Chinese Artist And Political Dissident Ai Weiwei Is In A Huge Fight With Lego Over His New Exhibition In Melbourne

Good luck, Lego!

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[Update, October 28]: After Lego’s refusal to stock Weiwei’s order for the upcoming project, he’s officially soliciting donations from the public!

From tomorrow morning, a car will be placed in the NGV gallery’s sculpture garden and supporters are encouraged to donate their Lego through the sunroof. This will be part of an international project with cars set up in different locations outside cultural spaces around the world. One has just been announced for Martin-Groupius-Bau gallery in Berlin, and another is already set up in Weiwei’s native Bejing.

If you can’t get along to the NGV, you can also send donations to 180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne.

This exhibition is going to be great.

The first Lego container .

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

For iconic artist Ai Weiwei, art and activism have always been inextricably linked.

In his early years, he created installation pieces which challenged the confines of free speech in communist China. From there, he traveled to the US and made works examining surveillance. As a proud dissident of the state for more than three decades, his work has seen him tracked, harassed, censored, beaten, placed under house arrest, and forbidden from leaving the country — and through all this, it’s only inspired him further.

“If my art has nothing to do with people’s pain and sorrow, what is ‘art’ for?” he’s said.

Now, after all this, he has someone new to rally against: Lego.

Just look at this dodgy motherfucker.

Weiwei is currently working on some new commissions for an upcoming joint exhibition with Andy Warhol at the National Gallery of Victoria and he’s run into unexpected trouble with the much-loved toy company. 

After the artist planned to create portraits of Australian human rights activists out of Lego, they have reportedly refused to complete his order on political grounds. Though not outlining any problem with the piece itself, Weiwei claims he’s been told they “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works”.

Confusingly, this comes just a year after the artist exhibited similar work in the US — in which he depicted both Nelson Mandela and Edward Snowden with the coloured blocks (very political) — and just five days after the company committed to building a new Legoland in Shanghai as part of a series of trade deals between the UK and China (very, very political).

With particular attention given to the latter issue, Ai Weiwei took all this public with a post on Instagram last Friday:

After that initial pic explaining the situation, the artist then published a full statement he reportedly received from Lego outlining their reservations with the project:

“We regret to inform you that it is against our corporate policy to indicate our approval of any unaffiliated activities outside the LEGO licensing program. However, we realise that artists may have an interest in using LEGO elements, or casts hereof, as an integrated part of their piece of art.

“In this connection, the LEGO Group would like to draw your attention to the following: The LEGO trademark cannot be used commercially in any way to promote, or name, the artwork. The title of the artwork cannot incorporate the LEGO trademark. We cannot accept that the motive(s) are taken directly from our sales material/copyrighted photo material. The motive(s) cannot contain any political, religious, racist, obscene or defaming statements. It must be clear to the public that the LEGO Group has not sponsored or endorsed the art work/project.

“Therefore I am very sorry to let you know that we are not in a position to support the exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei by supplying the bulk order.”

Noting Lego’s position as “an influential cultural and political actor in the globalised economy”, Weiwei explicitly questioned this decision and used it as proof of their “questionable values”. “Lego’s refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination,” he wrote.

Then, going into full art-snark mode, he posted a further picture of some Lego in a toilet bowl emblazoned with the signature from Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 readymade Fountain. The caption read “Everything is awesome”.

“Everything is awesome “   A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

As long-time activists against censorship and oppression, Weiwei’s fanbase have rallied behind him all weekend with many offering to donate their own Lego to the project. Over the past 24 hours especially, the hashtag #legoforweiwei has taken off with the artist re-tweeting dozens of the messages to his 293,000 followers.

Other supporters have chosen to take aim at the company itself with some highlighting the hypocrisy of their slogans, others pointing to previous “political art” they’ve engaged in, and one very creative person simply flipping them off (in the same style as the artist’s Study of Perspective series).

Though the condemnation is still flooding in on social media, it looks unlikely that Lego will change their policy. In a written statement given to the ABC, the company’s Australian head of marketing Troy Taylor noted this is “not new from the LEGO group”. “We refrain, on a global level, from actively engaging in or endorsing the use of LEGO bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda,” he said.

However, one of the exhibition’s curator’s Max Delaney seems pretty unfazed. Briefly speaking to Fairfax, he confirmed the project will “definitely happen”.

To anyone who knows Weiwei’s body of work, that last message shouldn’t be surprising. This is a man who hasn’t been intimidated or disheartened after four decades of oppression and attacks from his own government. He honestly could not give less of a shit about an angry letter telling him not to use some coloured blocks.

  A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on