By Zachary Landau | The Duquesne Duke
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei created a stir recently when the Lego Group, makers of the beloved little bricks, refused his bulk order of material for a new piece. Ai took to social media to call out Lego’s refusal as “an act of censorship and discrimination.”
Ai is no stranger to controversy. As a contemporary artist from Beijing, he is most famous for his work on the Beijing National Stadium (also known as the Bird’s Nest), a project that he later distanced himself from. Ai is also well-known for his work to advance human rights, and his activism has often put him at odds with the Chinese government.
The request for Legos comes ahead of an exhibition of Ai’s and Andy Warhol’s work at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Ai has used the toy blocks before in his work, most notably in recreating famous political prisoners from around the world back in his “Trace” exhibit last year.
However, when the request for bricks was sent to the company, Lego responded that it is against company policy to support works that “contain any political, religious, racist, obscene or defaming statements.”
Lego has used this policy in the past in denying projects. Last March, the company refused to put up a custom made Lego set based on female US Supreme Court Justices to their Lego Ideas platform, which allows internet users to vote on custom sets to be made into official Lego sets, due to its political nature. Despite this, the company has released Lego sets based on the White House and Lincoln Monument.
As previously mentioned, Ai has been a controversial figure in China. His work, both artistic and activist-driven, skewers the Chinese government on a number of issues. One of his more infamous incursions was investigating the Sichuan schools’ collapse after the 2008 earthquake. He spearheaded the effort to record the name of the schoolchildren who died in the disaster, and devoted two pieces in his “According to What?” exhibit from 2013. One of the pieces, “Straight,” is a sculpture made out of some 38 tons of rusty rebar that was used to make the schools that collapsed in the earthquake.
His work has been so demeaning to the Chinese government that in 2011, Ai was arrested and detained for nearly three months. The official reason for his arrest is still unclear, as the state claims it was because of tax evasion, but the artist was released without further investigation into his finances. He only received his confiscated passport this past July.
It is almost no wonder, then, that the Lego Group may want to distance their image from such a controversial figure. While this may not be the first time that Lego has avoided any seeming endorsement of a political artist, Ai’s case has caused some people to raise a few questions. Some fans of Ai speculate that the company is less afraid of offending its customers than the Chinese government, especially since the company has plans to build a Legoland, a Lego-themed amusement park, in Shanghai.
However, Ai has used Lego bricks in past projects. On September of last year, he revealed several portraits made of Lego bricks that portrayed many significant political figures, ranging from Nelson Mandela to Edward Snowden.
Fans have overwhelmingly denounced Lego’s decision and have taken to social media to offer their own bricks for Ai’s work. In response to this outreach, Weiwei is establishing “Lego collection points” in cities across the world. In a statement made on his official Instagram, these collection points are “the first phase of the coming projects.”
Several arts institutions have also come out in support of Weiwei. Both the Art Gallery of Ontario and Royal Academy of Arts in London have stated their support for his project. Both organizations plan to park a car in front of their building that will gather donations of Lego bricks to donate towards the piece. The nature of the project or amount of bricks needed has not been revealed.