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?