Ai Weiwei collecting Lego bricks from fans worldwide after denied by Danish firm

Ai Weiwei is taking on Lego, brick by brick: art galleries around the world are collecting plastic pieces for the dissident Chinese artist after the Danish toy company refused to supply its product for his latest project.

Royal Academy, Brooklyn Museum, Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau among galleries collecting Legos

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is seen at his current exhibition at the U.K.'s Royal Academy of Arts in September 2015. The London gallery is one of the locations where fans of the activist artist are dropping off Lego bricks. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

Ai Weiwei is taking on Lego, brick by brick.

Art galleries around the world are collecting plastic pieces for the dissident Chinese artist after the Danish toy company refused to supply its product for his latest project.

After the artist went public with Lego's refusal last fall, fans donated Lego bricks for the artist's use at art galleries worldwide. Collections points included a BMW car used as a receptacle in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

Ai, whose work is often critical of Chinese authorities, says Lego last month refused a bulk order from an Australian gallery where he plans to build a new artwork on the theme of freedom of speech. Ai called the move an act of censorship and discrimination," but Lego says it can't endorse the use of its bricks in projects with a "political agenda."

Ai Weiwei created the installation Trace, featuring Lego portraits of political activists, on Alcatraz Island near San Francisco in 2014. (Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

Ai previously used Lego pieces to create Trace, an installation depicting portraits of political activists such as Nelson Mandela and Edward Snowden, at a 2014 exhibition at Alcatraz Island, the former prison near San Francisco.

London's Royal Academy, which is currently mounting an exhibition of Ai's work, is encouraging supporters to fill a BMW in its courtyard with Lego bricks for Ai.

Other galleries have also taken up collections, including the Brooklyn Museum in New York, Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau and Australia's National Gallery of Victoria, where an exhibition of Ai's new work is due to open in December.

A sign in Berlin seen Friday indicates the location of a Lego donations collection point next to Martin-Gropius-Bau museum. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Lego eager to avoid controversy

Lego reported sales of 14.1 billion Danish kroner (about $2.7 billion Cdn) in the first half of 2015, which makes the privately owned company the world's biggest toy-maker, surpassing Barbie manufacturer Mattel Inc. China is one of Lego's biggest growth markets, but the company said Ai's case was the product of longstanding policy, not politics.

Lego said it had a decades-old policy of not "actively engaging in or endorsing the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda."

"This means that in cases where we receive requests for donations or support for projects from artists, we kindly decline in the cases where we are made aware there is a political context," the company said in a statement.

Lego said that rule applied to requests for donations — which it generally refuses unless the recipients are children — or bulk purchases. But it said "anyone can purchase Lego bricks in toy stores or in other ways and use them for any purpose they desire."

Passerby Lena Lauschuss drops toy brick pieces into a BMW car next to Martin-Gropius-Bau museum on Friday. The car is being used to collect Lego donations for Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The company is eager to avoid artistic controversies like the 1996 incident in which provocative Polish artist ZbigniewLibera created a concentration camp toy set with Lego blocks. Since then, his death-camp toys have been shown in museums and galleries around the world.

Lego said then that it had given some of its building blocks to Libera when he asked for a donation, but would have refused had it known what he planned to make with them.

Artist Zbigniew Libera's LEGO Concentration Camp artwork, displayed as part of the Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2002, has sparked controversy for being insensitive to Holocaust victims. Lego admitted it had given some of its building blocks to Libera when he asked for a donation, but added the company would have refused had it known what he planned to make with them. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.