Ai Weiwei Versus Lego Toys and Artistic "Censorship"

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has accused the LEGO Group of “kowtowing” to the Chinese government by refusing to fulfill his bulk order of toy bricks for his planned art installation in Australia. Lego told him it “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.” Ai posted the following complaint on his Instagram account:“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.”

Image credit: Rebel Pepper

For its part, Lego stated, “We acknowledge, that Lego bricks today are used globally by millions of fans, adults, children and artists as a creative medium to express their imagination and creativity in many different ways. Projects that are not endorsed or supported by the Lego group.“

“However, as a company dedicated to delivering great creative play experiences to children, we refrain — on a global level — from actively engaging in or endorsing the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda. This principle is not new.”

Whether one sides with Ai or with Lego, I think we can all agree that it’s cool of Ai to make art from the little plastic bricks. He did the same thing last year when he created a series of 176 Lego portraits of famous ‘prisoners of conscience’ — including Nelson Mandela, the Tibetan pop singer Lolo, and America’s NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden — on the floor of Alcatraz Prison in the San Francisco Bay.

Other artists have used Legos to create (or re-create) art, like the “Brick Artist” Nathan Sawaya and the Italian painting recreator Marco Pece.

But none has gone to the lengths Ai has to make political statements with the interlocking bricks. Though he’s well-known for making inflammatory remarks in the defense of creative freedom, it feels a bit disingenuous of him to malign Lego for merely upholding a longstanding company policy. When he refers to LEGO as a “powerful corporation,” this is not Google or General Electric we’re talking about, it’s a little Danish company that makes injection-molded plastic shapes for kids who are primarily 10 years old and younger.

Ai is a savvy PR hound, and he knows this is a great opportunity for him to exploit a story that will be picked up by the global press. But if his publicity grab seems completely unwarranted, it can be said in his defense that China is Lego’s largest market, and the company recently announced that it will soon open one of its Legoland theme parks in Shanghai. Lego makes a convenient, if not entirely fair, target for Ai.

Most international publications seem to be siding with Ai, but in China the press there has lauded Lego’s actions as an example of good corporate citizenship. For example, the state-run Chinese newspaper Global Times referred to Lego’s rejection of Ai’s order as an ‘appropriate decision.’ The Times wrote that:

” As China becomes more powerful, commercial organizations and national governments will become more well behaved and more scared to apply a double standard to China.”

Which is certainly true in Hollywood, where I work. American filmmakers have lately been falling all over themselves to sing the praises of the Chinese people and, in particular, the government.

As for Ai, there’s no need to worry about him and his art project. His Twitter and Instagram pages have been flooded with offers of Legos from his fans. The artist has set up drop-off points for donations, calling on people around the world to donate their Legos in the name of “freedom of speech.”

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