Ai Weiwei Versus Lego

Fans have been mailing the dissident artist boxes of toy bricks after the company declined to participate in ‘political works.’

Eric Risberg / AP

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist known worldwide for his politically charged art installations, has long butted heads with his country’s government over its censorship policies and human-rights violations. Now, he’s facing resistance of a different kind. The Danish toy company Lego refused to send the artist its plastic bricks to use in a project for the National Gallery of Victoria, explaining that it “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.”

In an Instagram post on Friday, Ai announced the company’s rejection of his request, and suggested that it’s related to the recently announced opening of a new Legoland in Shanghai. In subsequent posts, he blasted the company’s decision and questioned their ethics: “Lego’s refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination,” he wrote. Commenters on his posts expressed disdain for Lego (“Will never see Lego the same way again after their decision,” said one), and others suggested that Ai’s supporters send him all the bricks he needs.

The idea took off: Offers from fans seeking to donate Legos to Ai have been pouring in on Twitter since, and the company is receiving backlash for inadvertently making a political statement in their refusal to sell to the artist.

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

Ai answered his admirers’ calls by beginning to organize Lego-collection points in different cities: The first is a parked car, where fans can insert their Legos through the sunroof. Another car has been positioned in front of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, an art museum in Berlin; a third will be installed later this week at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, where Ai’s exhibition will open in December. He plans to announce the new locations on Twitter and Instagram, and his studio is also taking donations by mail.

The morning droppings

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

On Twitter, the phenomenon has been called #legogate, and the hashtag #legosforweiwei is trending.

Lego responded by saying the company respects “free creative expression” and never tried to ban use of their product in non-sponsored or endorsed art projects. On Twitter, the company has been responding to a flood of angry tweets: “Anyone is welcome to LEGO bricks via normal sales channels for their projects, we see thousands of projects daily ... we just can’t offer direct bulk purchases to facilitate such projects. We hope this helps to explain things!”

The Legos Ai receives will be part of two works for an exhibition titled Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei, which will explore the concept of freedom of speech. According to The New York Times, one piece will re-envision his 1995 photo triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” and the other will feature 20 Lego portraits of Australian proponents of Internet freedom and human rights.  

While Lego has shied away from politics in the past, its bricks have been used in controversial art before, notably by the Polish artist Zbigniew Libera, who created a concentration camp out of Legos in 1996. Ai has used Legos in other works as well: In his last exhibition, installed on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, he used 1.2 million Legos to construct colorful portraits of political prisoners, including Chelsea Manning and Nelson Mandela.