It’s difficult when a revered and irreverent artist who fights an oppressive regime, and often takes a dangerous stand for freedoms, is slapped down by your favourite childhood toy …
Ai Weiwei is one of the most wonderful and talented troublemakers in the world right now. He’s an artist and a creative genius who developed a niche of being a thorn in the side for China’s corrupt and oppressive leadership.
Ai Weiwei is no stranger to controversy. Are any true artists?! Ever?! Ai Weiwei is a world-renowned contemporary artist and a fearless political activist. He has been highly and openly critical of China’s government on democracy and human rights issues and he has investigated government corruption and cover-ups. These type of activities in China are not for the fainthearted. Perhaps being an ex-dissident, and political refugee, from then communist Hungary, I feel a special affinity with Ai Weiwei …
In November 2010, he was placed under house arrest by the Chinese police. This was designed to prevent him from attending a party marking the demolition of his newly built Shanghai studio, which was first encouraged by Chinese officials, then declared an illegal structure.
Ai Weiwei was then prevented from leaving China in late 2010, in order to stop him from attending the ceremony in which the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to fellow dissident Liu Xiaobo.
I don’t think artists can avoid being political. Artists are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine. When we stop singing, it’s a sure sign of repressive times ahead.
In 2011 his activities caught up with him again and he was arrested on 3 April. His arrest followed an online campaign for Middle East-style protests in major Chinese cities by overseas dissidents, to which Ai Weiwei responded with a brilliantly subversive tweet:
I didn’t care about jasmine at first, but people who are scared by jasmine sent out information about how harmful jasmine is often, which makes me realize that jasmine is what scares them the most. What a jasmine!
Ai Weiwei, Twitter, 24 February 2011
He was held for 81 days without charges with officials alluding to allegations of ‘economic crimes,’ to justify his detention. Ai Weiwei had been widely considered untouchable because of his status, but his arrest was clearly calculated by the Chinese leadership to send a strong message that no one would be immune from consequences for challenging the status quo.
Over the last year or so Ai Weiwei’s name is slowly being erased at Chinese cultural events as China’s leadership continues his punishment and the cultural and political cleansing of the country.
Consequently, the current spat between Ai Weiwei and LEGO raises significant questions about the nature of art, global human rights and corporate responsibility.
We’re here to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow
It all started with a bulk order for LEGO blocks on behalf of Ai Weiwei so he could create and art piece for the upcoming “Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei” exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, to open in December 2015.
A major international exhibition featuring two of the most significant artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei – will open at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Melbourne in December 2015 and The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh in June 2016.
The tone-deaf response by LEGO on 12 September 2015, rejecting the order claiming its product should not be used in a political context, has caused global outrage and accusations of censorship.
"We're here to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow" (twitter.com/LEGO_Group) In June 2015 Ai Weiwei Studio began to design artworks which would have required a large quantity of Lego bricks to produce. The works were planned for the exhibition "Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei" at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, to open in December 2015. The artworks' concept relates to freedom of speech. The museum's curatorial team contacted Lego to place a bulk order and received Lego's reply via email on 12 September 2015: "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 realize 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 art work. 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." Ai Weiwei Studio was informed by NGV about Lego's rejection of the bulk order. As a commercial entity, Lego produces and sells toys, movies and amusement parks attracting children across the globe. As a powerful corporation, Lego is an influential cultural and political actor in the globalized economy with questionable values. Lego's refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination.
The picture of a toilet filled with the plastic blocks and signed ‘R. Mutt 2015,’ in a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s classic 1917 ‘Fountain,’ was a typically irreverent and poignant Ai Weiwei response, which illustrates why he’s revered as a leading figure of 21st century art, and political activism
It’s not the first time though for Ai Weiwei to use Lego in his work. Last year he used over 1.2 million LEGO bricks to portray 176 political prisoners and exiles in a stunning exhibition at Alcatraz.
[LEGO] are very simple and straightforward, but can also be easily destroyed and taken apart, ready to be remade and reimagined. I like the idea of using this language and material as an expression of human nature and the hand of creation.
Ai Weiwei, Art Man of Alcatraz, The New York Times (18 September 2014)
Despite LEGO’s protestation, this would not be the first time for LEGO to be used by artists in a political context, which makes one wonder why is this particular request so troubling for the company? Why all the fuss now?
Well, LEGO announced a new office in Shanghai on 28 April 2014, and Merlin Entertainments, a United Kingdom-based theme park operator, announced plans on 21 October 2015 to open a branch of its Legoland theme park in Shanghai.
And of course, the Danish company is currently building a manufacturing plant in China which is expected to start production this year. Not a good time to rock the boat with your Chinese masters who swing wildly between amusing political tantrums, worthy of a two-year old, and the vicious acts of a police-state.
Sadly, it would appear this is a classic case of a misalignment between LEGO’s brand identity characterised by creativity, innovation and free expression, and their financial interests in China, a culturally and politically repressive police-state. LEGO is clearly choosing financial interests over brand integrity. Of course, this is a choice they are entitled to make as they pursue growth in the Asian market.
But I ask: LEGO, one of the favourite toys of my childhood, what happened to you?
In this disagreement between Ai Weiwei and LEGO, I am firmly in Ai Weiwei’s corner. I think it’s time for some serious self-reflection at LEGO HQ, but in the meantime my LEGO blocks are in the mail to Ai Weiwei …