Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is squaring off against the creative toy company in a global protest.
The Lego company is taking a stand against art. According to Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist, the Lego company has refused an order that he placed for bricks that he intends to use for an exhibition in Melbourne. This would be Ai’s second big show to involve Lego toys, after a 2014 exhibition at the former penitentiary on Alcatraz Island featuring portraits of famous dissidents from around the world made out of Legos.
The Lego company may not want to associate its brand with Ai Weiwei. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that his show won’t go on. Ai took to Instagram to appeal to his legion of followers to donate LEGO bricks at global drop-off spots to support “a new work to defend freedom of speech and ‘political art.’” He’s pitching this collection provocation in support of his Australia show as a performance of sorts in and of itself.
Ai hasn’t released too many details about how these Lego collection centers are supposed to work (including any indication of how many cities will be involved). But the instructions he has produced add up to a global spectacle. Here are a few pertinent details, via the artist’s Instagram:
1. Ai Weiwei Studio is organizing a number of Collection Points in different cities.
2. Ai Weiwei would like to rent, borrow, or buy second-hand a BMW 5S Series sedan, of which the color can vary, as a Lego container. The vehicle must have clear windows and a sunroof that can be fixed open with a 5-cm opening so that people can insert Legos. It should be free of any advertising or other decoration.
3. The car should be parked and locked in a central location of the city that can be easily accessed by the public. The vehicle should remain in the parking space for one month or a longer period of time, preferably in a location related to arts or culture, indoor or outdoor.
So Ai is now spinning off a meta-political global tour about the politics of Legos, adding to his exhibitions that deploy Legos for political purposes. For Trace, part of his 2014 show in Alcatraz, Ai created portraits of 176 different dissidents, from Lolo, the Tibetan singer, to Edward Snowden, the American whistle-blower. Ai’s Lego portraits were joined by Stay Tuned, a series of site-specific sound installations placed throughout the notorious prison’s space featuring recordings by such groups and figures as Fela Kuti, Pussy Riot, and Mahjoub Sharif. Ai himself was neither able to make the portraits by hand nor see the exhibition in person: At the time, he was still unable to leave Beijing, thanks to the travel restrictions placed on him by his government.
The Lego company is quite eager, on the other hand, to associate its brand with China. That may explain why the company is poking one of the most popular political artists in the world. Lego is building a new factory in Jiaxing, not far from its Asia distribution center in Shanghai. The stock shock in China hasn’t given the company pause: Lego still sees the Chinese market as its greatest opportunity for growth, Bloomberg reports. “Anything associated with Lego seems to flourish in Asia at the moment,” The Economist observed back in 2013. (The Lego company is betting big on China’s so-called “pussycat mom” demographic, meaning parents that embrace Western-style playtime for their children.)
Lego isn’t alone in feeling the pressure to conform. Earlier this month, Stephen Colbert described the heat that China places on corporations to comply with its cultural edicts as the “Pander Express.” Hollywood studios either edit their exports or miss out on the lucrative Chinese market. Companies that run afoul of China’s censors, even indirectly, face real consequences. “Sales of Norwegian salmon fell nearly 60 per cent after an angry Beijing imposed strict new inspections following the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo,” The Globe and Mail reports.
Yet, the Lego company could come to regret this decision. Art is part of the Lego brand, and that facet of the company’s identity won’t stand against the sort of sustained cultural bombardment that Ai appears to have in mind. Olafur Eliasson is just one artist to use Lego bricks for a major recent installation; surely artists like Eliasson will choose solidarity with Ai over using Lego bricks as a medium in the future. Architecture sets like the Lego Louvre or the Lego Guggenheim could disappear from the gift shops of museums and cultural centers everywhere. Small points of purchase, sure, but potential opportunities for highly visible art institutions to side with a beloved artist. In fact, museums could volunteer to host all those BMW 5S sedans that Ai means to park around the world.
Of course, the loss of an elite Western art-loving audience cannot possibly mean more to Lego than the gain of market share in China. Still, it’s not for nothing for that a toy that has come under fire for its approach to girls and gender now finds itself inadvertently marketed as anti-creative, anti-expression, anti-free speech.
Asked for a response, Lego sent along a statement saying that the company “respect[s] any individuals’ right to free creative expression, and we do not censor, prohibit or ban creative use of LEGO bricks.” However, the company added that it in fact does censor, prohibit, and ban certain kinds of speech:
As a company dedicated to delivering creative play experiences to children, we refrain—on a global level—from engaging in or endorsing the use of LEGO bricks in projects that carry a political agenda. Individuals may obtain LEGO bricks in other ways to create their LEGO projects if they so desire, but in cases where we receive requests for donations or support for projects—such as the possibility of purchasing LEGO bricks in very large quantities—and we are aware that there is a political context, we uphold our corporate policy and decline the request to access LEGO bricks directly.
Ai Weiwei has fought censorship and won before. After China’s government refused to return his passport to him, Ai placed flowers outside of his studio daily as an elegant protest. With Flowers documented more than 600 days of confinement through daisies, lilies, roses, and sunflowers. Projects like these have won him more than an international following: Ai Weiwei has found a place in art history.
In this particular battle of art versus commerce, art may stand a chance. There is nothing Lego can do to stop an artist from making artworks out of Legos. But the company’s treatment of artists will determine whether Ai Weiwei and others make art about the Lego company itself.