In the past few months, Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei once again entered the spotlight, albeit for a less dire reason than he has in years past. Ai, hoping to use Legos for an art exhibit, found his request for a bulk purchase denied by the company. The Lego corporation, seeing Ai as a man who courts controversy, especially political controversy, feared that if they supplied him with materials he would use them for some dissident work that would backfire on their company, and hoped refusal would be taken quietly. Evidently they were not particularly familiar with Mr. Weiwei.
Ai Weiwei came into prominence with his work in China, mainly through his internet piece listing the names of the Sichuan earthquake victims. The work came as all but a direct challenge to the Chinese government, whose shoddy construction in the Sichuan region led to far more deaths than there would have been otherwise. The earthquakes were followed by a massive cover-up, with the Chinese authorities doing their best to withhold most if not all information and statistics recovered from the disaster. By recording the names of those who died, Weiwei directly circumvented the government ban. Likewise, the artist has on many other occasions angered his native country’s government, from following up designing the 2008 Olympic stadium in Beijing with calls of protest (due to China’s attempts to “clean-up” or conceal anything in Beijing that would make them look less than sterling) to a work which consisted of people saying “Fuck you, Motherland.” He has also faced reprisals for his work, including police assault which required serious medical attention to actually being “disappeared” for a significant period of time to international outcry. The man, in short, courts controversy, which led to the Lego corporation fearing any manner of association with a figure all but indistinguishable from protest against the Chinese government. Although, as the New York Post reports, “China is one of Lego’s biggest growth markets,” the company claimed that their refusal was based in a long-standing philosophy of having nothing to do with any activities possessing a political angle. As Ai Weiwei’s work was promoting freedom of speech, this technically qualified. On an unrelated note, Lego is planning on opening a new Legoland theme park, located in Shanghai.
In response to Lego’s refusal Ai Weiwei and a large number of museums reached out to Ai’s fans and supporters, asking them to donate Legos in order to create a new project. They have set up collection points near several museums (through the open roofs of specifically placed cars) and began accepting direct donations. So far Ai has received a massive amount of donated bricks, and the response has set Lego on the defensive, claiming that they aren’t opposed to controversial art made with Legos, only that they cannot support it through a mass shipment. Essentially, if Ai wants to buy a hundred Lego box sets from the store to make something, he is perfectly fine, but if he wants to remove this absurd middle man the corporation refuses to help.
Ai’s new project will be on the same as his old: the liberty to express oneself. The Legos will be used for two different works on the same theme. From The Atlantic (quoting in turn the New York Times) “one piece will re-envision his 1995 photo triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” and the other will feature 20 Lego portraits of Australian proponents of Internet freedom and human rights.”
So the question remains; what exactly did Lego imagine would happen, after refusing a shipment to a man who has made his name refusing to “go gentle into that good night?” The company clearly has a very vested economic interest in not outright supporting Ai Weiwei, but surely they had to realize that the story would not look particularly great for them, especially as Ai was actually a political prisoner, and has most of the world on his side as a result. In their defense, an artist to whom they had sold supplies used them to make a Lego concentration camp, but surely there is a great difference between that and freedom of speech? The art of protest and the art of crime often intersect, and seeing a man who has been imprisoned for his work, and trying to quietly turn him away, does not make for very flattering press. As an expert in social media and drawing attention, this was the inevitable result of Lego’s decision, and the only people who could possibly be surprised are the same executives that made this decision in the first place.