yayoi Kusama early in 2023, to much debate on its merits. Zadig&Voltaire, a self-proclaimed “brand rooted in art,” even has a campaign titled “Art is Hope,” started in 2020, which has the goal of supporting arts organizations.
The fashion world cares about art, and has borrowed from art for centuries. A collaboration, or homage, however, is different from appropriation, theft, or plagiarism. Brands big and small have a responsibility to maintain their artistic integrity and to respect the integrity of other artists. Larger brands, and particularly the fast fashion industry, frequently steal designs from smaller, independent brands and designers, another symptom of this larger issue. While articles and call-outs on social media can raise awareness to issues of intellectual and artistic property infringement, it will take systemic change within the way major companies operate to ensure that artists and designers are no longer stolen from and only collaborated with or acknowledged with consent.
As for Charrière, whether he is finally granted an apology—or a collaborative donation—remains to be seen. Meanwhile, people interested in seeing his art in person have numerous opportunities. His work is currently the subject of a full-museum show at the Langen Foundation in Germany. In the United States, And Beneath It All Flows Liquid Fire will be on view at Art In Common, Chicago, from April 12-23; a video and sculpture installation titled “Erratic” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will remain on view through May 14; and his work will be included in a group show at The Aldrich Contemporary Museum through August 27th. Additional exhibition details can be found on the artist’s website.