In September 2015, LEGO refused Ai Weiwei’s bulk buying of LEGO, saying that LEGO cannot be used for political works. After sharing his letter of refusal online, he received many offerings of LEGO bricks from supporters all around the world.
Ai Weiwei posted an image online of LEGO down a toilet, saying that LEGO claims to “inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow” and yet by this refusal of providing him with LEGO, it goes against this idea. His photo referenced Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’.
"We're here to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow" (twitter.com/LEGO_Group) In June 2015 Ai Weiwei Studio began to design artworks which would have required a large quantity of Lego bricks to produce. The works were planned for the exhibition "Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei" at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, to open in December 2015. The artworks' concept relates to freedom of speech. The museum's curatorial team contacted Lego to place a bulk order and received Lego's reply via email on 12 September 2015: "We regret to inform you that it is against our corporate policy to indicate our approval of any unaffiliated activities outside the LEGO licensing program. However, we realize that artists may have an interest in using LEGO elements, or casts hereof, as an integrated part of their piece of art. In this connection, the LEGO Group would like to draw your attention to the following: The LEGO trademark cannot be used commercially in any way to promote, or name, the art work. The title of the artwork cannot incorporate the LEGO trademark. We cannot accept that the motive(s) are taken directly from our sales material/copyrighted photo material. The motive(s) cannot contain any political, religious, racist, obscene or defaming statements. It must be clear to the public that the LEGO Group has not sponsored or endorsed the art work/project. Therefore I am very sorry to let you know that we are not in a position to support the exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei by supplying the bulk order." Ai Weiwei Studio was informed by NGV about Lego's rejection of the bulk order. As a commercial entity, Lego produces and sells toys, movies and amusement parks attracting children across the globe. 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.
However, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the grandson of the founder, later said that this refusal to sell the bricks was ‘an internal mistake,’ merely being a choice made by an employee. He continued to comment that freedom of expression was important to the company.
Following these discussions, in January 2016, Lego removed its restrictions on bulk orders, deciding to stop asking people why they wanted its bricks. Those using them to create public displays now only have to make clear that the company does not have any involvement in the project.
In 2014, Ai Weiwei had an exhibition in Alcatraz which included 2D pixelated portraits of 175 prisoners created from LEGO, with help from dozens of assistants, for his prison-based works which look at ideas of freedom and imprisonment.
Ai Weiwei’s use of LEGO is interesting to me, as it fits perfectly with my ideas of ‘Upper Age Limits’ – using a medium typical of children yet using it to highlight an ‘adult,’ political topic. How controversial this idea was and the debate caused is fascinating, as taking the medium out of its conventional usage removes its innocent purpose and instead makes it something which the company does not want to be associated with.