The Building Blocks of Artful Protest: Legos For Wei Wei

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Melbourne donations. Photo: Scott McNaughton.

Lego likes to boast they're "here to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow," but only, it seems, to a placid point: The Danish toymaker turned down Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei's request for a bulk order to build a large-scale, free-speech themed work in Australia, claiming they "cannot approve the use of Legos for political works."

WeiWei had originally planned several large Lego works about freedom of speech for the exhibition "Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei" at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, scheduled to open in December. He had earlier used Legos in a powerful installation at Alcatraz featuring portraits of 176 notable dissidents and prisoners of conscience,  from Nelson Mandela to Edward Snowden, made of 1.2 million Legos.

An outspoken critic of China's less-than-stellar human rights record, he charged that Lego's rejection of his order stemmed from plans for a joint British-Chinese Legoland amusement park in Shanghai: "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."

In rebuttal, WeiWei appealed to his hundreds of thousands of followers on social media to send in their tired and poor Legos, yearning to be art. Many delightedly did, and the hashtag #LegosforWeiWei flourished. Several international museums - in Berlin, London, Copenhagen - have also established Lego collection points. So have the National Gallery in Melbourne, the artwork's original site, and the Brooklyn Museum, which opened Thursday as the first collection point in the U.S. Intriguingly, per WeiWei's instructions, both museums have parked used cars in sculpture gardens; donations are dropped through open moon roofs, evidently by way of arguing that everything is art, and politics, and awesome.

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