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Ai Weiwei makes bold statements with LEGO

Ai Weiwei LEGO artwork
9 months ago

Ai Weiwei has been using LEGO bricks as a medium since 2007. He appreciates the accessibility and ubiquity of the bright, colourful bricks, stating: “As an artist, I always avoid [making] my art too ‘arty’ or too ‘high’ taste. [I] want my art to be fresh, to be understood by children.”

Despite the playfulness that LEGO conjures, Ai often uses it to create artworks that draw attention to human rights violations around the world. His 2014 installation, Trace, originally commissioned as part of a site-specific exhibition in the former Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco, paid tribute to 176 activists and prisoners of conscience through large-scale portraits made of LEGO.

Trace also reflects Ai’s own experience as a political prisoner—at the time of the exhibition, his passport had been revoked by the Chinese government following a crackdown on political activists and dissidents, and he was unable to attend the exhibition.

Ai Weiwei, Trace, 2014 (installation view, New Industries Building, Alcatraz); photo Jan Stürmann

Like many of his artworks, Ai’s experimentation with LEGO hasn’t been without controversy. In 2015, LEGO refused the artist’s request for a bulk order for an upcoming exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, citing a policy that prevents them from approving the use of LEGO for “political works.” After Ai announced this news on social media, people all over the world began offering him their own LEGO bricks using the hashtag #LegosForWeiwei, and establishing collection sites around the world, including one in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Ai ultimately decided to forgo using LEGO for the project, instead using imitation bricks made in China, further adding to his ongoing examination of value, meaning, and identity. The resulting artwork, titled Letgo Room, featured twenty portraits of Australian political activists made up of over three million knock-off LEGO bricks. Shortly after, LEGO dropped their restrictive policy, saying they would stop asking customers about the reasons behind bulk orders.

The exhibition Ai Weiwei: Unbroken at the Gardiner Museum marks the international debut of one of Ai’s newest LEGO artworks, a twelve-part series depicting the animals of the Eastern zodiac. The series is a continuation of his LEGO portraits, as well as his installation Circle of Animals, twelve bronze sculptures inspired by zodiac sculptures that were made for the Yuan Ming Yuan, or Old Summer Palace, outside Beijing in the 1700s.

For his new Zodiac series, Ai recreates the twelve animals of the zodiac in LEGO, evoking the saturated colours of artist Andy Warhol and the pixilation of digital images. A bright, colourful backdrop to the exhibition Ai Weiwei: Unbroken, the installation echoes the artist’s ongoing exploration of power, freedom, and cultural identity in China and around the world.

Zodiac (2018) is on view as part of the exhibition Ai Weiwei: Unbroken, closing soon on June 9, 2019.

[1] Ai Weiwei: Unbroken (installation view), 2019. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid [2] Ai Weiwei, Trace, 2014 (installation view, New Industries Building, Alcatraz); photo: Jan Stürmann [3] Ai Weiwei, Letgo room, 2015 (installation view), plastic on aluminium and polyethylene, 523.0 x 522.1 x 522.1 cm (installation), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Gift of the artist, 2016 © Ai Weiwei Studio


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