By now you have heard about the conflict between artist Ai Weiwei and the LEGO Group. To summarize Ai asked to purchase from LEGO a bulk order of LEGO bricks for an upcoming exhibition in Australia and the company refused on grounds that they knew the content was for political purposes. Ai then went to Instagram and accused LEGO of artistic censorship.
The reaction? In a nut shell, the internet exploded. Calls of boycotts, photos posted on social media giving the company the middle finger (an homage to past Ai images) and a call for people to donate their LEGO so the artist can complete his exhibition for Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria.
Lets be clear, I love LEGO and I admire Ai Weiwei, but something about all of this makes me want to take a step back and go “WTF?”
This is not the first time Ai has used LEGO to make a political point; in fact we wrote about his amazing exhibition about political dissidents he exhibited in the former prison on Alcatraz. Nothing is stopping him from doing it again. In fact, most builders re-use their bricks; where are the bricks he used in his Alcatraz work? LEGO bricks are readily available for purchase from many retailers and third part re-sellers. Maybe this isn’t as convenient a way of getting large quantity of LEGO bricks as one bulk order from LEGO, but nothing is stopping him from purchasing his LEGO elsewhere. Maybe he just wanted a discounted price?
I am wondering why this is hitting the news now. He was denied his order back in September, so why the delay in making it public? Is all this controversy politically motivated? Ai insinuated it is somehow connected with the new Legoland theme park opening in Shanghai next year. Or is it because LEGO is opening a new LEGO factory in China? Ai’s battles against the Chinese government are legendary. First, LEGO does not operate the Legoland’s; they are owned by UK company Merlin Entertainment. Second, LEGO is facing a world wide shortage of LEGO this holiday season. They are expecting shortages in Europe, although not in the US. So it seems natural that they would need to expand their production and since China is everyones favorite market to expand into, this makes total sense from a business point of view. I can’t help but think we are not getting the whole story. Ai is a masterful user of social media to get his opinion out to the world. If you want to know what’s going on in his life, just follow him on Instagram. This entire controversy feels like a well orchestrated publicity stunt, and a very successful one at that.
What ever the reason, I know that Ai Weiwei will get his bricks (and probably for free), his show will go on, the press coverage he will get from all this is priceless and the internet has a new target to focus their collective outrage at. Is this really a win for artistic freedom?
I can’t help but think what a great story this has been over a slow news weekend. Who wants to hear about the conflict in Syria, or those pesky refugees flowing into Europe as the weather turns brutally cold, and what a disappointment hurricane Patricia was. For me as long time LEGO fan I find this to be tempest in a teapot. Sure the company has it’s problems (don’t get me started) but denying a successful artist his bricks for an exhibition that opens in a couple of months is not one of them.
Of course there could be a silver lining in all of this for the rest of us. When you work with Lego as an artistic medium you know you are working in a grey area. While LEGO has a fair use policy, it has always been a little unclear when it comes to photographs of their mini figures. We have seen photographs randomly taken down from RedBubble in the past for no apparent reason. In fact this past January we wrote extensively on LEGO’s Fair Play policy and how it appears to be randomly enforced. I would love to see an artist of Ai Weiwei’s stature take on LEGO and clarify their policy towards artists. It can only benefit smaller artists, like our Stuck in Plastic collective, who use their products to advance our own artistic goals, but without the resources Ai’s star power.
How do you feel about this topic? Do you feel that LEGO censored Ai Weiwei by denying him his order? Or do you think this is a publicity stunt? Or, like me, you don’t think we have the whole story?
This may be a minor issue in comparison with the refugee crisis, but one day we’re going to wake up and find ourselves without free speech rights, taken away not by governments but by large corporations that operate outside the control of any government and have the capacity to buy them all. Once LEGO sells its bricks, it should have no control over the way they’re used, the same way gun manufacturers have no control over the way their products are used. If LEGO could stop selling its products–or take the next step and issue a cease and desist order… Read more »
Lyn, While all you say is very true, I would like to point out that we already don’t have free speech. We are afraid to talk about sensitive topics on the internet for fear of mob reprisal. Plus we have warrantless wire tapping, illegal search and seizure and I could go on and on on the rights we don’t have that we think we have. I feel like this particular issue was a set up. Sure LEGO has no right to tell anyone what to do with their bricks once they buy them, but as a privately held company it… Read more »
An artist will do what an artist will do, and sometimes that means ruffling feathers. I think the initial effort here was to ruffle political feathers, but then was highlighted by the supply issue. We all know that there are MANY ways to get hands on bricks, but for bulk, quality, branded parts, I’d go the route Ai went, too. For LEGO, they know full well they have no grounds to prevent an individual from doing their work, and any attempt to try is futile. If anything, it was an opportunity to make a statement of “we don’t support the… Read more »
Daniel, I do believe it is an artists responsibly to ruffle feather and point out the injustices of the world. I admire Ai for all he is doing in both his country and world wide. But I think he is being delusional to think big business is going to support him. Since when has big business (and yes LEGO is definitely BIG business) supported artists taking pot shots at the status quo? I say make the art, get the extra media attention, lets change the world. But don’t expect a hand out from the hand you are about to bite.… Read more »
I think there are loads of bits missing, as always in most of the stories out there, but there are some clear points… As above is mentioned, the Shell collabo is over, Geeen Peace was making a lot of noise for free (they could even acuse LEGO for pollution just for being tiy manera, and their abuse on oil products, but they didnt…) they just used a Big name to help them again attwntion, LEGO didnt wanted that bad publicity going on, they ended up finishing the agreement. Even if they dont support política ser, they should be aware, that… Read more »
Alfonso, You bring up some great points. Why was the ask from the museum? I would love to know how the bricks were acquired for Alcatraz happened and how this is different. I think a lot of the answers we are looking for will be in that information. Everyone who works with, by, and around LEGO knows there are limitations. It’s not like Ai is new to this game. No one likes the limitations and we are all trying to push against them. I will be interested to see if he can get us some clarity on the Fair Play… Read more »
Shelly, your post mirrors my feelings exactly. The whole point was to drum up publicity for Weiwei and his build and it has been achieved – I don’t dislike him for it, I admire that he has achieved his aim. The ‘banned’ from using LEGO or ‘refusing to supply’ is simply related to a direct bulk order from a LEGO Certified Professional. No many people direct buy from LEGO and it’s their right to limit what this is used for…want to build a 50ft Christmas tree in a city – okay, want to make a political statement – not okay.… Read more »
Elspeth, Thank you for joining the conversation here on the blog. I was watching with absolute fascination the comment thread on Twitter. This is not censorship it’s a publicity stunt. Truly if I was Mega Blocks I would be reaching out to Ai right now and saying we will give you the bricks you need. What a brilliant move that would be! Ai wants LEGO because LEGO is cool. Who wants to say they made their art out of MEGA Blocks. But if the message is what is so important, not media attention, then make the art out of what… Read more »
I agree completely Shelly.
Twitter was funny as 140 characters is nothing when you are trying to be eloquent, clear and thoughtful! Tweets are an art form too – I ended up with a LEGO photo and bowed out of the ‘conversation’.
Sorry for piling up your initial tweet but it was fun!
I thought you bowed out brilliantly. I see no chilling effect. In fact as an artist this is a great time to pile on the censorship band wagon. If Ai can do it…
I enjoyed the tweet storm completely. It reminded me of how it used to be on twitter. :D
I thought I had bowed out…seems I had one more post ;-)
The LEGO political stance is interesting considering the Jung von Matt ad campaign from a few years ago featuring Tiananmen Square and the Brandenburg gate:
Admittedly I’m not 100% sure this ran as an official LEGO campaign in Germany, but I was involved in the initial planning stages and it was pitched to me as a LEGO official project.
Thanks Mike for adding this very interesting piece to the puzzle. If you are right and this was pitched to you as an official LEGO campaign LEGO has some explaining to do. I am sure this isn’t the only example of past instances where LEGO was used for political purpose that had LEGO’s participation. I am sure more will surface. Either LEGO has changed their political stance in the last few years or they are indeed engaging in some very selective censorship. The plot thickens….