Chlöe Eddleston discusses renowned Chinese dissident, artist and political activist Ai Wei Wei’s most recent conflict with toy giant Lego.
Known for his politically charged art installations, Ai Wei Wei is never one to shy away from a challenge. His controversial ‘Study of Perspective’ included a series of photographs of Wei Wei giving political institutions the middle finger. Meanwhile, ‘Remembering’, was an installation in honour of the school children that died in 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Clashing with the Chinese Communist Party, his art has come at a cost. Although never formally charged, Wei Wei has been beaten to the point of cerebral haemorrhage, imprisoned for 81 days, and stripped of his passport during the 2011 crackdown on political activists.
Now he is facing another brick wall – this time comprised of Lego bricks. Earlier this year, Wei Wei placed a bulk Lego order with the Danish toy giant for an unknown upcoming art installation. Lego refused the order, claiming that it ‘cannot approve the use of Lego for political use’.
China is Lego’s biggest market. Lego may not be willing to risk this extensive consumer base in the name of art.
However this is not the first time Wei Wei has used Lego. In 2014 his ‘@Large’ exhibition opened in Alcatraz, the disused island penitentiary, comprising of a giant Lego carpet of the faces of famous political prisoners. Polish artist, Zbignew Liberia, controversially used the bricks in 2002 as part of an exhibit on Nazi imagery in modern art. Liberia constructed an Auschwitz replica from Lego pieces. Unaware that their pieces were being used the company threatened to pursue legal action. Shell have also used the bricks in a campaign which Lego allowed, despite the firms controversial arctic drilling at the time.
So why Ai Wei Wei? Some critics cite the upcoming opening of Legoland in Shanghai, just one of a series of recent Anglo-Chinese deals. Supporting a well known Chinese dissident could reflect badly on the toy manufacturer. However, the Legoland parks were bought by a UK firm, Merlin Entertainment, ten years ago, making the link a little tedious. More likely, maybe, is that China is Lego’s biggest market. Lego may not be willing to risk this extensive consumer base in the name of art.
To this effect, the Global Times, a state run Chinese newspaper, recently published a column suggesting that dissidents will be increasingly less supported by western governments if they continue to jeopardize border interests. ‘Dissidents need to carefully observe the subtle changes between China and the West and try not to overdo things that too often “add trouble”’ to western society’.
Wei Wei claims that Lego is not ‘a cultural and political actor in the globalised economy with questionable values’, accusing them of ‘censorship and discrimination’.
In response to this so called censorship, Wei Wei has taken to social media, inviting his supporters to deposit Lego pieces through the sunroof of cars in organised Lego collection points, from Berlin to Melbourne. Although Wei Wei’s final project remains unclear, thousands of fans across the globe have been generously donating their old bricks.
Wei Wei claims that Lego is not ‘a cultural and political actor in the globalised economy with questionable values’, accusing them of ‘censorship and discrimination’. Indeed the company’s moral standpoint on creative collaboration is ambiguous at best. However, arguably Lego is within their rights to decide on what their brand is associated with. The company noted of the impact Zbignew Liberia’s ‘Lego Auschwitz’ had on their brand’s reputation. Where the brand may be questioned is its own definition of what is political and what is not. In 2014 Maya Weinstock submitted an idea to Lego about making a kit to celebrate influential female US Supreme Court judges. However Weinstock was rejected for the project’s association with ‘politics and political symbols, campaigns or movements.’ That year, Lego released both a White House and Lincoln Memorial.
Whether they are ‘global political actors’ or simply a toy maker, Lego has a responsibility to reevaluate their stance on political projects.
Given that the toy company’s primary aim is to provide children with building blocks it is understandable that they have no interest in politicizing this process. However by completely washing their hands of all political projects, they appear to be doing the opposite. A blanket policy on political projects allows multinational corporations to dictate what is political and what is not, effectively constituting the ‘censorship and discriminations’ Wei Wei condemns.
Whether they are ‘global political actors’ or simply a toy maker, Lego has a responsibility to reevaluate their stance on political projects. As global actors they may be seen as exporting censorship. However as a toy company they have the power to teach children about the great political moments of our time through play. Maybe Wei Wei’s next installation will help do just that for the young and old alike.